Brendan Davis – Director of Special Projects for BangBang Pictures in Beijing, discusses VFX opportunities in China.
Brendan discusses the pros and cons of trying to do a co-production. He talks about the disconnect between the job functions of US producers versus Chinese producers.
Brendan suggests that re-interpreting your IP for the Chinese market is one of the best ways to crack the market. Another growth area for foreigners to break into Chinese film is to provide technical talent.
He also has a cautionary tale to avoid Chinese investors who try to syndicate their investment in your project.
Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom
Podcast Guests mentioned
Caryn McCann: This is the China-Hollywood Greenlight Podcast, episode number 12.
Caryn McCann: This is Caryn McCann, the host of the China Hollywood Greenlight podcast – a podcast about creating & distributing content for both Hollywood and China.
If you like the show, please go to iTunes, subscribe, and leave a rating so other people can find this podcast. The more we work together – the more opportunities will be out there for everyone.
Any links mentioned in the podcast can be found in the show notes as well as a full transcript at chinahollywoodgreenlight.com / podcast and look for this episode which is #12.
Before I introduce today’s guest – I’d like to start out with a motivational quote to encourage our listeners to continue on their path to achieving their own green light. And today’s quote is from Henry Ford who said: “The whole secret of a successful life is to find out what is one’s destiny to do, and then do it.”
Today’s guest is Brendan Davis. In 2012 Davis formed Kilin International in order to focus on co-productions. In 2013 Davis produced & executive produced 13 US-based episodes of the long-running Chinese TV show Jiā piàn yǒu yuē《佳片有约》 which airs on CCTV6. The Kilin-produced episodes feature Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee, directors Justin Lin and M. Night Shyamalan, and actor Sean Astin – who was in Lord of the Rings among others.
In 2016 Davis moved to Beijing in order to live and work full-time in China. After guest lecturing at Beijing Film Academy and consulting for Chinese clients, Davis joined Adamas Film in Beijing. Most recently, Davis has joined the Production and VFX Management company BangBang, founded by John Dietz, in Beijing as Director of Special Projects.
In addition to his producing and consulting efforts, Davis created and hosts the weekly podcast “Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom”, a show about fellow foreigners who moved to China to do things that are ambitious, unusual, and sometimes, a little crazy. Well, Brendan thank you for coming on the show.
Brendan Davis: Caryn, thank you so much for having me.
Caryn McCann: Great. Well, I’ve told you a little bit about yourself but why don’t you tell the audience a little bit about yourself personally and more about your business?
Brendan Davis: Sure, thing. Thanks again for having me here. So, I’m primarily a producer and a consultant on the east-west cooperation so this is a kind of a great opportunity to talk to you. And I also host the podcast as you mentioned. And basically, I grew up in the southeast US as we talked about, and have always been in and around film and music. And I’ve had a lifelong interest in Asia. And that came from discovering writings like Alan Watts and things while I was 13. So, cut to you know, jump ahead many years and I had wanted to help be part of this next wave of what’s happening here in China.
And my specific focus is – has shifted a bit which we’ll talk about as we go through your other questions. But these days I am primarily focused on researching what’s going to be the next iteration of how to cooperate. And so, I’m focused on some research and development here at this new company as well as producing my podcast.
Caryn McCann: Great. You mentioned your early interest in China – tell us more about why you want to work in the China market.
Brendan Davis: Well I’ve always been interested philosophically as I said and interested in other cultures. And of course, you know, Asia is such a dramatically different worldview if you grow up in the U.S. especially a long time ago back when I did. So, and you didn’t have the internet, so you had to learn these things very slowly.
And I would say there are a few things that really planted the seed. I have an attorney friend there in Los Angeles who has worked with a lot of Chinese clients over the years. And I got to know people through him over the last ten years. I also started teaching in the master’s programs at New York Film Academy there in LA.
