Jun 2016 VOL.62


  • Anatomy of Success in Korea -China Co-Productions with Focus on Top 4 Films
  • by YOON Ina, JI Yong-jin(reporter for Magazine M) / 05.07.2015
  • Last year, the Chinese film market posted sales of CNY 29.64 billion (about USD 4.76 billion). This figure represents a year-on-year increase of 36.15%. China is gaining solid ground as the second largest film market in the world. In February, the Chinese box office set a new record of CNY 4.05 billion (about USD 651 million). This figure outpaced that of the North American market (excluding Canada) for the month. This means that China was the largest film market in the world during the month of February. This was credited to the Chinese New Year Day, the most important holiday in China. Few disagree that the Chinese film market will soon stand shoulder to shoulder with the North American market, and end up growing even bigger.

    But the Chinese film market is not yet totally open. China is maintaining its screen quota system that limits the imports of foreign films for the purpose of protecting its domestic film industry. Regulations are still applied to films’ themes and content. Therefore, conversely, the growth of the Chinese film market is offering a new opportunity to the Korean film industry. A Korea-China agreement on joint production classifies Korea-China joint productions as Chinese films, facilitating Korean films’ advancement into the Chinese market. Many filmmakers have made inroads into the Chinese market due to the saturated Korean market and are sounding out new opportunities there. 20, Once Again!, a Chinese version of the Korean film Miss Granny produced as a Korea-China co-production, made a new record in the history of the partnership, fueling people’s interest in co-production films.
    With My Wife Is a Gangster 3 (2006) as the first Korea-China co-production, the history of the partnership between the two industries is about ten years old. Among Korea-China co-productions, the biggest box office hit is 20, Once Again! which was released earlier this year. 20, Once Again!, released in China on January 8th, surpassed 15 million viewers in total and set a record of CNY 350 million (USD 56.25 million) in ticket sales. This figure eclipsed the record of A Wedding Invitation which recorded CNY 192.5 million (USD 30.94 million) after being released in April 2013. A Wedding Invitation was then followed by Mr. Go (2013), which was produced by KIM Yong-hwa of Dexter Studios in Korea and Huay Brothers in China. Mr. Go earned CNY 112.73 million (USD 18.12 million). Sophie’s Revenge (2009) starring ZHANG Ziyi and SO Ji-sub holds fourth place, having earned CNY 100 million (USD 16.07 million).
    Most Korea-China co-production hits are comedy films except for A Wedding Invitation, which was a melodrama. One day, an elderly woman suddenly becomes her 20-year-old self in 20, Once Again!, a comedy. Mr. Go is also a comedy in which a gorilla becomes a superstar baseball player. Sophie’s Revenge is a romantic comedy, which is the most popular genre in the Chinese film market. This exemplifies that the Korean cultural wave in China is influential with romantic TV dramas and entertainment programs at its center. The comedy genre is hogging Korea-China co-production remakes of Korean films after the success of 20, Once Again!. Remakes which are currently in the works include Dancing Princess, Marriage Blue, 200 Pounds Beauty, Cyrano Agency and Architecture 101 which are all romantic comedies. My New Sassy Girl is not a remake but a sequel of My Sassy Girl and the screenplays of Cyrano Agency and Architecture 101 are being localized for Chinese audiences. Romantic comedy is the genre that has been receiving the most favorable responses from the Chinese film market and represents the slimmest cultural gap between the two nations. Here is an anatomy of the success of Korea-China co-productions with a focus on the Top 4 films.
    20, Once Again !
    Betting Big Through Localization Strategies

