The producers

New movie sees off Hollywood competition to top box office

The producers

Painted lady: Zhou Xun’s new movie has proved a big hit with audiences

Pop the champagne: for the first time this year a Chinese production has proved a smash at the box office.

The sequel to the 2008 hit Painted Skin – titled Painted Skin: The Resurrection (or, for those of shorter attention span, Painted Skin 2) – has just become the first non-Hollywood film in nearly 6 months to beat foreign competition to place first at the Chinese box office.

The film scored a gross of Rmb300 million ($47.1 million) in its first 4 days of screening and has since crossed the $100 million mark. It is now the third highest grossing movie in China this year (just behind Titanic 3D and Mission Impossible 4). That’s a big deal when Hollywood normally dominates. Small wonder, then, that the Wuhan Morning Post says Painted Skin 2 has ‘saved the face’ of domestic cinema.

Robert Cain, a consultant who pens a film industry blog, says it is almost certain “to set a new record for the mainland’s highest grossing Chinese language film ever”.

The action-romance is set in the late Qin-early Han period and is a based on a classic Chinese story about a female demon (played by actress Zhou Xun) who desires to become human, even though the transformation can only come at great personal cost.

Critics have praised the sequel’s cinematography and costumes, although they seem less convinced by the plot (“incoherent” and “flashy yet hollow”). But no matter: Chinese audiences have flocked to the cinema regardless.

The timing of the release was somewhat fortuitous. That’s because the regulator SARFT had ordered a month long ‘Hollywood blackout’ on June 25, clearing the screens of foreign competition, says Cain.

But is that the only explanation? A bigger reason for the film’s success, according to Pang Hong, chief executive of Kylin Films (one of its producers) is that it eschewed the typical Chinese filmmaking style, which is director-centric.

Instead producers pioneered a more Hollywood-style approach. What that means is that they got involved in everything from script development to actor casting, says Pang. More usually in China, the director takes fuller charge.

“Even though filmmaking is the director’s responsibility, at foreign studios the producers review the costs and schedules every week. Many of them are even in charge of the final edit. Only a very few strong directors in Hollywood have the final editing power. So China is finally learning from that,” an experienced filmmaker told Beijing Business Today.

The role of the producer is often poorly understood but has a clear commercial focus. As Dustin Hoffman’s fictional character Stanley Motts says in the film Wag The Dog: “Producing is being a samurai warrior. They pay you day in, day out for years so that one day when called upon, you can respond, your training at its peak, and save the day!”

Belatedly Chinese cinema appears to have grasped the lesson. “Chinese producers shouldn’t limit themselves to the role of an investor, offering all the funding but delegating the rest to the directors and actors,” says Yang Hongtao, general manager of the Ningxia Film Group.

Perhaps tellingly, the director of this particular film, Wuershan, is not a big name. He has made other movies but started out his career doing TV commercials.

Marketing of Painted Skin 2 began almost as soon as the cameras started rolling. While most of the effort targeted content platforms popular with young audiences (weibo and smartphone games), advertising also appeared on the world’s largest LED screen – a 63-metre high screen on the side of a Shanghai skyscraper. This was seen by 1.5 million people every day, says Jiefang Daily.

Of course, nothing generates attention quite like news about a tiff between cast members. And accordingly, there were leaked reports of diva-style behaviour and rows between Zhou and co-star Vicki Zhao. These included a catty spat over who was paid the most. The fact that Zhou and Zhao didn’t appear on the red carpet together fuelled the speculation further. No doubt the producers will be happy for the pair to generate more headlines. After all, such free publicity will probably boost ticket sales further.

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