And I had it was a very international school so I probably had about a thousand international students over the six years I was in and out of there. But about 300-400 students were from China and so some of them are right out of undergrad. But some of them had been working for maybe five or even ten years here in China before going to the States to learn the Hollywood way. And so, through having them as students I actually got to hear their take on how things work here. And it seemed like a really interesting opportunity because a lot of my job on that end when I was teaching and then also consulting with Chinese clients trying to work in Hollywood – was about how do we bridge these cultural differences both in you know the business culture specifically which I know is a frequent topic of yours.
And so, that’s been my interest is to try to flatten the world. I have kind of more personal sort you know my very personal goals are about trying to be friendly with people and trying to continue society’s progress etc. So, this is my little way to do that and also you know pay the rent.
Caryn McCann: OK. Well you’re at the right place at the right time definitely.
Brendan Davis: Well, hopefully so. (laughs).
Caryn McCann: I know no two days are the same but just to give the audience a little bit about what you do day to day – what are two or three main tasks you do on a quote “typical day”?
Brendan Davis: Sure. So, as we said – I’m starting a new division of this company which is going to end up being its own company eventually – so it’s a little unusual now. But I would say that on a typical day it’s sort of one part dealing with consulting clients and talking with people helping to connect the dots – and also just helping friends and colleagues with referrals.
There’s also one part of it that is tending to ongoing projects – so being involved and I had my hand and a lot of different things and I’m helping to develop a series here. And then there’s a part of it that’s dedicated to my podcast efforts and occasionally I get to pop up on CGTN sometimes talking about China film and the east-west cooperation – so doing some media things and talking to nice folks like you.
Caryn McCann: Now these projects that you’re developing, you’re producing, writing, directing?
Brendan Davis: It’s kind of all over the map. I guess I wear a lot of hats. Producer consultant is my short version. But I have a TV series that I’ve written a pilot for that is in development. I have several different projects that I’m involved in as a producer but not the lead producer – so I’m a voice in the room. And then there is a documentary project that I can’t really talk about yet, but because we’re in the early days of development. S I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it’s a project that I’m a producer on and I’m also the director on. So, a lot of different things. And I’m helping develop a very dynamic web series for China that’s basically 45-minute episodes, 12 episodes a season. It’s what they call elevated genre. It’s something very dynamic – sort of comic book but live-action. It’s a live-action piece but it’s very energetic and kind of surreal and it’s totally for the Chinese market.
Caryn McCann: You’ve got all these amazing projects. How did you find business partners and how do you suggest the listeners find a Chinese business partner?
CHINESE BUSINESS PARTNERS
Brendan Davis: Well in my case, I would say some of these things are self-generated some of these are from friends, you know partners who have been friends and colleagues for a long time. And so, I’d have to kind of do the forensic analysis for each one. But I can give a more generic answer for the listeners. And I can say that I met actually my new primary partner here – John Dietz – and we’ll talk about BangBang a little bit more in a minute I guess. That was a very serendipitous moment speaking of that because he found me through the podcast.
Caryn McCann: Oh, wow!
Brendan Davis: We’re both parts of the China-Hollywood Society and I know you had Melanie on. And I’ve been part of China Hollywood from the US since late 2012 or early 2013. And it’s very active here. There’s a Beijing chapter that I’m part of.
And we have a WeChat group for the China chapter. Also, here are there are people who find their way in from outside but we have a local chat group. And one of my episodes – I’m all over the place but I bring this back around – a few of my episodes have been entertainment heavy – my show is a broader focus. But I’ve had like Rob Cain(Episode #014) on it and Jesse Weiner (EP #019) on – entertainment lawyer who had you know old China hands and so on. One of these episodes got posted in the China Hollywood WeChat group. John happened to like it and commented and contacted me to say hey we should hang out. Hanging out, we realized wow we really are very different in coming from different worlds and he’s a very award-winning respected guy in his field. But we really were in sync and that’s the most important thing is because – finding any partners it’s I mean there’s networking and I can give some suggestions for events where people could find people for China specifically like China Hollywood Society which you have you actually publicize quite a bit.