    The film 20, Once Again! (d. Leste CHEN) was released in China in January. It earned CNY 350 million yuan (about USD 56.25 million). The amount is the highest-ever figure among Korea-China co-productions. At the time of its release, the film was showing on 5,500 screens, which accounted for a quarter of all the screens in China (24,000). 20, Once Again! tells a story of a foulmouthed 70-year-old grandmother who goes back to her body as a 20-year-old girl and enjoys her heyday for the second time. The film is a remake of Miss Granny directed by HWANG Dong-hyuk which became a big hit in Korea. The success of 20, Once Again! is attributable to a thorough localization strategy. The film is a Korea-China co-production project which Korea’s CJ E&M and China’s Beijing Century Media Culture jointly invested in, planned and produced, while C2M and Huace Film & TV joined as joint investors. Even though the original deals with universal themes such as families, memories and youth, among others, local Chinese views should be reflected in a remake for the Chinese people. Comparing it to cooking, a chef will follow an original recipe but use locally available ingredients. 20, Once Again! was directed by Leste CHEN, who has been in the spotlight of late. YANG Zishan and GUA Ah Lei, popular in China these days, played the lead characters in the film. The film was the result of a harmony between Korea’s planning and China’s infrastructure.
    20, Once Again! is a different kind of fantasy-based romantic comedy that Chinese viewers could not see before,” said LEE Kiyeon, head of the Chinese Investment and Distribution Team at CJ E&M when asked about its production process. “Although the motif of 20, Once Again! is Miss Granny, the screenplay was changed and the film was directed to satisfy the tastes of Chinese viewers.” “Among ways to export Korean films abroad, joint projects between nations are far more likely to succeed than the simple export of Koreans films,” LEE added. The Chinese media offered positive responses - “A film that gladdens audiences audio-visually with laughter, tears and romance” (Xinhua Net) and “20, Once Again! mesmerized audiences regardless of gender and age” (Phoenix Media). In light of the success of 20, Once Again! in China, localized joint projects involving the film are being considered in Thailand and Vietnam. CJ E&M is planning to take on joint productions after studying the tastes of local audiences’ tastes, demand for film, and the character of local film markets.
    A Wedding Invitation
    First Korea-China Co-Production Based on Market Research

    Korea-China co-productions have come in various forms. Collaboration between the two industries has been carried out through diverse systems such as the exchange of directors, actors and staff, investments and the appeal of locations. To put it technically, these were the early stages of co-production. In this context, A Wedding Invitation (2013), directed by OH Ki-hwan, is worth paying attention to. The film is recognized as the first full-fledged Korea-China co-production as the two nations teamed up from its planning stage onwards. Key staff members including the direction team were Korean. Director OH Ki-hwan helmed the project which was later bolstered by prominent staff members such as director of photography KIM Young-ho, editor SHIN Min-kyung and music director LEE Ji-soo, among others. By contrast, Eddie PENG and Bai Bai HE from China played the lead characters. Most of the location shooting was done in China. Its look and feel is based on Chinese characteristics. In particular, CJ E&M conducted in-depth research on the Chinese market and Chinese viewers’ tastes before planning the film. As a result, they completed a melodrama loaded with relatable sensitivity and tear-jerking elements.
    “Lately, the Chinese film market is growing rapidly. But it is more important than anything else for films to be regarded as Chinese films since the release of foreign films is limited,” said KIM Young-chan, the head of the team in charge of the Chinese business at CJ E&M. “Up until now, co-production with China has mostly involved location filming. “We decided that we needed a localization strategy to lay down the foundations and we carried out a Chinese market survey for 22 years. The results convinced us that well-made tear-jerking films work well.” The strategy paid off handsomely. A Wedding Invitation earned CNY 192.5 million (USD 30.94 million) at the box office. Most of all, the film’s focus on forming a sentimental bond with Chinese viewers played a key role in its box office success. “We made the film strictly on the base of Chinese sentiments and feelings. It was important to grasp Chinese culture,” director OH said. “It is said that Chinese people seldom weep. When Chinese couples break up, it is not women but men who weep. We tried to inject these sentiments into the film.” This story offers a valuable lesson to those who are preparing Korea-China co-productions.
    Mr. Go
    A Partial Success Despite Lackluster Korean Returns

