Taking aim at China

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 12, 2014

Meeting The Giant indeed. This is the title of a film collaboration between Singapore and China companies centred on the theme of basketball. It is also an apt metaphor for Singapore film-makers as they take baby steps into China's lucrative gargantuan movie market.

Meeting The Giant is spearheaded by local actor Zhu Houren's G&J Creation, Clover Films and China-based Stellar Megamedia International. With its producers working on a simultaneous release in both countries in June, it will come on the heels of I Want You (2013), a spin-off project from the hugely popular reality TV talent show The Voice Of China, which was helmed by three Singaporeans: Mr Melvin Ang of mm2 Entertainment, director Chai Yee Wei and music producer Eric Ng.

Even for those who have not quite gotten their foot in the door, the appeal is obvious. Film-maker Eric Khoo says: "We do realise it's a huge market and if we go that way, it's purely to make money. The returns will be quite handsome if it's done right."

At a panel at last year's film trade event ScreenSingapore, Ms Amy Liu, vice-president of China's EntGroup, billed as the country's leading entertainment research service provider, painted an enticing picture of its home market.

She rattled off a string of figures that point to the size and rapid growth of the China market. In 2012, it was the world's second-largest theatrical market with revenue of US$2.7 billion (S$3.4 billion) - behind only the United States' US$10.8 billion. By the end of last year, growth of more than 30 per cent was expected in terms of both attendance, hitting 640 million last year, and the number of screens, which reached 20,000.

Just a sliver of that expanding pie would be a substantial cut for a Singaporean player.

Singapore-Malaysia comedy The Wedding Diary (2012), released on 1,000 screens in China in May last year, made four million yuan (S$840,000). Clover Films' managing director, Mr Lim Teck, 38, admits it was "not a good result", but also points out that the takings eclipsed the $500,000 that the movie earned in Singapore.

The conclusion, he says: "Even a so-called bad result in China easily means a bigger box office compared with that in Singapore."

Less than a year ago, he had told Life! that the only market where Singapore movies actually collect box office was in Malaysia. It is a measure of how fast things are changing such that China is starting to be a part of the revenue equation.

The case of The Wedding Diary is somewhat special. As Mr Lim says: "When we made it, we never thought it would be able to enter the China market." But Guangzhou-based 3plus1 Entertainment "proactively pushed for a China release" after the distributor's executives saw the movie and liked it.

More importantly, The Wedding Diary is no fluke for Clover, which has partnered China-based Stellar Megamedia International on Meeting The Giant, a $1.5-million film about basketball players from China coming to Singapore.

But those who are drawn to the call also know there are pitfalls and challenges aplenty, ranging from systemic factors such as China's quota system, which restricts the number of foreign films, to the country's censorship of supernatural themes to figuring out what exactly its audiences want to see.

When Singapore-headquartered production and distribution firm mm2 Entertainment dipped its toe into China waters with I Want You, expectations for the project ran high, given the popularity of its source material, The Voice Of China. The 30-million-yuan film, however, received poor reviews and grossed only about five million yuan.

Nonetheless, Mr Ang, 50, mm2 Entertainment's executive director, chalks it up as invaluable experience. "Taking away the financial considerations, we are very happy with the project and the investment opportunities. Not many foreign firms have a chance to be involved in a China movie of this magnitude."

He notes that up to a week before the film opened in China, industry players were offering to buy out his share in the movie "at a valuation of more than 100 per cent of the original cost".

He jokes that with hindsight, he should have cashed out, but adds that he did not do so in order to "demonstrate our commitment to our existing partners".

Mm2 Entertainment is in it for the long haul and Mr Ang says they have at least two to three films produced for China this year, including suspense-thriller Spinning Into Darkness, directed by Singapore-born Samm Chan, who is active in the music and film scenes in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Mr Ang points out that it is a China production helmed by Beijing-based EX Entertainment Media and mm2 China. I Want You was also a China production, one that "engages specialised creative services from our side".

The distinction between foreign film, co-production and China production is not merely academic as the answer determines a film's access to the highly protected Chinese market. Since 2012, China has had a stringent quota of 34 foreign films allowed in a year. It was previously 20 films a year.

China co-productions are exempted from the quota, which comes under the purview of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. As a domestic product, Spinning Into Darkness will not have to compete with Hollywood films such as Iron Man 3 (2013). It is not clear, though, how foreign films make the quota cut or what might trigger a red flag from censors.

