Following below is Part Two of an interview by CFI Editor Jonathan Landreth with Christopher Bremble, who in 2006 founded the special effects services firm Base FX in Beijing—a company which now finds itself situated right between the moviegoers that make up the fastest growing audience in the world and the traditional suppliers of the big-budget movies they like best: the Hollywood studios. (Read Part One here.)
What does it feel like to be working on movies for such a fast-growing and newly influential audience?
We’re excited about exploring how to build a different type of spectacle and film for the Chinese audience. They want all the grandeur and excitement that Hollywood provides, but they also want heroes that speak their language and stories that reflect the challenges of their generation.
Tell me about your 450 employees, your built-in “focus group”?
Our staff is the vanguard audience, the ones who buy their tickets Friday night and Saturday morning, the ones who are WeChatting opinions and reviews. We have offices in Beijing, Wuxi, and Xiamen, and our staff is from all over the country, most of them from third- or fourth-tier cities. They are the ones that help drive the market. In China, movies succeed or fail very fast: you now have 600 million people connected to the Internet and those are mostly young people, and mostly young urban people and so they are very quick to share. When they get out of a good movie, they say, “That movie was great” and then that goes on their WeChat moments, and that moment goes to all their friends and it’s a very, very powerful tool. WePiao, the WeChat ticketing partner, swears that by 10pm on a Friday night they can predict a movie’s entire box office run based on the comments traffic.
What’s the Base FX strategy to develop its own movies with new investment from China Media Capital?
In China we see a much closer collaboration between digital fiction, streaming media, and cinemas. We look at each of these as a contributor to a narrative ecosystem. How do we create engaging stories? That’s always the first challenge. Once we’ve done that, how are we developing that story for multiple media? What’s the right way to engage? One of the benefits of working with CMC is that they have a portfolio of companies engaged across a whole spectrum of media.
You haven’t yet said how much CMC has committed. Why?
No, only because putting a number on it publicly would increase my costs. Once you start talking about how much money you have, they want a little bit more of it. It’s a long-term commitment, it allows us to have a very significant amount of breathing room, it allows us a full-time development staff of almost 50 people—that’s unheard of.
How has your partnership with CMC changed your relationship with Disney, owner of LucasFilm and Industrial Light & Magic?
Because CMC Chairman Li Ruigang has a great relationship with Disney CEO Bob Iger, it was a straightforward negotiation because we were partnering with someone that Disney had been in business with in the past. One of the offshoots is that we’ve also begun the process of buying Disney out of their ownership stake, and that was always part of our LucasFilm deal, around eight percent of Base FX. So, when CMC came along, we negotiated to purchase that stake back.
From your vantage point at a company that works in both markets, do you think Hollywood people “get” China?
I think that there are some really good, smart people from the studios who are involved, but it is a very challenging market. I’ve been here almost 15 years and I am just beginning to feel comfortable with my decisions about culture. Each studio executive who flies to China lands in Beijing with a lot of ideas. Those ideas are usually the ideas that his predecessor had the first day he arrived. They begin to try to execute those ideas, then they realize those ideas are not going to work. Then they then get into another position or exit the company, then the new executive flies in, and has all those same “new” ideas all over again. This has been the experience from where I sit, watching the studios try to engage China. When you walk into a casino and you hear all the bells going off at the slot machines, it feels very easy to win money. This is sort of what is happening in China. There is often a real misunderstanding of the nuances, of the politics, of the level of politics. This is a very political place. I’ve had to share some very difficult messages with people about, you know, bad news. Sometimes the authorities have just decided that they don’t want Hollywood to make more money this quarter. I think it’s a very practical agenda, it’s not just political. China want to preserve its cinema culture, China does not want to become France. It does not want to have art movies that are financed by the government, and entertainment movies that come out of Hollywood. I think that the authorities have a real sense that their market is big, and it is powerful, and they want it to be their market.
How are these difficult messages passed to guests from Hollywood?
One of the benefits of having lived in China for quite some time is that you build relationships. This is a nation of relationships and it’s all about connections, conversations. Very often, people we know say, “Hey, I heard that ‘blank,’ and that ‘so-and-so might want to know blank.’” That’s the way that business is done in China: there’s very rarely an open decision made. There’s very rarely an open conversation about concerns, and adjustments. China’s is a culture that says that when you want to have a conversation about something, you sit down over tea and talk about everything but the thing you want to have a conversation about. And you are expected to understand that by not talking about something, a message has been sent. And so, that’s very difficult for someone who is Western, who has just landed here, to understand. Something I have come to appreciate about Chinese culture is that it’s a very deep culture and very complex system of communication—that can be very frustrating.
In 2011, I interviewed writer Neil Gaiman in Beijing about a Monkey King project that never came to fruition…
American writers, directors, and producers will come to China, they’ll engage in negotiations, they’ll move forward with a press conference and they will leave thinking that there is something very concrete on the table because they see what looks like a pretty intensive amount of effort. The leave without really comprehending that what was achieved with that company’s press conference was simply the movement of their stock and the creation of millions of dollars of wealth. They have no intention of spending the money to make something because that may or may not make money. Media is an intensely speculative endeavor. So the announcement itself was actually the goal. I think that there has been a lot of that of late. I would say that in dealing with listed companies in China, you have to be very careful because they don’t see the world as we do, which is, “I am a film-maker, I make films.” They see it as, “I am the owner of the business that has a capital value and my job is to increase the capital value”—and making a movie might not be the best way to increase the capital value.
Tell us about forming a national association of FX companies.
It’s tricky and challenging because in China, any kind of organization that isn’t officially sponsored by a ministry of government is looked on with some caution. So, you have to very careful there, the CPPA, the China Post-Production Alliance, is a group of companies that get together to talk about changing the circumstances to try to create some industry best practices for hiring. It’s really meant to combat some of the poor perceptions of the industry by young people, because the industry in China has largely been an exploitative industry—in animation especially—so we created the CPPA as an organization where we can coordinate our outreach to young people, to show them that this should be an exciting and viable career for the next twenty years.