A blockbuster romance

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

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."

A win-win collaboration

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 sudden interest in China might be more mercenary. Hollywood traditionally runs on other people's money - and China has a lot to spread around these days.

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