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Co-productions is Like Arranged Marriage

2013-05-03 08:56:19        China Daily

The Motion Picture Association of America honored director Zhang Yimou as outstanding individual for promoting Sino-US film collaboration. [Photo: China Daily]

A co-production is supposed to help a film appeal to a broader international audience, but often leaves it creatively diminished and struggling at the box office.

Pauline Chan describes a co-production as a marriage that one commits to for roughly three years. Even though both sides are free to choose their partner, once a commitment is made it feels very much like "an arranged marriage".

Chan made 33 Postcards in 2011, the first official co-production between Australia, where the Hong Kong-born director is a citizen, and China. The movie is about a Chinese orphan girl who visits Sydney in search of the kind man who has been sponsoring her. It turns out he is a prisoner and never expected her to show up in his life.

The Australian government, which provided a tax rebate, was mostly concerned with where the shooting would take place, which determines how much the production could contribute to the local economy. The Chinese government, on the other hand, scrutinized the content of the story, assessing the moral of the story and the amount of Chinese elements. In the end, it qualified for a co-production on both sides, even though much of the plotline takes place Down Under.

At a workshop organized by the Motion Picture Association of America during the third Beijing International Film Festival, Chan avoided questions about her movie's box-office performance.

A quick browse of the media landscape shows that it received largely positive reviews in China, but attracted little public awareness. Its box-office figure was so low it did not even appear in the top 10 ranking for its first week, arguably the highest for most openings.

Just as nobody likes to talk about failed marriages, nobody is willing to address in public the tension and antagonism in a co-production.

If the end justifies the means, a money-maker may well reconcile all the differences. If it turns out to be a flop, it may well become a cautionary tale, raising a huge question mark over the enterprise of co-producing a feature film.

Judging from the end results from the past decade, the rationale for co-productions is in question. Not a single movie has been a hit in both producing countries, on critical and commercial grounds.

The Forbidden Kingdom grossed 188 million yuan ($30.50 million) in China and $128 million globally, making it a financial success in both countries. But the teaming up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li failed to set sparks flying as anticipated, and each of the kung fu masters had headlined much better solo performances elsewhere.

The Karate Kid raked in 47 million yuan in China and $360 million globally, making it a blockbuster in the United States but a disappointment in China. Chinese audiences admitted they had expected a much stronger movie than what they saw on screen.

These are the biggest hits, albeit lopsided. The others are downright abysmal, so much so that many can be case studies for what to avoid in movie making.

Jade Warrior (2006), a Sino-Finnish co-production, features Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu's least memorable performance of her career, and it was not her fault. Shanghai, with a stellar cast of top names from China, Japan and the US, brought in 46 million yuan at China's box office and only $10 million globally, not enough to even pay the stars. It was never released in the US.

However, even with the greatest fiascos, the Western press reports with hushed excitement, citing isolated figures such as the number of screens in China that opened the movies. Nobody cares to ask if the investors have made their money back, or why they are never again involved in film making, or why they are in bankruptcy court, for that matter.

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