But I would say that the fundamental thing is in China it’s long-term – I believe it was Melanie who said this – many people have hinted at this-this is a marathon, not a sprint. And I know you have a lot of China time here yourself, much more than I do. And the Chinese way that they approach relationships – interpersonally certainly applies to business. And if you are an outsider I mean maybe double that. So, it’s you have to be in this for the long haul and this is a long-term commitment for me. So, in the case of my current partner John, it’s that we really just like each other and we’re on the same page we’re in sync. We have a lot of overlap in our thinking and then we have different things we bring to the table.
So, what’s important is finding someone who you can really see yourself spending a lot of time with and even time where you’re not necessarily task-focused on a project. Because of the transactional nature of the way projects often happen and Hollywood all the relationships grease the wheels. When you get to business it’s very transactional. And in China, it’s much more like a courtship that just seems to never end. I know we’ll talk a little bit more about that.
You’ve had a lot of good suggestions on previous episodes of your show – like go to AFM, go to the China forum at the AFM. Go to the Chinese or Asian-related film festivals wherever you live so you can meet the up-and-coming writers, directors, and producers. You can meet the established people who are there to speak on panels. That’s a great way to meet people.
And then, of course, there’s LinkedIn but you know I hate being sold and a lot of people there’s not much you can do on LinkedIn unless you really have something already in common I think.
Caryn McCann: You mentioned something briefly about a WeChat group in China. would you recommend that Americans somehow get involved with a Chinese WeChat group?
Brendan Davis: Well, if you’re already – basically it’s – I don’t moderate it. It’s a semi-closed group in the sense that you’re welcome to join if you already know people in the group and you’re already somewhat established in this field. It’s not for “Hi, I’m a rookie and I have a bunch of questions.”
Caryn McCann: Oh. OK. (laughs)
Brendan Davis: So, you should be in it.
Caryn McCann: Yes. I should join that group. (laughs)
Brendan Davis: You should already be in it I don’t have any administrative role in the WeChat group, or the China-Hollywood group so I would defer that. I would say that if you already know – ask around if you’re already going to China-Hollywood events then I think sure you should absolutely be in it. And it’s easy to search for it. And yeah I think many of your guests are in the group.
Caryn McCann: Great. I definitely have to join that. Now having all these different projects and you know trying to meet all these producers and partners – you know sometimes that’s a bit difficult. This leads me to my question – tell us about an obstacle you encountered on a past project. How did you overcome it and what did you learn?
Brendan Davis: There have been a few and since you’re nice enough to plant the questions a little bit ahead of time I’ve had some time to think about it. I think the one that I would mention is that there’s a learning curve that everyone who works with China discovers Sky Moore talked about contracts is just the beginning of the negotiation. And here it’s not like it is in the West. That is what I would underline. So, you think you have a deal just because you have a signed piece of paper? It could be signed and chopped you know with the stamp. It could be as official as anything. You could have drunk Baijiu (potent Chinese rice wine) till three in the morning with somebody who’s the deputy vice mayor of this or that. It doesn’t matter. It matters in terms of building the relationship but until the money’s in the bank – it’s not real. And the specific – I was working with several partners to develop and we were attempting to produce the very first China and New Zealand feature co-pro. We were very close and we basically had a Chinese quote-unquote financier committed.
And what I learned, part of my learning curve in 2012 and 2013 was that I learned firsthand about the way that many quote-unquote investors here and I’m using the air quotes on purpose – because they’re not what we would think of as a real equity investor in the West. They’re not actually the direct investor themselves and they’re not even a finder in the Western sense where they want to take in a five percent and get you the money. They syndicate the investment – they claim to own it. But then they work to find all these other people to actually support it. And as I discovered sometimes happens and I’ve been involved in this a few times, and had to correct it. And I’ve heard countless stories along these lines. But many times, they will promise things without your approval.
Independent film it’s very tricky. Doing independent film basically, it’s very tricky in China. Doing a studio film is very tricky. But so, syndicated investment beware of that. You think you have an investor and they could be the richest guy or gal on the block. But that doesn’t mean that they’re planning to put in one kuai into your project. It means that they’re planning to talk to their network and they are going to want a giant piece of the project. They want more than a finder’s fee for doing this.
