Correction Appended: Aug. 27, 2007.
Where Harvey Weinstein goes, Hollywood follows. And Harvey Weinstein is jetting off to Asia.
One of the last old fashioned film moguls, having built indie studio Miramax from the ground up, Weinstein and his quieter brother Bob are known in the biz for their flash and their foresight. They make bold choices such as producing Quentin Tarantino's edgy Pulp Fiction in 1994 and bringing Hong Kong visionary Wong Kar-Wai to American screens in 1996 that are considered brilliant and inspire packs of copycats.
So earlier this month, when Harvey announced that his new venture, The Weinstein Company (TWC), will oversee a $285 million dollar fund toward the production and distribution of 31 "Asian films," the industry was in a muddle over whether this was a lavish pronouncement or just plain smart business sense. The move is expected to help the company cut costs, and it may also allow the Weinsteins to stake a claim on the growing market of Asian film viewers.
Even as the North American box office flattens out, production costs are on the rise, taking bigger bites out of profit. The Weinsteins' Grindhouse cost $53 million to make, according to a Variety source, but made just over half of that at the box office. One way to cut down on costs is to decamp to Asia, where a large labor force with technical skills will work for less. More American filmmakers are flying to Thailand, Indonesia, and even China where government guidelines are still a hindrance to shoot films they might once have shot in California or Toronto.
Asian films also attract local audiences, and the Weinsteins have watched the film market in Asia become the world's fastest growing. Ten years ago, North American box office tallies outpaced international earnings. "That's now absolutely shifted," explains TWC co-president Michael Cole, who will shuttle between Hollywood and the fund office in Hong Kong.
China's box office grows at a rate of over 30% per year and India is second to Hollywood in terms of the number of films produced. This year, Disney released its first project tailored for China a cartoon shot in Mandarin; in July, Warner Brothers and Sony announced a project to build multiplexes in South Asia; and Price Waterhouse Coopers estimated that Asia's film industry would increase by 6% annually, reaching $104 billion by 2010.
"If you're not really doing movies in Asia or with Asia as a possible location, or using Asia in a storyline in some fashion, or for a production, you're missing a giant opportunity," says Tony Krantz, producer of TV's 24 whose next project a trio of martial arts pics to be shot in Hong Kong will be backed by the fund. "Asia's really the dominant story for this next century."
Harvey Weinstein describes the Asia gambit as having sprung up not from money troubles, but from a penchant for Asian cinema spurred by a close relationship with chopsocky fan Quentin Tarantino. Name an Asian hit in the West and the Weinsteins are probably in some way responsible. Iron Monkey, Farewell My Concubine, Princess Mononoke, and half of the eight highest grossing American showings of Asian pics, including Hero and the original Shall We Dance?, were all released under Harvey's guidance.
As the Weinstein team sees fit, the $285 million fund will be distributed among development, production, and acquisition of films made in Asia, by Asian filmmakers, or about Asian subjects. They estimate that they'll produce 21 theatrical releases and another 10 straight-to-DVD films over six years. If local distributors pick up the films, the Weinstein Company will reap some of those profits, which they'll use to pay back investors. TWC will have first pick of what Asian pictures they'll distribute back in the U.S., and they'll buy those films with the fund.
But the fund will not simply project Asian products on Western screens, it will bring to Asian films what Weinstein calls a "Western sensibility." So far the slate includes a live-action film of the fable Mulan; a martial arts team-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li; and a remake of the 1954 classic, The Seven Samurai, which transplants Kurosawa's besieged Japanese village to the outskirts of Bangkok and recasts the Japanese fighters as mercenary soldiers, three of whom speak English.
But so far the Weinstein habit of retelling of Asian stories through what they call "Western storytelling techniques" has seen backlash. TWC bought Shaolin Soccer the highest grossing film in China's history only to recut, dub, and delay its release. Fans of the original raged online. Chen Kaige's The Promise wasn't even that lucky. The Weinsteins ordered months of re-cutting, only to drop it completely and hand back the rights. "If you do this and that for different audiences," warns Hong Kong producer Nansun Shi, "you lose the whole raison d'etre of your cultural mark. There's a certain energy or stamp or mark on a film that says, this is a Hong Kong film."
To oversee their enormous investment, the Weinsteins plucked David Lee, a film exec based in Hong Kong, where he was vice president of IDG Asia, a venture capital fund and media company in China. Lee says he took the Weinsteins up on their offer because he saw a good business plan: "They have a track record of knowing how to select and market to a Western audience," he says. "Other film funds haven't been able to figure it out yet."
"The Weinsteins are good at knowing what films the world wants to see," agrees John Chong, CEO of Media Asia, the largest distributor of Chinese films for international audiences. Chong doesn't see the Weinsteins' buying power as a threat, but rather as a way of fostering younger talent and helping the industry grow, giving Media Asia more future films to purchase. "It will be a booming period," Chong predicts. "If they're successful very quickly, maybe more independent film producers will be coming into the China market and the Asia market."
At the China Film Co-production Corporation, the government branch that oversees all aspects of foreign production down to visas for directors, vice president Susan Xu agrees the fund will usher in a boom in filmmaking. "Our door is ready to receive a lot more knocking," she says.
"Movies are really a global business now," says TWC's David Lee. Adds co-president Michael Cole: "We're looking to incorporate...We're always gonna have one foot in Asia."
An earlier version of this story included incomplete data on TWC's 2007 revenue.