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Hollywood alters East Asia filming strategy

New production opportunities are becoming apparent in China and South East Asia, but US filmmakers and studios are investing in the domestic industry rather than filming locally.

Producers around the world want to get a piece of the Chinese market, but efforts to get US movies and other international films into the country have proven tricky.

Features like Rian Johnson’s time travel drama Looper (pictured) and Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction worked with the Chinese to shoot scenes in cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai in bids to bypass the country’s tight restrictions on foreign releases by way of co-production deals.

Filming in China is a challenge, with western producers having to adapt to a fundamentally different work ethic. The government is easily offended by certain genres and story tropes that they may perceive to impact negatively on perceptions of China as a country.

The Americans appear to be changing tact by investing in the Chinese industry itself, rather than bringing location shoots to the streets of Beijing.     

Warner Bros. has announced a dozen new films to be made in China for the country’s domestic market. Flagship Entertainment is the studio’s joint venture with China Media Capital and a regional cable channel.

The accepted wisdom is that Chinese audiences respond in greater numbers to broad comedies and high-concept action films, so several of Flagship’s movies will be Chinese-language remakes of US movies like Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality (pictured) and Adam Sandler’s Blended.

Elsewhere, American filmmaking brothers Anthony and Joe Russo – now veterans of Marvel’s Captain America and Avengers franchises – have announced a new start-up of their own.

Anthem & Strong is a new studio that will be run between Los Angeles and Beijing, and will develop Chinese-language movies for the country’s rapidly-expanding production industry. 

Anthem & Song will nurture emerging Chinese directors rather than developing projects for the Russos to direct themselves. Specific finances are not being made public at this stage, but in comments to The Hollywood Reporter Joe Russo explained individual production budgets could be anywhere between $5m and $100m.

In some cases the Americans are getting more directly involved on the ground. The Great Wall is an epic historical fantasy movie scheduled for early 2017 that filmed largely in China but shot in English with US Oscar-winner Matt Damon starring alongside a cast of Chinese stars. 

Made as the largest ever US-China co-production, the film imagines that the Great Wall of China was originally built as protection from fantastical monsters. The broad, exciting premise is intended to connect to both Chinese and US audiences and will be monitored carefully by both industries as an indicator of future opportunities. 

While China dominates the east, international producers are experimenting with other regional options as they look for new, exotic locations where they can make the finances work. Marvel shot a key action set-piece for Avengers: Age of Ultron in Seoul, but further south Malaysia offers a filming incentive and studio facilities.

Significantly, British actor and filmmaker Andy Serkis (pictured) is expanding his London-based motion capture studio The Imaginarium to Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, which boosts the technical capabilities of the production complex near the Singapore border.

Serkis and Peter Jackson’s New Zealand-based Weta Digital visual effects outfit pioneered motion capture technology to create Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Serkis has since become one of the world’s leading experts and motion capture has now become an essential component of the creation of digital characters.

China remains the key market to crack for western production industries. However, with a local industry increasingly looking outward to expand its international soft power, investing in Chinese talent may be the smarter move for Hollywood in the immediate future.