So, we had one of those who we didn’t realize how he was playing. He was being very – he was not, you know. It’s fairly hidden online so I don’t think you could search it. But you know, he was not acting honorably as it turned out. And actually, he’s out of the business as far as I know now. And he was someone fairly prominent. So, beware. Buyer beware. If the money’s not in an escrow – it’s not real.
Caryn McCann Well, that’s that’s a good, short answer. But just to point out stuff to the audience that they might not be aware of because a lot of people think ‘Oh these Chinese investors have lots of money. Especially if you have someone who is known to be wealthy – would you not know where their money is coming from somehow? Would they pretend it was their money or if they’re telling you it’s not my money?
Brendan Davis: Well, I’m sharing something that was part of my learning curve. I’m a little more sophisticated now. But what I’m saying for the audience’s sake because I think your show is aimed at people who are trying to figure things out.
I mean people who are most of your guests know what I just said already. But people who are trying to figure this out would encounter this – where they see someone – in this case I know my guy had money. I’m very well aware that he had plenty of money. But he was not putting his actual skin in the game. He was what he was investing – to play devil’s advocate from their point of view – someone like that is investing in their relationships. They’re investing their face in their friends. I mean he was invested, he was committed. It was unfortunate there were extenuating circumstances in his case that led to him not being compromised and not being able to follow through actually. So, that was unfortunate. But that illustrates the problem is that you know if he had the money – if it was actually his money that he was investing – then that money could have been moved. So, the big challenge now, of course, is about you can’t move money offshore very easily which is a whole other conversation. But film finance in China is extremely difficult. So, you need to make sure that your China-side partners are as transparent as required and you need to have someone who you implicitly trust dealing with the China-side the current situation.
Caryn McCann: Exactly. Obviously, you got over that huge problem. Let me talk about the current situation. If you could magically solve two current problems what would they be?
Brendan Davis: I love this question. I think most of the great answers have already been stated. I would refer – I’m going to answer it – but I would refer your audience to especially listen to Niall (Niall Phelan, Story Asia – episode 006) or Sky Moore (Partner Greenberg Glusker, Episode 007) or Melanie’s (Melanie Ansley – Peking Pictures, Episode 010) answers on this and there are several others that are echoing in my head. A lot of great things have been said about the nature of contracts and finance and the language issues and things like that – the cultural issues.
What I would say is that I would love to solve that it’s a little more practical – is that we still have a big disconnect between job responsibilities and titles in the East versus the West. There, of course, there are many jobs that are the same job. There are many jobs that have the same title. And they’re kind of the same – they’re same-ish. But then there are different responsibilities and they’re different timelines for how things happen. There are different orders of reporting. We’re never going to change that completely but having an understanding, having a mutual bilateral understanding of the difference of the role, especially of the producer.
This is the one that I if I couldn’t wave a magic wand and go into Harry Potter land a little bit, I would – I would unify the role of the producer to be equivalent in the West as in the East and you know to have the East’s expectations match. The reason that projects tend to be director-centered – where there’s like the director who’s the king of the mountain here is because there has not been a professional producer class historically to the same degree.
I mean you have people like Bill Kong who could teach anybody in the world about this and how to do it. But the Bill Kongs are very few and far between relative to the people who are sort of middle managers or money finders. And they don’t – the producer does not drive the project historically in the same way that the director does in general.
Now that is changing. The projects – the prominent projects with the A-list people here, you have people who were working in a more international system. So, I would magically make the producer class be professional across the board here. And I would make sure that there was understanding about the differences in job titles and responsibilities so that you didn’t have things fall through the cracks, and you didn’t have conflicts and issues if something isn’t – managing expectations is all the job of a producer. And it never ends. It never ends from development through delivery.
Caryn McCann: Is there a second problem?
