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US film companies are seeking partners in China to co-produce films so they can get around the restriction on the number of imported movies each year. Zhang Qidong reports from San Francisco.
Shanghai Calling. But nobody was answering.
That was the situation American screenwriter and director Daniel Hsia found himself in as he tried to find a producer to make a co-production in China of his film Shanghai Calling, so it could qualify as a "domestic film" and bypass the Chinese restriction of only 34 imported movies released in China every year.
Enter co-production veteran Janet Yang, who served as Steven Spielberg's eyes and ears in China for the filming of Empire of the Sun (Warner Bros 1987) and also represented major Hollywood movie studios as they reintroduced films to China after a two-decade hiatus.
Yang helped secure financing for the movie in the US and China and got talent in both countries to work on the script and film shooting. He did this while engaging China Film Group, China's largest film producer and distributor and the main importer of foreign films, to assist with regulatory matters, distribution and post-production.
After three years, Shanghai Calling was released last July in Shanghai and this month in the US.
"American and Chinese filmmakers are now like lovers," Yang says.
"They are actively dating, getting to know each other, checking each other out. Some of them are getting engaged, and some will be married."
What's motivating Hollywood to do co-productions is money.
It wants to capture part of China's $2.75 billion box office.
A co-production agreement between a US and Chinese film company offers the best opportunity for doing that because it guarantees a movie will be released in China.
Co-production also spreads the financial risk and makes available Chinese talent, shooting locations and production services.
China's 2012 box office of $2.75 billion may seem big, but it represents only an average of 0.3 admissions per-capita movie attendance in the country, according to China Media Monitor Intelligence. The US box office total for last year was $10.8 billion, according to CNN.
The Chinese domestic film category accounts for 55 percent of China's annual box office on average.
To qualify as a co-production and be labeled a domestic film, a movie usually needs at least one Chinese actor, some scenes filmed in China, content somehow related to China, and co-financing and revenue-sharing with a qualified local partner.
Movies also must be reviewed by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, which prohibits violence, pornography and content that may "incite ethnic discrimination or undermine social stability".
"Chinese audiences are flocking to the movies to watch Chinese films (and) Hollywood fare and co-productions and appear eager for more," says Kate Bedingfield, Motion Picture Association of America spokesperson.
New cinema screens continue to be added at an average rate of eight screens per day in 2012. The total number of cinema screens in China now stands at more than 14,000 and is expected to more than double by 2015, she says.
Some co-productions have been major box office hits.
Journey to the West achieved the biggest opening day ever in China, grossing 76.85 million yuan ($12.3 million) on Feb 10 - the biggest single-day gross for any film released in China, grossing 122 million yuan on Feb 14, and the highest weekly gross for any film released in China with its opening week gross of 583 million yuan. It took the movie only eight days to reach a $100 million box-office take, the shortest time yet by a film to reach that mark.