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The Golden Rock - July 26, 2011 Edition

There’s a lot of real troubles going on in the world that make what I do here seem insignificant. And it’s true - who cares if some theaters are using shady accounting? Who cares about feud about film cuts? Who cares about trailers being posted on the internet? While real journalists out there in Wenzhou and Norway continue to work hard to get to the truth about events that really affected people’s lives, it’s hard to continue on writing as if what this blog does actually matters at all.

Well, it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, we all have our own jobs to do, and my job is to keep presenting issues that are related to this site from as many sides as possible. Sometimes, I may even run into a story that actually matters to people, but most of the time, they won’t matter to more than 50 people out there.

And for some reason, that’s OK.

And now, onto the news:

- With Chinese films often relegated to the arthouse and film festivals in the west, we often forget to see the Chinese film industry as a burgeoning commercial film industry. Chinese filmmakers (and Hong Kong filmmakers looking to the Chinese market) and investors are now experiencing growing pains that Hollywood filmmakers have been dealing with for years. This entry will look at a report of one recent example:



After 2007’s TICKET, Hong Kong filmmaker Jacob Cheung wanted to adapt a web story about a woman who turns into a butterfly to save her boyfriend’s life. That film was REST ON YOUR SHOULDER. The fantasy romance would require a huge budget due to the special effects, a score by Joe Hisaishi, and a shoot that will take the crew to Japan.

That’s where Straw Family came in. Formed in 2008, Straw Family had planned six animated features, one animated series, and six feature films, and REST ON YOUR SHOULDER was to be the film that announced their arrival as an aspiring key player (one animated film and one animated series have been released since). The company’s key investor was an entrepeneur who found his pot of gold in the furniture business, and he trusted Cheung completely because of the director’s extensive experience in the film industry (Cheung also directed CAGEMEN and BATTLE OF WITS). He even allowed Cheung to be labeled as Straw Family’s leader.

Investor Liu (his full name was not revealed) initially gave Cheung 20 million yuan as the film’s budget, but it kept ballooning during the production, and they estimated that they ended up spending 80 million yuan when all’s said and done (fairly high for a director who’s never made a special effects-driven fantasy before), including advertising, Cheung’s fees (he was paid separately salaries for writing and directing), and other expenses.

According to Straw Family staff (which is apparently no longer led by Cheung), Cheung promised them a commercial film that will outdo A BATTLE OF WITS, the biggest commercial project of his career at the time. Cheung even estimated that the film will make 150 million yuan at the box office - not bad for an initial investment of 20 million yuan. At that time, the investor apparently already knew that Cheung is the type of director who refuses to let any production company or producer change his script, but they felt that he was a director worth helping.

The troubles started when Cheung finally delivered a 123-minute film. Shocked at the length, Straw Family and the investor wanted to edit it down to a more audience-friendly 93-minute cut. However, due to the time it takes to edit down the film and get a permit from SARFT, the film would not have been able to make the Shanghai Film Festival. Straw Family insists that it was Cheung, not them, who submitted the film to the festival, and that they only found out about the submission after the film was accepted into the competition. Liu very, very displeased.

According to e-mails Cheung wrote to Straw Family, he argued that the two-hour length of recent Chinese blockbusters like LET THE BULLETS FLY, DETECTIVE DEE, and even his own BATTLE OF WITS did not affect box office performance. He admitted that he had no power to stop Straw Family from cutting it, but he flat out refused to participate in the editing process. He also wrote that to keep quiet about the situation, he would simply bow out of all promotional efforts for the film and remain in Canada, where his family lives.

The problem, the investor said, was that the 123-minute cut wasn’t screened for them until the day before it had to be submitted to the censors. This means that they wouldn’t have had enough time to get the 93-minute cut to the Shanghai Film Festival, and they weren’t confident enough about the cut they were screened to show to the world. To the press, they said that they wanted to film cut to fit in more shows. However, in reality, Straw Family wanted to cut the film because they thought they had a stinker on their hands.

Distributor Gao Jun is on the investor’s side, saying that the 93-minute cut actually plays a lot better and would’ve resulted in a higher gross. He knew that Straw Family didn’t want to fight Cheung to the end, but he said he would’ve insisted on the 93-minute cut if he was the investor because he knew that was the superior cut that would’ve helped him make his money back. Gao didn’t comment too much on the feud itself, but he warned benevolent investors to spend their money wisely.

And the rest was history: When Straw Family and Gao Jun announced they would be releasing a 93-minute cut in theaters at the Shanghai Film Festival, Cheung himself announced he would withdraw from all promotional activities for the film, including his scheduled appearance at the festival. Originally the opening film, Straw Family withdrew the film from the opening slot, though the film remained in competition. The company then arranged for the competition screening in a small auditorium (all other competition films played at the larger auditorium in the same multiplex) and screened the film for a very small audience.

