The Chinese film market is growing fast. Many western filmmakers think China is a big market and come here trying to find investment. John Dietz with rich experience tells the story of how to work in China. He said, you need to know the market and know how to make a quality film and hopefully make audience happy.
China’s film industry is gaining on Hollywood, and Chinese audiences are growing. More theaters are being built and the movies are getting better. The box-office revenue increased by 50% between 2015 and 2016. By 2020, China’s estimated $20billion USD box office will account for half of world gross.
Of the top 50 all-time grossing movies in China, three-quarters have major VFX or are computer animated. It is obvious that Chinese audiences love VFX heavy movies.
Unfortunately, the process making VFX & Technology heavy films in China is too hard. So, the question becomes: “How can we use the international talent, technology and their professionalism on Chinese films?”
The Chinese film market and the Chinese film production environment are the vital issues that we need to focus on. Hollywood can make great VFX heavy films because it has quality experience, a good environment, and complex technology innovation. However, the most important aspect is that the filmmakers are good storytellers for their market, and they know their audience.
We need to use visual effects to tell better stories because this is what the China market is demanding. Chinese films have great story tellers, DP’s, Editors and classic heads of departments, it’s not just Hollywood that able to make a good film. It’s usually the addition of VFX that complicates the Chinese productions. We have great filmmakers in China and also a demand for high-tech films, so we MUST combine the classic Chinese filmmakers with the latest tools in VFX to make more interesting and innovative Chinese films.
The Chinese film market is growing fast, and many investors want to earn more money through what they think are the easy ways. They make decision based on money, and those decisions impact the film quality. Some decisions are based on the return of that money, like the release date. Many of these decisions can dramatically impact the final results of the film. These commercial issues are inevitable, but the movie quality will be decided by schedule and finance. What we need is for the market to decide how the films are made.
The other problem is that there are many inexperienced producers in the market. Each year, China makes about a thousand films. However, not nearly all of them make it on screen. There are a lot more investors making decisions rather than experienced filmmakers. Investors don’t necessarily understand the audience with the same perspectives of experienced directors and producers. It’s not possible for all of decision-makers to have experience and so there are a lot of risk and difficulties in this booming market.
The lack of experience mostly impacts the communication, planning, organization and management. Filmmakers need to know data flow and how information is organized. That’s organization and system. In most instances, Chinese film production has minimal systems and procedures.
The Chinese market has an ever-growing quality expectation. Previously, people may have focused too much on spectacle. Now, we need a good story. There is always room for better stories and a very original world with conflict driving the relationships and pushing hard on characters. The successful western films have the balance between spectacle and story. That balance is the reason why they have success.
When making a Chinese movie, you are given budget, and you are given a date the film needs to go on screens. In China, you don’t have the bigger budgets, because Hollywood films have other ways to recoup profits, such as, international Box office, IP exploitation, TV, toys and video games. IP exploitation in China is young and growing, but can’t compete with the Hollywood machine. To recoup the investment in China, you must make money in the local market. You have to control the budget, so the question becomes how can we use the advanced technology in these situations?
VFX has been and still is a globalized market, where people take care of technology in a shared way. No matter who is on your team, we need a planned and systematic management process with proficient expertise. We setup the use of databases for the production and develop some new, innovative technology.
Many western filmmakers think China is a big market and come here trying to find investment. This is a tricky relationship that is difficult to make work well. If you try to find the finance in this market, you need to know the market and know how to make a quality film and hopefully make audience happy. This is extremely important.
When making bigger VFX films in China, you need to know how to bridge the gap between east and west and how to create a proper budget that puts value on the screen and then work hard to keep everybody within that budget. Those budgets are tight, and we need to constantly find the right collaborators. It’s like casting a film for actors, if you have specific requirements for a character, you don’t want cheaper actors that can’t pull off the role… The same goes for technology and VFX. You need to find the right experienced people to ensure the affordable quality within the budget. You need to know everyone, what they are good at, and how much they cost.
