As the Chinese appetite for big-budget movies grows, special effects services company Base FX, founded in Beijing in 2006 by American Christopher Bremble, finds itself situated right between those films’ traditional suppliers, the Hollywood studios, and the moviegoers they’re trying to reach harder than ever before.
Bremble talked with CFI Editor Jonathan Landreth about learning to work in China’s intensely political environment, the making of the homegrown blockbuster Monster Hunt, his hopes for The Great Wall, director Zhang Yimou’s monster movie starring Matt Damon, due out in November, and about his new backer, China Media Capital, and their mutual dream of helping Chinese tastes shape the films of the future. This is the first in a two-part series.
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By 2010, Base FX had partnered with LucasFilm’s Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the special effects shop behind Star Wars. How much of your work is for Hollywood clients and how much is for Chinese, and should Hollywood worry about “offshoring” losing FX jobs to China?
We’re a relatively small company. We might be doing 10 percent of ILM’s business, and ILM accounts for 15-20 percent of the market, so we might be doing two to three percent. China as an offshoring location is relatively small. If you look at Canada by comparison, that’s where the lion’s share of the work that’s left California has gone. We’re able to compete on both quality and price. There are Chinese companies that are price competitive, but they can’t hit the quality requirements to get Western work. The same is true in Korea. There are great companies in New Zealand, London, and the U.S., but they can’t get anywhere near the price required to compete with China.
What are the biggest challenges to effects-driven movies in China today?
There still aren’t strong Chinese studios, so you don’t really have film slates—you don’t have studios marking release dates, building pictures that hit big dates. You have a lot of turmoil in the casting world. It’s very difficult for films to have start dates and have confidence that those start dates will be kept. For instance, if we start moving towards a show that has a $5 million budget and the lead actress falls out because she got a better offer, I am left with hundreds of people who aren’t going to work. The China market is definitely tricky. You have to be very insider, you have to know all the way up to the managers and the agents and the financier. You have to constantly be checking in, to be making sure that everything is progressing. There are very few producers that are able to hold it together with a great deal of confidence. I tell people that we have two dependable clients in China: Bill Kong [Monster Hunt], and Peter Loehr over at Legendary [The Great Wall]. Beyond that, there are a lot of good people, but getting schedules and budgets to be manageable in a way that conforms to a responsible business is tough. Because of our ILM relationship, we have to remain a responsible business.
You describe this scheduling chaos as though it was all too familiar to you.
With Monster Hunt, three months prior to delivery, an actor was removed—the movie had to be re-shot. That was a very expensive position for us—our client could only bear so many other costs. Then we have a movie that’s supposed to be shooting in [three] weeks, and they haven’t locked their cast and, you know, we start sending mutual prep work but we are very dubious that they start on schedule.
The main casting challenge in China—and this is why China is so interesting—is that it’s not as boxed up as the U.S. market. Cinema stars are highly in-demand for reality programs, and reality TV programs will typically pay five times more than a feature film. So you have movie stars that will lock up significant parts of their schedule for TV shows. It’s very difficult to pull them into a feature as a lead if you know that you might lose them five out of seven days of the week. Most lead actresses have to leave two weeks to do commercials, and because a number of actors are singers, they have concerts that [they] have to leave for. If you’re an entertainer at the top of the food chain, it’s a very busy time. There are a lot of people asking for your attention, and, in an economy where most industries are recessionary, the media business is growing up to 50% a year in some sectors, so it’s a real gold-rush mentality. It makes it complicated, it makes it quite difficult to plan.
What’s next in Chinese movies and can they begin to succeed overseas?
One of the things we’re looking forward to is all the new voices who are going to define what a Chinese movie is. What does it look like? Monster Hunt is one of those—it’s a very different movie, not like any put out in the West, and certainly in China it was very warmly embraced. There are a lot of new voices coming in that give me great hope for the next decade. What happens in the market is that when audiences react positively to a piece of IP, they usually double down on it. There are no fewer than 27 registered Monkey King movies in pre-production.
I usually use the Monkey King to help expats with understanding cultural differences, because if you look at the Monkey King and compare it to The Wizard of Oz, there are interesting parallels about the fables we tell our children in different cultures. The biggest thing holding the Monkey King back has been execution. We haven’t seen anyone execute really well from a creative standpoint who that character is and what the journey is. If you read Journey to the West—all four books—there are very repetitive stories, but it’s actually quite entertaining and, for me, it was very illuminating.
Steven Chow did a pretty good job on Journey to the West: Conquering Demons. But there the Monkey King was impish, and so that was one side. No one’s ever made a version that everyone points to and says, “That’s the Monkey King.”
Some of the challenge that some of the studios are beginning to feel comes from a movement amongst the post-90’s audience to seek local content. Hollywood blockbusters will continue to perform well, but I think that in terms of story and narrative, the audience is becoming more selective, and they are looking for more familiar voices. I think that is going to be a big part of what is developing over the next 10 years, which is really strengthening some of these voices.
What about genre films?
You can’t have movies about bank robberies, because there are no bank robberies in China, we actually did some research and we couldn’t find any— people don’t rob banks. We were pretty exhaustive, looking in the mainstream press, and even anecdotal stories, and we couldn’t find those stories. Now, do I believe that there is no crime in China, no, there certainly is. To commit crime is human. I think it’s more about opportunities. So when you go to the censors and say, “Can we do a bank robbery movie?”— they say no. China remains an intensely political place, and culturally very ideological. Science fiction is still complicated because the audience doesn’t usually project culture into the future with clarity. They’re not sure that’s China’s role in the world. You have to answer a lot of tricky questions: what is the state of the Communist Party in the year 2045? If you don’t address that you may cause some concern. The audiences are very sophisticated; they have tons of media access. They’re not very excited to see pandering, I know that The Martian was a fantastic movie, but the Chinese audience didn’t like the Chinese part, they felt it was too severe, and not casual. They were like, “How come the Americans seem so casual and human, and the Chinese seem so robotic?”
On Transformers 4, some people felt that all of the small China references throughout the movie were pandering to the audience. When we polled our staff, a lot of them felt excited about it, because they’re “including us” and, “Look, they’re giving us these little goodies that make us smile when we see those moments.” There’s a scene where Li Bingbing gets into an elevator in Hong Kong, and there is a man holding groceries who then helps to beat up some bad guys—that man holding groceries is a gold medal boxer who everyone in China knows. American audiences had no idea who he was, but the Chinese audience [was] really like, “That’s the guy,” and that was really exciting for them. So I think it could go both ways.
China is becoming sort of its own market, one could argue that China is not really part of what we call international. It’s like the world is now cut into three slices, there’s the U.S. market, the China market, and then there is everything else. That’s going to cause a re-alignment, certainly our service business is growing and we are excited about that growth.
—Next week, read part II of the CFI Q&A with Base FX CEO Christopher Bremble.