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Village Roadshow hits jackpot with Chinese-language films

Its first such release is close to grossing more at China's box office than any other Chinese-made film in history, and its second also did well.

April 02, 2013|By Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen Chow (director) and Shu Qi as Miss Duan in "Journey to the West."
Stephen Chow (director) and Shu Qi as Miss Duan in "Journey to the West." (Village Roadshow Pictures…)

Village Roadshow Pictures Asia released its first Chinese-language film with no certainty the modestly budgeted movie would succeed with audiences in the world's most populous country.

But "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," a comedic take on a well-known 16th century Chinese fantasy novel, had a February opening-week gross of $93.5 million — the biggest ever in China. It already has made $200.5 million, and it could go on to gross more at China's box office than any other Chinese-made film in history.

That's a strategic success for parent company Village Roadshow Ltd., an Australian media company whose Hollywood division, Village Roadshow Pictures, has made its share of blockbusters and Oscar winners — among them Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy and Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Its next film is the forthcoming 3-D "The Great Gatsby."

REEL CHINA: Coverage of the film industry in China

Unlike most major movie studios, whose China strategies typically have involved making both Chinese- and English-language co-productions with local partners, Village Roadshow's Beijing-based division makes movies in Mandarin and Cantonese for local audiences. "Journey" appears to have validated the company's strategy of "local language films for the local market."

"It's a defining moment in terms of sticking to our guns," said Greg Basser, chief executive of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, the holding company that contains the Asia unit.

Village Roadshow said it has a 30% interest in "Journey" but declined to disclose its share of profits from the film, which cost less than $20 million to make.

Two days after "Journey" unfurled, the company released the romance film "Say Yes!," an adaptation of a 1991 Chinese television drama that took in $7.5 million on Valentine's Day alone, en route to a total gross of $32 million.

That one-two punch for Village Roadshow's Asia division, formed in 2011, has gotten notice in Hollywood. Some observers are openly cheering the company's success.

"All of Hollywood is rooting for Roadshow to show us the way," said Resolution talent agent David Unger, who recently signed Michelle Yeoh, star of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the most successful Chinese-American co-production of all time. "They have certainly invested a lot of time and resources."

Village Roadshow Ltd. has long done business in Asia. It distributed Bruce Lee movies in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s — the beginning of a relationship with Hong Kong film mogul Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest production company.

In 1988, Village Roadshow struck a deal with Chow to develop multiplexes in Asia. In the mid-1990s, they opened China's first multiplex. Roughly three years ago, when the Chinese market was gaining momentum, Village Roadshow started considering the possibility of making movies in China — Chinese movies.

PHOTOS: U.S.-China box office comparisons

"We saw that there were good stories, great culture and great storytellers, and we realized that's where the opportunity was, to work with filmmakers there," Basser said.

"Journey" and "Say Yes!" were both co-productions with Chinese companies. "Journey," written and directed by star Chinese filmmaker Stephen Chow, was financed and co-produced by the filmmaker's Bingo Movie Development, along with Chinavision Media Group and Edko Films. Huayi Bros. Media distributed the project in China. Village Roadshow co-produced "Say Yes!" with New Classics Media, Fuji Television Network and Asia Times Cultural Media.

Co-production is a key way for U.S. companies to tap China's growing appetite for movies. Projects made with a local partner are not subject to import restrictions, and stateside partners are allowed to take a greater percentage of box-office receipts.

But Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film expert and USC political science professor, said that often Chinese and American companies that come together on a film don't see eye to eye.

"The Chinese side wants success outside of China. The American side wants success inside China," he said. "It's like trying to please two masters."

Village Roadshow Pictures Asia CEO Ellen Eliasoph said that in the past some co-productions didn't connect with audiences because Chinese filmmaking in the 1990s and early 2000s was still in the process of modernizing.

"During that time it was more of a petri dish, trying to figure out what would work," said Eliasoph, formerly managing director of Warner Bros. Pictures China.

Chinese media mogul Bruno Wu said there are notable hurdles to making movies in China. They include censorship and "the lack of production professionals from all levels, or the 'craftsmen,' who could work with a Western crew," Wu said in an email.

REEL CHINA: Coverage of the film industry in China

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