If you’re thinking of doing a Chinese co-production, think again...
This week, instead of virtual reality, some cold hard reality: there’s no pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the Chinese co-production rainbow.
Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and co-produced by Universal, Legendary, LeVision and China Film Group, succeeded in eliciting a universal “Meh” from audiences around the world, earning roughly $172 million USD in China (a figure which once would have been astonishing but now is unimpressive) and around $35 million USD in North America. With combined production and marketing expenses in the neighborhood of $250 million USD, and global revenues expected to peter out at $320 million USD (prior to exhibitors taking their share), it’s safe to say that investors in “the biggest-ever U.S.-China co-production” are less than thrilled.
On the bright side, we’ll hopefully be spared a glut of formulaic Great White Hope films set against the backdrop of other historical Middle Kingdom marvels, pimped by puffy Chinese real estate companies with their eager Hollywood studio mascots in tow. Folks actually have to think now, and that’s a good thing. So, let’s elevate that thinking with some straight talk.
First, the unfortunate fact is that the percentage of people who are genuinely interested in other cultures is exceedingly small - especially now as folks worldwide rebel against globalization, rally around narrow conceptions of their national interests, and revile “the other.” In case you haven’t noticed, foreigners aren’t particularly in vogue at the moment... anywhere. Those adventurous souls who are interested in other cultures will always look for the genuine article. Watching a Chinese co-production is like eating what passes for Chinese food in most of America, while Chinese audiences are conversely aware that they’re not being served a real burger.
Second, there’s frankly NO compelling reason to do a co-production other than to navigate and monetize a restricted market, and the returns on that front in China have been uncompelling, to put it mildly. The co-pro evangelists on the “Cooperation” panel at Dick Cook’s China-U.S. Motion Picture Summit last spring were a deflated bunch, clinging desperately to the hope that DreamWorks’ dubiously framed “co-production,” Kung Fu Panda 3, signaled a new era of Hollywood-led “Chinese” co-production successes. It didn’t.
To be perfectly clear, I’m not disparaging films with multicultural creators and crews. On the contrary, I’m advocating genuine creative engagement versus cynical “strategic plays.” Semi-informed attempts at “Hollywood story structure with Chinese elements” - fueled by foreign creatives who have never set foot in mainland China, or who have made a few visits and think they “get it” - are bigger fantasies than the films themselves. In fact, you’re probably better off making a tragicomic movie about the process, ala Lost in La Mancha.
Even well meaning attempts can run aground. Huayi Brothers’ 3D animated feature, Rock Dog, represented an attempt to flip the China outsourcing equation: the project was animated by Texas-based Reel FX, with Pixar director Ash Brannon thrown in for good measure (even though Pixar’s films have no precedent of Chinese box office resonance). Admirably, big-name Chinese investors including Deng Feng and Xu Xiaoping came in with a $60 million USD production budget: ten times or more the usual spend on a Chinese animated feature. Of course, that’s also 30% or less of the usual spend on a Disney animated feature. An impressive budget for a Chinese-produced animated feature is met with shrugs or worse by audiences - China’s included - who expect the best when you’re on Disney’s playing field. There’s no “Nice Try Award.” If you're in Zootopia territory, you need to go whole hog.
Rock Dog grossed just $7 million in North America and a little more than $8 million in other territories (including China) for a worldwide total of $15 million USD and change. Not good against a $60 million USD production budget. Reviews were mixed, with audiences generally giving the film a “B” rating, perhaps unsurprising for a project with the goal of engaging “the best Hollywood team to produce an animated film that promotes good values in Chinese culture.” Whee.
The 3D animated Rock Dog hit Chinese theaters the same weekend in 2016 that the 2D animated Big Fish & Begonia was released. An epic Chinese fantasy film written and directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, Big Fish & Begonia was the first animated feature film by the directors’ B&T Studio, with investment from another “big fish:” Enlight. Produced for under $5 million USD, the fish beat the dog and went on to gross almost $90 million USD worldwide, mostly from China. And therein lies my point.
Big Fish & Begonia wasn’t trying to be everything to everyone, and it wasn’t trying to play in the Super Bowl. It was simply trying to speak to an audience: the Chinese audience. While the story was inspired by Chinese myths and legends, the directors stated that their dream was simply “to make a heartfelt animated film” that could resonate with China’s teens and young adults (an under-served Chinese animation demographic, FYI). Liang and Zhang struggled for 12 years to bring their labor of love to the big screen, bootstrapping the project with the encouragement of fans. The “never say die” spirit of the creators and the precedent-setting success of Monkey King: Hero is Back, prompted Enlight to invest in the film, and the rest is history. While Rock Dog has turned tail, Chinese animation fans refer to Big Fish & Begonia as advancing China’s animation industry.
The moral of this story? If you're planning a “Chinese co-production,” stop. You’re better off making a heartfelt film instead - be it Chinese, American or other. Western companies who want a piece of the China action should invest in talented Chinese teams on good Chinese projects within the context of joint ventures. Conversely, Chinese companies who aspire to international reach should invest in good overseas films. Co-productions are “platypus projects” that at best make everyone equally dissatisfied, as they scratch their heads wondering what the hell they’re looking at.