Chinese filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid to contact who they want to work with in the west. You need to work out ways to bridge the communication. Some Chinese filmmakers only have language issues with dealing with westerners, but they are not inferior to anyone else in the world in making films.
Sometimes, filmmakers assume there are cultural or commercial concept differences. However, as long as we have an open mind and trust each other, our cooperation will be successful and improve the quality.
In the Chinese VFX heavy film industry, what we do is a craft and takes time to master. Currently individuals raise their level based on the boom in the market and the demand rather than their ability to take on a responsibility. This is an integrity issue where the process or path to learn how to do the job right regardless of what the job title is the priority. If you have a chance to direct a film, you need focus on how to do it, not the title of director. If the whole market could think in terms of the craft, the quality of the market will improve dramatically.
If you produce a film, it is best to retain the same crew and companies. If the employee turnover is too high, you need to spend too much energy training new employees how you run your production. Try to set up a system to keep the teams intact. It’s also important on individual films to keep the same crew from the beginning to the end for continuity of understanding.
Regarding more details in the differences between Chinese market and Western market, there are obviously communication, language and remote distance issues. Communication is most important when working remotely, so don’t try and save money on translation. If you are Chinese filmmakers, find people with ability to translate technical terms. It’s hard for international companies or talents to come and participate in Chinese projects, so take the time to help make the transitions as smooth as possible.
One of the biggest differences in China VFX is the business model. About 4-5 years ago, Asia was an absolutely a flat bid market. Flat-bid means companies gave a flat price no matter what happened and how much the project grew. This causes higher expectations with lower budgets. Due to this way of working, the company and quality suffers. A better situation is that we put everything on the table and we negotiate plan, budget, quality and time. Then when there are changes we work through them together in the best way for the quality of the film. The China market is moving in this direction, and hopefully we can help productions steer this way.
Another big issue is cultural difference. The local market loves Chinese stories, famous mythologies and Chinese culture. When foreigners make films, and try to tell stories in China, they need to understand and respect culture. The goal is to produce high-concept, great VFX feeling applied to Chinese cultural stories.
Western culture and stories are more based on “I”, the single hero. Chinese culture is more based on harmony and Guanxi (good social relationships). The fundamental concept difference is individualism and Confucian collectivism and harmony.
There is a study where scientists showed groups of subjects a picture with a cartoon person in the foreground with a smiley face. Behind him six more cartoon people smile in the background. In the study, they asked western people, “is that guy happy?” Almost all said yes. They showed the same photo to a bunch of Asian people and asked them: “Is that guy happy?” and they said yes.
They then took the same guy in foreground the picture, but replaced the six people in the background with frowns. They showed this picture to westerns, and asked if this guy is happy and they said: “Yeah, of course he is smiling.” However, when they showed that picture to Asian people, they said: “No, he’s not happy… how could he be around so many people with frowns?” The results are amazing to me and to think about how these differences impact storytelling. It’s fascinating!
For many foreigners shooting films in China, there experience is very important. If we could figure out and solve cultural differences together, the cooperation will be more successful. People need to choose partners wisely, so take your time and figure out whom you want to work with. Chinese and westerners are very different. For me the key is for everyone to understand each other’s goals. If those goals align then the projects will work much better. You need find partners who really understand the business and share same desire and outcome. Once you make your choice, you need to assume that your potential partners are competent enough and have a good character, otherwise don’t work together in the first place.
The long-term relationships and plans are very important in China, not just in it for the single project… Think long-term relationships. Foreigners need to be flexible to succeed in this complex market. So, assume that you will need to adapt and learn, and you’ll be much happier with how everything will go.
(This article is based on the speech made by Mr. John Dietz on 7th International Conference & Exhibition on Visual Entertainment, held by AICFVE (Advanced Innovation Center for Future Visual Entertainment),Dec 1st 2016, Beijing .)