Brendan Davis: Well, I was I was trying to say—
Caryn McCann: I guess it could be two.
Brendan Davis: To me the producer won merits its own.
Caryn McCann: (laughs) That’s a big problem. OK. You mentioned projects. What sort of future projects are you looking for? Film? TV? Budget? Story elements? And what do you think the Chinese studios are looking for?
Brendan Davis: Well, personally I’m actually not looking for anything other than bags of money. I’m not actually necessarily looking for money right now. I’m open to a few more consulting clients. But because of the companies that I’m involved in both this new opportunity and my own company that I’m developing as strictly as a production and development shingle. Additionally, I’m partnered with several experienced writer-producers and we develop internally.
I was thinking about this looking at your questions. I would say that almost everything I’ve done in the last – almost everything I’ve done with China has been internally developed we’re either one of my team has been – it’s someone who is you know produced writer and we developed it internally that way. Or we developed the idea as producers and hired a writer to do it. I don’t accept unsolicited pitches. I can’t do anything with it you know. I am not a producer to go find your money and make your project. So, what I’m looking for is – I’m open to a little bit more kind of consulting in cooperation and I’m always glad just to help people as well. I don’t have to have a retainer to do it.
WHAT ARE THE CHINESE STUDIOS LOOKING FOR?
But in terms of what the studios are looking for, I think that there are several different things you could stick on the wall. Of course, one is the mythical, magical co-production that’s going to satisfy both sorts of markets – or China versus the international market. And we could talk we should maybe talk a little bit more about that in a moment. So, the co-production that actually works that’s number one.
The second thing is films that can export well but don’t necessarily have to serve this market although I would say that’s a small percentage of films. But the primary thing other than co-productions is simply advancing the state of Chinese film, making Chinese film and TV compete creatively and technically. Technically it’s already pretty much there. Creatively it’s getting there. That’s the last mile of road that has to be bridged is on the creative.
And there are extraordinarily creative people here. It’s more about letting those creative people do their thing and supporting them. So, what I see and hear from my friends who are day-to-day involved in that world is about advancing Chinese films. And there are some fantastic filmmakers here. There are some really interesting projects coming out. And that’s actually why I’m here. I’m not focused on co-productions anymore. I had been previously. I’ve done some and I’ve developed more than I than I’ve had produced. But I’m focused on advancing Chinese film and then helping people cooperate. But I’m not trying to – I’m not losing any more sleep on co-productions currently.
Caryn McCann: So, the now you said the Chinese studios are looking obviously, for the mythical co-production. But also, they want their local films to travel- to cross borders. So, is there a particular genre you hear about that is popular or particular story elements that Chinese audiences hope to find?
Brendan Davis: Well in terms of, I mean audiences here and not to I want to give you a good answer – I would say that audiences here are similar to audiences in the West and that they want to see good stories. They want to be engaged and they like all kinds of genres. But you know – action, action-adventure does tend to play better currently and sci-fi. Romance is hit or miss. It kind of ebbs. The romance here is sort of like horror in the West where it seems very cyclical. Sometimes you can’t get enough horror movies in the theaters and sometimes you can’t give them away. The romantic comedy is and then a lot and kind of in a rut here. But it’ll probably come roaring back. When somebody makes a great one, it’ll come roaring back.
I would say that the films that have the best chance of traveling and what I’m saying is they could be films that are aimed at a global market but we’re not necessarily produced as a co-production other than maybe there’s a star. So, the films that have the best chance of that are the ones that somehow magically minimize the language problem because that’s what’s going to keep us from having really to fundamentally separate industries forever the language problem.
So, there’s going to be some crossover but we’re not going to become one unified global entertainment industry. China is always going to have China as a market.
Caryn McCann: I interviewed Larry Namer (Metan Development, Episode 002) a while back and he was saying that even the Chinese government told him or his Chinese partners told him to start shooting in English – Chinese local films.
So, is that your idea for the future – going head is doing local films but possibly for the domestic market but hoping that they might travel overseas?
