China co-prods and the Middle Kingdom's future
KFTV talks to Tommie Curran, former director of production at Wanda Studios Qingdao, about what the future could hold for international producers in China.
Curran oversaw day-to-day production operations at Wanda Studios for around a year until May 2018. He spent much of his tenure working to open up the studios and the country at large to international producers and filmmakers.
Curran left the post around the time that the studio decided to switch its attention from international productions to a greater focus on domestic films and TV shoots.
Wanda Studios is situated in the city of Qingdao on China’s east coast around 420 miles south-east of Beijing. The complex offers stages spanning a collective 770,000 sq ft and 60 acres of back lot space among its numerous facilities, as well as Asia’s largest marine filming resources.
The studios were originally designed to appeal to international productions – they were developed with close consultation from Pinewood Studios – and Curran oversaw shoots including the fantasy action movie Pacific Rim: Uprising (pictured below) during his time there.
Curran admits that China’s film and TV industry is perceived as “highly restricted” for foreign producers. This is partly because international filmmakers must first partner with Chinese companies and then submit to a lengthy permitting process to get permission to shoot in the country. All elements of a production, including cast, crew and script, must be approved by the authorities.
“Many international producers baulk at the idea of this and understandably so,” Curran tells KFTV.
The Chinese government places a high value on 'cultural capital' and seeks to protect its domestic industry by allowing only a few dozen international films to be released each year.
Foreign producers most commonly seek a co-production model. Films officially recognised in this way bypass the annual quota on foreign cinema releases and international producers get a much larger share of the Chinese box office – up to 30%, which is twice the usual figure.
Filming incentives are a major factor in attracting high-spending films and TV shows to countries around the world and the situation is no different when producers consider China. Formal filming incentive support is officially available for productions shooting at Wanda Studios, but the reality on the ground is a little different.
“Basically, the incentive wasn't exactly what it said on the tin, at that time,” Curran tells KFTV. “This was off-putting for the big international productions.
“China doesn't have the tax incentives like that of the UK, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland [and] many US states. China doesn't even have a film commission – not in the sense that most other countries have film commissions which are designed to push their locations to domestic and foreign producers.”
Co-productions made between international and Chinese companies have had mixed success. Fantasy action movie The Great Wall was directed by Chinese filmmaker Yimou Zhang and filmed in English with a cast headed by US Oscar-winner Matt Damon. Delivered as an epic cross-cultural production, it failed to make the intended impact, delivering $335m from a budget of around $150m.
More recently, shark attack movie The Meg (pictured below), also a China co-production, has found greater success. Though largely shot in New Zealand, selected scenes were filmed on the tropical Chinese island of Hainan, the country’s southernmost point. The film has made nearly $530m around the world.
These movies both mark a continuing shift in how Hollywood producers who are veterans of big-budget productions are approaching the Chinese industry. More frequently they are investing in Chinese shoots and talent rather than seeking to shoot their own movies locally to secure co-production recognition.
Curran tells KFTV that a more common current set-up is for mid-budget Chinese-funded productions to hire experienced crews from the UK, Australia, France and South Korea to shoot in China.
He highlights the appeal of Chinese locations such as Qingdao and Hainan that offer international producers options beyond the country's best-known urban hubs.
“It’s often cheaper and more convenient to go to smaller cities and other alternative locations, unless you need to be in Beijing and Shanghai for specific locations,” he says.
“Of course, so much is now studio-based and there are a number of very popular back lots and pre-built studio sets that crop up all over the domestic film industry. Hengdian Film Studio [near Shanghai] or the backlot at China Film Group in Beijing, for example.”
Despite the shifts in Chinese politics over the past year, Curran remains optimistic about the developing appeal of the country as an international filming location.
“I think eventually there will be increased competition between local and provincial governments to implement incentives to attract both domestic and international productions,” he concludes.
“More reliable local production partners and production service companies will start to emerge, making the task of physical production in China a lot easier than it has been for the last few years.
“Previous issues with visas and shipping logistics have been gradually improving and I anticipate this to continue. If these key elements fall into place, I believe you will see increased interest in China as an international filming location.”
See KFTV's production guide for more on filming in China.
Studio images: Tommie Curran. Pacific Rim image: Legendary/Universal. The Meg image: Daniel Smith/Warner Bros. Ent Inc/RatPac-Dune Ent.