    Korea’s Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc. and China’s Huayi Brothers jointly produced and invested in Mr. Go (2013) directed by KIM Yong-hwa. KIM directed the film while Korean and Chinese actors shared leading roles. In particular, director KIM founded Dexter Studios, which took charge of production and VFX work for the film. Dexter Studios was established to create ‘Ring Ring,’ the first 100% CG character in the history of Korean cinema. Because of these reasons, Mr. Go became a hot topic even before its release. But when the film actually came out, responses were rather cold. Yet in terms of box office performance, Mr. Go became a success. This is because though the film earned only KRW 9.3 billion (USD 8.65 million) at the Korean box office, it pulled in CNY 112.73 million (USD 18.12 million) at the Chinese box office. Needless to say, it is unreasonable to consider just box office scores since the two markets have different sizes. Considering the fact that the film cost KRW 20 billion (USD 18.62 million), its score in Korea was very low. But in China, the film achieved its expected results, making up for the slump in Korea. Specifically, technological prowess accumulated during the production of the film has had a positive impact on the future activities of director KIM and Dexter Studios. The film’s contrasting box-office scores in Korea and China implied many things. It is important to secure universality during the coproduction process between two nations with different cultures and sentiments.
    Korean audiences were not impressed with the plot in which a Chinese girl sympathizes with a gorilla and grows while training him. Korean audiences felt distant from the story about a Chinese girl and received the baseballplaying gorilla as a cartoonish character. By contrast, Chinese audiences became excited about the Chinese girl who overcomes her ordeals and crises. Notably, the gorilla character, which was as sophisticated as CG characters in Hollywood films was a nice surprise to Chinese spectators. Such a gap between audiences in Korea and China resulted in the contrasting scores. Ultimately, Mr. Go became a meaningful film in the history of Korea-China co-productions. The lesson is that a balance between stories and technological power can expand the possibility of becoming a hit.
    Sophie’s Revenge
    Star-Based Marketing Strategy

    Korea-China co-production films also hinge on the ticket-selling power of stars. Sophie's Revenge (2009), directed by Eva JIN, is a perfect example to prove this proposition. Film fans paid much attention to Sophie's Revenge before the release of the film since the film cast ZHANG Ziyi, who is very active in Hollywood as well as Chinesespeaking regions, and SO Ji-sub, who is also expanding the scope of his activities beyond Asia. Numerous fans crowded the venue of a press conference prior to its release, resulting in the event’s delay. To be clear, this work did not solely depend on the stars’ popularity as its producers pursued an ideal model of co-production from its planning stage, which they realized during the production process.
    Sophie's Revenge is a co-production project that CJ E&M (CJ Entertainment at that time) implemented in order to develop in the Chinese market. It has a unique subject matter, where a scientific and multi-stage revenge drama shows a heroine who tries to get back at a lover who betrayed her. CJ and Perfect World, a leading Chinese online game company, jointly produced the film. The two companies discussed the development of the story from the scriptwriting stage. The subsequent adaptation was nicely done by professional Chinese and American screenwriters. Above all, they brought in excellent staff members to enhance the production’s quality. Sing Choong FOO, an FX developer for the Spiderman series created fairy tale-like visuals in the film as a visual effects specialist. Korea’s Blue Cap, a representative DI company in Korea which proved its technological prowess through The Assembly’s (2008) HFR, took part in the post-production work. This explains how they could make such a high-quality film.
    Sophie's Revenge was meaningful in the sense that the film helped CJ secure a bridge that led to A Wedding Invitation. In fact, CJ developed overseas sales channels by jointly producing August Rush (2007), West 32nd (2007) and Gou Gou, The Cat (2008). But the company was faced with limits as they could only distribute these titles in Korea. Eventually, CJ sought a new avenue. After working thoroughly together from planning to post-production, they completed the film. That was the moment a milestone for Korea-China co-productions was reached. It is also important to note that Sophie's Revenge is considered to be the first chick flick in China, opening possibilities for a new genre in the country Many works followed this co-production that carried similar characteristics.
    Previously, films targeting overseas markets were based only on star power, but many of them flopped. However, Sophie's Revenge speaks volumes as the film proved that a project can become a huge hit through the combination of joint planning and coproduction.
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