Another hurdle that film-makers have to cross is censorship. Director Kelvin Tong, 40, notes that horror films are technically banned there, in part to protect the mental health of adolescents, "but regulations are steadily loosening".

He adds: "Just go to any Chinese download site or pirated store in Beijing and you will see that horror films are wildly popular among Chinese audiences. There is a pent- up demand for this genre right now."

He is hoping that his next project, horror flick Email, starring Twilight actress Nikki Reed, will be able to take a crack at the China market. And if it gets bounced, he is working on a screenplay for himself to direct in Singapore and China, though that is still "at a very early draft stage".

No-go areas aside, local film-makers also have to figure out exactly what it is that moviegoers in China want - and what they can deliver.

Hollywood products aside, Mr Ang broadly categorises movies released in China into three categories: China-focused ones such as Peter Chan's social drama American Dreams In China (2013); movies from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore which fail to bridge the cultural gap; and big-budget Chinese blockbusters with the likes of A-list stars such as Donnie Yen which do well everywhere.

He says: "Clearly, we're not in the league of doing Chinese blockbusters. It's something we've not done before and even if we do, it's just as a passive investor." He could be referring to past projects such as period fantasy Painted Skin (2008). MediaCorp Raintree Pictures was one of the producers, but few think of it as a Singapore film or co-production and the only major creative involvement seemed to be the casting of China- born, Singapore-based actor Qi Yuwu.

For Mr Ang, the strategy is clear. He says: "You have to be focused on producing the film for China. When you get a bit greedy and start targeting China and outside of China, you tend to miss the mark."

He is planning to make two separate Mother's Day movies based on the same story - one for China and one for outside of China. "Your chances of getting two successes are higher than if you do one and try to target everywhere."

I Want You was clearly China-focused as well. It was "100 per cent produced in China and 100 per cent China cast with not one Singapore cameo". Despite that, it did not perform to expectations, proving once again that film is more of an art than an exact science.

Clover's Mr Lim also says big-budget, star-driven spectacles are out of his league, which is why he is heartened by the recent successes of smaller films such as Zhao Wei's directorial debut So Young (2013) and Guo Jingming's romance Tiny Times (2013). "The audience now seems to be more receptive towards new directors and fresh ideas, and not necessarily star-driven movies. There suddenly seems to be a chance of breaking into the market."

With Meeting The Giant, he believes he has a movie that both Singapore and China audiences can relate to as it is a "touching human drama" about China basketballers coming to Singapore. Given its storyline, the film is likely to have more crossover appeal than, say, Jack Neo's The Lion Men, which is about young Singaporeans trying out lion dance, and not about young Chinese. Clover is an investor in Neo's film as well.

Neo, 53, is keen to get in on the China action too. "It is a big market and it has its own rules and it's not that easy to break in. It could be possible if I were to focus all my energies there but, at the moment, I still have some projects that I'm working on."

He is exploring possible projects, though. One idea he mentions is about new China immigrants living in Singapore and the interesting things that happen to them.

For all the challenges out there, Singapore companies might have one or two advantages. And with director Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo wins at the Golden Horse Awards, local movies are now in the spotlight as never before and this could be a good time to build on that momentum.

On a more pragmatic note, Tong notes that opening a film in China requires going through a lot of red tape.

He says: "Singaporeans have a strong stomach for bureaucracy and are likelier to put up with it than film-makers from other places such as the US."

It was a lesson Mr Lim encountered with Meeting The Giant. "One thing we have very little control over is the release date. And one thing we must learn is patience. Films can be delayed for years and still make several hundred millions on release. That's how unique the market is."

Players such as Clover and mm2 Entertainment have another advantage. Because they are both distributors as well as producers, they are already in touch with many China companies and this has enabled them to establish good contacts. As Mr Lim notes, Stellar Megamedia is not some bit player but the second-biggest exhibitor in China and its film credits include martial arts flick Wu Xia (2011) and romance musical Perhaps Love (2005).

He says: "Stellar is a very established industry player and it gives us a lot of confidence because working with it is a good calling card for us."

Breaking into the China market is no easy task but the potential payoff is a powerful motivator. Mr Ang says: "I'm sure if we try hard enough, we may have some hits moving forward."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Feb 12, 2014

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