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'Karate Kid' update breaks down some Chinese walls

The biggest modern movie co-production between a U.S. studio and China had access to spectacular locations under censors' watchful eye.

May 30, 2010|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Jaden Smith as Dre Parker in Columbia Pictures' "The Karate Kid."
Jaden Smith as Dre Parker in Columbia Pictures' "The Karate… (Jasin Boland / Columbia…)

For years, Sony Pictures considered—and then decided against—updating "The Karate Kid," its beloved 1984 family film about a browbeaten kid (Ralph Macchio) with a single mom and the enigmatic martial arts coach (Noriyuki "Pat" Morita) who teaches the boy how to believe in himself, catch a fly with chopsticks and kick some bully butt along the way.

Sony had pretty much beaten the franchise into submission, with the third sequel, 1994's "The Next Karate Kid" featuring 19-year-old Hilary Swank, marking the series' commercial and critical tap-out (a domestic gross of just $8.9 million, a Rotten Tomatoes score of a mere 6% positive).

Even though almost every studio was rebooting long-dormant franchises with mixed results — " Superman Returns," "AVP: Alien vs. Predator," "Star Trek," among the disinterred titles — Sony didn't want to make another "Karate Kid" movie just because the title was lying fallow. "This is a valuable property," says Doug Belgrad, president of Sony's Columbia Pictures, recalling his thinking at the time. "We better have the right idea, or it's not worth doing."

So even when Overbrook Entertainment, the production company for Sony's biggest star, Will Smith, pitched Sony on a "Karate Kid" remake featuring Smith's 11-year-old, martial-arts-obsessed son (and his costar in "The Pursuit of Happyness"), Jaden, in the Macchio role, the studio demurred. Finally, just as Beijing was about to host 2008's Summer Olympics, Overbrook altered its pitch: What if the new version were set in China?

With more than 1.3 billion residents, China is both the world's most populous nation and one of Hollywood's biggest challenges, with borders to entry almost as tall as the Great Wall. China can be one of the biggest-grossing countries outside of the United States for certain films, even though DVD piracy is rampant and there aren't a lot of theaters; "Avatar" grossed the local currency equivalent of $195 million, the most of any nation beyond American borders.

Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" and Sony's "2012" (in which Chinese ark builders help save the planet) were also huge hits in the country, and business is booming for Chinese movies too, such as John Woo's historical epic "Red Cliff." Total Chinese box-office returns surged more than 40% to more than $900 million in 2009.

If Sony made "Karate Kid" with a Chinese partner, it could be a part of that Asian gold rush, but the deal would come with some foreseeable obstacles, including possible government censorship.

Belgrad didn't think long before giving his answer. "That was enough to say yes," says Belgrad, who had long been fascinated by the country and had developed a "Sinbad" movie that would be set there. "It's a fascinating place."

The "Karate Kid" decision not only launched the biggest modern movie co-production between an American studio and China, but also opened up the film to government-mandated creative controls that ultimately yielded two slightly different movies, as Chinese censors asked that several scenes, including sequences of bullying and a kiss between two young characters, be trimmed. The geographic move also launched an internal debate about changing the film's name to "The Kung Fu Kid," as karate is a Japanese fighting style.

Although the production, which puts action star Jackie Chan in the Morita role and opens in domestic theaters on June 11 (arriving in China several weeks later), was granted vital access to an array of spectacular Chinese locations — the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Wudang Mountain — the filmmakers also had to negotiate sometimes byzantine permitting rules and parley with residents who weren't used to having a movie crew descend on their streets.

Try to film a movie in Brentwood, and the locals will grudgingly get out of the way. Do the same outside of Beijing and the rules are different. "The people run the country," says James Lassiter, who is Overbrook's president and serves as a "Karate Kid" producer. "So if people didn't want you shooting in their neighborhood, there's no authority that can tell them they have to. That's why it's called the People's Republic of China."

The filmmakers, who hired a number of Chinese crew members, say the production inconveniences were minor and the creative conversations with partner China Film Group Corp. easily resolved. As part of Sony's deal with China Film, the government-run movie company invested about $5 million in the film's approximate $40-million budget, retaining "Karate Kid's" distribution rights in China and some ancillary rights in a few Asian territories.

The film's director, Harald Zwart ("Agent Cody Banks," "The Pink Panther 2"), says that he never felt there was government pressure to steer the movie in a certain political direction, even though "Karate Kid" depicted working-class communities around Beijing as a little bit ramshackle.

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