Yet another Greek debacle?

Chinese property developer spends $100 million on Hellenic movie

Yet another Greek debacle?

Olga: ditched Bond for Beijing

For some of the world’s super-wealthy, owning private jets or luxury yachts just doesn’t cut it any more. Want people to know just how wealthy you are? Plough millions into your own film production…

Take Jon Jiang. The property developer-turned-movie producer is financing the most expensive film ever made in China. At $100 million, Empires of the Deep tops John Woo’s 2008 war epic Red Cliff, which cost $80 million to produce.

“My idea is to make movies on the biggest scale there is,” Jiang recently told the New York Times. “I want to distribute movies to 160 countries. I want it to be epic.”

Jiang’s 130-minute film, which is set in ancient Greece, tells the story of a young man’s adventures in an underwater kingdom replete with murderous mermaids.

To create his blockbuster, Jiang is relying on foreign (although relatively unknown) talent. The biggest star is Olga Kurylenko, the Ukrainian actress who appeared in the last James Bond movie (this time she plays a mermaid queen). Monica Bellucci and Sharon Stone reportedly both turned down the role.

It sounds like they may have had an inkling about what was to come, as the production cycle has been far from smooth. Jiang had no experience in filmmaking prior to his first venture – although he says he’s watched over 4,000 films. And poor logistical planning, numerous script revisions and unrest in the production team pushed Empires final costs from a budgeted $50 million to $100 million.

The script, which is in English, went through 40 drafts. New dialogue was being churned out as the film was being shot, says Beijing Business Today. Even with the cost overruns, the New York Times thinks that the film “could become China’s biggest cinematic flop.”

Tycoon filmmaking doesn’t have to end in failure. Zhang Baoquan, founder of Antaeus Group, a Beijing-based property developer, has had much success in his own filmmaking endeavours. Zhang was the co-producer of Ip Man, the successful biopic of the 20th century Chinese martial-arts master (see WiC62). The sequel Ip Man 2 has gone on to do well too, beating Iron Man 2 at the mainland box office.

The success of the Ip Man franchise means that Zhang is now swinging some serious weight in China’s movie industry. He also has three more films in the pipeline, a 3D trilogy Destiny based on a story he wrote himself, and two period dramas Rouge and Dragon’s Kiss.

Yet Zhang is hardly a novice, and he sees his film career as an uphill climb. “I’ve been doing this a long time,” he said in an interview. “People don’t realise that.”

It turns out that, before venturing into the property business, Zhang studied at Beijing Film Academy, the country’s most prestigious film school. He only turned to the world of business, he says, when the funding for a film he was directing fell through. Twenty years on, and now a billionaire, he has set up the Movie Property Group to produce his own films.

Zhang has since learned balance between art and business. “After going to the commercial world, I really put all my energy in my business and basically cut off any connections with films. So this time, returning to the film industry, I really want to shoot a few stories that I really like,” Zhang told the Beijing Times. “But I promised myself all the films I shoot cannot lose money. So I have to learn to maximise box office values while maintaining an artistic level.”

Empires – which is scheduled for a summer 2011 release – is still looking for an international distributor. But that hasn’t stopped Jiang from planning a range of ventures based on the film, including video games and theme parks.

You have to admire his optimism. And Jiang expects the film to take about Rmb500 million at the domestic box office and another $700-800 million internationally. That looks a little ambitious: to help put it in perspective, last year’s top grossing film worldwide was Transformers Revenge of the Fallen, and it made $836 million.

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