Brendan Davis: Yeah I heard that. That was a good interview with Larry and of course, he’s someone who knows what he’s talking about. And I would recommend that one to your listeners if they haven’t heard it. Me personally, I’m not focused on English-language films, I’m focused on Chinese films for Chinese people. And I have done some consulting and you mentioned my bio. I spent a year developing a Chinese language film that was meant to be a big international film – you know historical action-adventure blockbuster. But I’m focused and working here in the new role, we are working on some of the top-tier films – big blockbuster films from Chinese directors in Mandarin for Chinese audiences. So, that’s where I see the biggest growth and that’s where I want to be part of.
Caryn McCann: OK. That’s good. That’s good. Now, this is kind of a backward-looking question. If you could do your career over again, what would you do differently?
Brendan Davis: Well, if being born rich is not an option, that’s not an option – then I would say go to law school.
Caryn McCann: OK.
Brendan Davis: And not and not because I want to be a lawyer. And some of my best friends are lawyers. But for the fact simple fact that – especially you know I mean – really I wouldn’t change anything. And I think Melanie (Melanie Ansley, Episode 010) got very philosophical and you wouldn’t end up exactly where you are if you changed the smallest thing.
And so, I’m that school of thought. But hypothetically speaking, I was actually pre-law for a couple of years and wanted to go in entertainment law to help my music at the time music was primary. But music and film career in the future and just understanding this is one of the big differences. You know that the primacy of the entertainment attorney in the international system versus in China they’re kind of like the redheaded stepchild – that’s not politically correct, sorry. But the entertainment lawyer does not have a front-row seat – a primary seat at the table here. They’re seen as somebody to come in and sweep up a bit after the grown-ups have had their dinner.
But of course, in the rest of the world, in the outside industry, the entertainment attorney is a primary player. So, I would have saved myself, I would have caused myself three years of pain – but I probably would have saved three years of pain in my life. Otherwise, it would have probably been an equal-sum trade. Study the law. I have self-educated and have become very familiar with being involved in contracts now.
Caryn McCann: You’re obviously a producer and consultant. More on the producer side – what skills or talents are essential to be effective – especially if you’re going to try and work in the China market? Do you need to speak Chinese?
Brendan Davis: It definitely helps. I speak just enough to be conversational and I don’t read and write. So, because I did not have the Chinese language learning bug early enough, unfortunately. I speak Spanish much better than Chinese which is not very well so I shouldn’t even act like it’s good.
But in terms of China, speaking some Chinese is great – mostly to be social and conversational and to build relationships, and to be chatty. But for any kind of business situation, there’s too much nuance that can be lost. And also, it respects the time of the people you’re dealing with that you have someone who is a real ace on your side to translate and interpret so that you’re not wasting the other party’s time as well.
Brendan Davis: Sorry, I sort of lost your question.
Caryn McCann: Other skills you need–
Brendan Davis: Well I’ll focus. Speaking of losing track.
Caryn McCann: (laughs)
Brendan Davis: That would be an example right there. Focus and concentration are great. Keeping an open mind and again some of the other guests have touched on this a lot. But really understanding the fluid nature of things in China. And this gets into the bigger cultural issues which I know you’re aware of because of your China time and your studies and experience here over the years. But I see it as applying to business and I’m telling you on the ground in 2018 that it still applies – it does not change.
If anything, it’s more important because it’s part of what makes this place uniquely China. The simple fact is that people build relationships a certain way. There’s a certain communal aspect to the way opinions are considered. And yeah there’s the big man or big woman at the head of the table in a given situation. But everybody gets to play or else why are they in the room? Even the lowest person in the room, they’re there to say a little thing, right? And so, the people who are kind of in the middle of the pack have a handful of things to say. And then there’s the big person who does a lot of listing and then gives a monologue or two. And they’re the ones who you’re listening to.