Finally, Straw Family relented after the press began reporting what was happening and announced they would show Cheung’s preferred 123-minute cut in theaters. But two weeks before the opening of the film, Cheung complained on his weibo that the distributor didn’t contact him to do any promotion on the film (the premiere was also canceled, citing “talent unavailability), and the film ended up flopping at the box office with only a 11 million yuan gross.

As for Cheung, the reporter managed to get a hold of his spokesperson. In his defense, the spokesperson said that Straw Family never communicated with Cheung about needing edits and edited the film without him knowing. She also said that despite Straw Family’s claim that they didn’t get the commercial film they were promised, REST ON YOUR SHOULDER is actually Cheung’s most commercial film yet. She finally said that it’s unfair for Cheung to take the full responsibility for the failure of the film and suggests that Straw Family is at fault as well.

So, what can we learn from this mess?

1) The power of the investor. Straw Family claimed that the investor essentially allowed Cheung to do whatever he wanted, until the finished product wasn’t what they wanted. They claimed that Cheung never signed an official agreement with the company, which meant that they had the right to do whatever they wanted with the film. However, that also meant that Cheung was able to just bow out of promotional activities as he wanted. The story paints Straw Family and investor Liu as the victims in this case, and this should at least serve as a warning to future investors that they should set clear terms and conditions on paper about what they can and cannot do. On the other hand, there are probably not many investors as kind as Liu, and they will impose many impossible terms on a filmmaker. Agreements on paper hopefully can control that issue as well.

2) The power of the director. Should Cheung have stood firm on his position and refused to compromise? If he’s the one that will be taking credit for the film’s success, should he be taking all the blame for its failure as well? From my personal opinion, the film was really overlong, and someone should have guided Cheung from the script stage to final cut. Problem was Cheung was acting as his own producer. So this brings us to:

3) The power of the producer. A bad producer compromises a director’s vision and a film for the sake of personal taste, but a great producer can help rein in a director’s vision for the sake of the film. From this and the case of PRETENDING LOVERS (director fired and had credit taken away, film cut by 15 minutes), it’s clear that a gap is widening between investors (especially those with personal interests) and directors (especially those who think they’re auteurs). A great producer can step in and fill this gap. Derek Yee, Chen Kuofu, and Peter Chan make great producers because they happen to be filmmakers who have also dealt with investors, meaning they can be excellent middlemen who can serve in both sides’ interests.

When people win film awards, they always say that making a film is a collaborative effort, and that’s truer than ever in the case of the Chinese film industry. Egos will always clash, but filmmakers, investors, distributors, and producers all have to work to find a compromise that serves the films. Otherwise, the only true loser will be the paying audience.

- Time for a quick look at the Chinese box office. As mentioned in the previous entry, TRANSFORMERS 3 pretty broke all box office records in China - best opening day, best midnight show grosses, best single-day grosses. According to figures from entgroup, Michael Bay’s crazy robot movie made 401 million yuan in the first 4 days. Despite a very high 42 yuan per ticket price, the film had an amazing 90.4 admissions per show.

However, the most interesting thing on the chart is WENTIAN’s amazing jump to fifth place. If you remember, WENTIAN is one of the three “excellent recommended films” that is commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary. The film’s 5.3 million yuan gross in the last seven days may look like nothing, but not only is it 660% higher than the previous week’s gross, it also has 90 admissions per show (compared to 54.4 the previous week). How is this possible for a film that’s been in cinemas for over three weeks? Well, you can probably guess.

Elsewhere on the chart, WU XIA is now at 169 million yuan, which means it’ll beat THE LOST BLADESMAN, but not by much. LEGEND OF A RABBIT now at just 15.9 million yuan after two weeks, making is a massive failure considering its reported 100 million yuan-plus budget. TO LOVE OR NOT finally makes it to the top ten, but its total after ten days is only 5.85 million yuan. Congratulations to both MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and TREASURE INN, which have broken the 80 million and 100 million yuan mark, respectively.

- Gao Xiaosong’s MY KINGDOM, starring Han Geng, Barbie Hsu, and Wu Chun has pushed back its release date from August 12th to September 9th. This is actually a programming move to get it into the Mid-Autumn holiday weekend, and it will go directly against romantic comedy LOVE IN SPACE.

- The Wenzhou-based investor of the heist comedy COMING BACK, starring Simon Yam, has announced that it will announce all of its box office proceeds from July 26th onwards to the victims of the recent rail accident in Wenzhou. Problem is the film has only made 8.15 million yuan after 10 days, and it isn’t poised to do much business after July 26th.

- Macau will finally get its first multiplex, courtesy of Hong Kong’s UA Cinemas. According to a friend from Macau, the cinema scene there is dreadful, and anything with more than three houses (with two houses actually working) will be better than what they have right now. Bad news for Macau residents is that it’ll be in a casino rather than a truly accessible part of town.

Next time, how the Chinese press explain why BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL under performed at the box office.


Entgroup 2
Film Business Asia

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