By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 6, 2010; 5:37 PM
BEIJING - When Scarlett Johansson strode across the screen in "Iron Man 2," she was wearing a form-fitting outfit made by Semir, a Chinese brand and an official sponsor of the blockbuster movie this spring.
That wasn't the first example of Chinese firms getting in on the Hollywood product placement game. In last year's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," a highway billboard featured another Chinese sportswear company, Metersbonwe.
"More and more Chinese brands would like to get their products placed" in Hollywood films, said Ben Ji, head of Angel Wings Entertainment and the man behind getting Semir clothes into "Iron Man 2." His goal: to get a Chinese car in a James Bond film.
Product placement is just one example of China's new love affair with Hollywood. Chinese production companies are looking to partner with Hollywood firms to make films and manage China's growing number of theaters. Rumors persist that a Chinese company - spurred by the government, which wants to extend the country's "soft power" into the cultural sphere - is on the prowl to buy a U.S. film studio.
The affection is not unrequited. Hollywood producers and directors are flocking to China, looking for scripts, locales and potential investors for the growing number of Chinese and Hollywood "co-productions."
"I run into Hollywood executives here every week," said Jonathan Landreth, the Beijing-based correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter.
After recent co-productions such as "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," China and Hollywood collaborated this year on the hugely successful "The Karate Kid," starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith, and "Shanghai," with John Cusack, Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat (which premiered in Beijing in June to lackluster reviews).
In what would be the biggest - meaning costliest - co-produced movie, the U.S. company Hollywood MovieWorks has teamed with Beijing entrepreneur Sheng Boyu, 30, to make "Double Lives," a film about a modern-day treasure hunt for two ancient Chinese swords. The film will star Pierce Brosnan and will be directed by Rob Cohen of "The Mummy," who first became enamored with China when he directed "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story."
"Double Lives" has a $100 million budget, and Sheng said the Chinese side and Hollywood will approach it as equals.
"Our ratio is 50-50," said Sheng, looking the part of a Hollywood producer in black suit, open-neck black shirt and black Gucci loafers. "My cooperation with Hollywood is an equal cooperation. I think it's a trend that future filmmakers will cooperate and make more co-produced films, and Chinese audiences will enjoy the best of both Chinese and American filmmaking."
For Chinese filmmakers, Hollywood offers the chance to produce on a wider stage for international audiences and break out of the familiar niche of martial arts films.
For Hollywood, the reason for the sudden interest in China might be described as more mercenary. Hollywood traditionally runs on other people's money - and China has a lot of cash to spread around these days.
"Hollywood would figure out how to shoot in Greenland if they offered the right financial incentive," said Larry Gerbrandt, principal of Media Valuation Partners, a Los Angeles firm that studies the economics of the entertainment industry. "Between the collapse of hedge fund financing and the grinding U.S. recession, coupled with the capital crunch, it has been extremely difficult to fund new productions. To the extent that China offers lower production costs and experienced local talent, that helps."
Monica Chuo, a Los Angeles-based producer and former executive with Paramount, called China "a potential gold mine for all industry sectors, including film. We've all taken a hit, and those intending to survive will have to maneuver and think outside the box."
There are lures besides the investment cash, not least of which is the explosive growth of box office receipts in China, the fastest-growing film market in the world. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, China's box office receipts totaled $780 million in the first half of this year - an 80 percent increase over those from the first half of 2009, with much of that attributed to the colossal success of "Avatar" here. The 2009 box office receipts were up more than 40 percent over 2008's.
Ji said that as more newly affluent Chinese go to movies - instead of watching DVDs at home - the number of movie houses being built is soaring. "Two new screens per day - that's crazy!" he said. Foreign companies are allowed to build cinemas in China but not manage them directly, Ji said, adding that he is confident the rule will be relaxed next year.
Ji predicted that China might also relax rules that allow just 20 foreign films a year. An increase in the quota could give further incentive for Hollywood producers to make films that appeal to Chinese audiences.
Co-produced movies do not count as "foreign" films under the quota. Filming and hiring local workers is much cheaper in China than in many other countries.
Gerbrandt said that U.S. box office admissions have been stagnant in recent years but that increased ticket prices have helped the industry grow. "Hollywood must open new markets to keep growing, and China and India are obviously the largest," he wrote in an e-mail.
But the governments of both countries object to the content and morals of some Western movies, he said.
Ji has had problems with censorship as Angel Wings has prepared to release its first film this fall, the romantic comedy "Color Me Love." The censors thought one kissing scene was too long and ordered it shortened. "We are very good at self-censorship - very good," said Ji, 43, a veteran of Walt Disney Corp. "The moral thing - that's kind of tricky to figure out."
Many in the industry, and industry watchers, are skeptical that a Chinese company will purchase a Hollywood studio soon. Some point to the Japanese giant Sony's $3.4 billion acquisition of Columbia Pictures in 1989, which led to massive losses and a series of big-budget flops in the 1990s.
"China will find Hollywood extremely open to deals, partnerships and investments from Chinese players," Gerbrandt said. "Where it gets much more difficult is for a Chinese company to wind up with an ownership control position in a Hollywood studio."
"The Hollywood infrastructure is very open to other people's money," he added, "but they really only want to do creative deals within the community and to hire from within."
Washington Post researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.