But keeping an open mind to be on time, which is sometimes very tricky and I was running a little late today as we discussed earlier off-mike. But being flexible and understanding. Again, Schuyler Moore (Episode 7) and I think if you other people touched on this – the contract is the beginning of the real negotiation. You’re expected to be flexible as situations change and as things develop. The contract here is viewed as a way to show that we trust each other and we intend to work together and see this thing through. But the terms of the contract are not carved in stone in the same way in the West the way we put that emphasis on it. So, you have to be – the phrase – China flexible is something that a lot of people use. You have to be very China flexible.
Caryn McCann: OK. This next question is a bit tricky. What question do I not ask you that I should have?
ARE CO-PROS THE HOLY GRAIL?
Brendan Davis: I think that I touched on it slightly. I kind of planted the seed for this because I think the question might be – are co-productions still the holy grail of east/west cooperation? My answer is my answer is no.
Caryn McCann: No. OK. Can you expand on that a little bit?
Brendan Davis: Sure. And they’re people who right now are going – what is this guy talking about? Well, that not that should that should not be the primary focus in my opinion. For this reason, it is so incredibly difficult. There are other things you can do where you can actually be making things. You can actually be productive and get into the market. You can create projects that get localized and of course, that are not just translated but that’s reinterpreted for the China market. And we can get into that more. But you can create projects you can create stories, create IP. You can localize existing IP you can create things that work and then set it up as a Chinese project. Don’t try to make it a co-production. Don’t try and make it serve two masters. That’s fundamentally the problem in a nutshell with co-pros is that they’re great in theory – very few of them actually get across the line. And it’s getting harder and harder. A few of your recent yes it talked about some of the regulatory changes and there’s some geopolitical current. So, I’ll just say it that way because I want to keep my visa intact.
But they’re happening in the world. Sky Moore’s answer (episode 007) to this question – I remember it took you by surprise. But I was not surprised. And I was “MeTooing” and clapping. And yeah he nailed it. So, his answer is the best answer I’ve heard on your show so far actually.
Caryn McCann: His advice was to forget the American-China co-pro. Go for a European co-pro.
Brendan Davis: there was that and he was also talking about the geopolitical aspects of things.
Caryn McCann: Oh yes. Yes. The Trump effect. Now just a side question. If you did a local film in China, even if it’s in Mandarin or even if they want to shoot in English – it wouldn’t be a co-pro. But if you added a couple of Western actors would that help maybe?
Brendan Davis: I would say it’s going to depend. They have to really have value to the local market. That gets into the idea, in the area that has been discussed previously here and elsewhere a lot of Chinese audiences are resistant to the reverse thing – where you have a Western project and you sprinkle – you try to China it up a little bit.
And people, I wouldn’t say they are offended by that, but people just don’t care. That doesn’t move anybody. That’s not doesn’t drive sales “Oh they got Angelababy to be the girlfriend. Great!” You know no one cares. So, I think the reverse of that is true.
There are Chinese films that need Western elements but on camera for the story purposes like Wolf Warrior 2. I mean they needed western bad guys and they needed neutral people from other countries for different roles.
So, if it’s intrinsic to the story and it feels organic that works. That’s one way that you could approach trying to build a co-pro. I want to try to I want to give you some hope. And I know you really wanted to do co-pros. And I think people should do it if they have the magic trick. I mean action, fantasy, sci-fi you’re going to find some co-pro success there. Somebody’s going to do it and I’m working on the thing too.
I’m just saying that I also want to be able to pay the rent. And if that’s all I’m focusing on I’m better to be really comfortable eating Ramon noodles right? so, it’s in the area where there’s the opportunity is actually and that’s part of what I’m what my friends here at BangBang which is a VFX management company as well as production. They manage the pipeline of giant movies. We don’t really do the VFX here. John (John Dietz) and his teams manage the process. And they bring in the best vendors from around the world and the best local vendors and they make all of that work.
That’s where the opportunity is. Because although this is more on the effects side. Here is where my new office is you – that’s working. That’s been working for like five years. And that’s where I see the future. There’s a lot more hope for technical talent from the West – like the very best technical and creative talent. The actors themselves – the opportunities are the people who are pretty much the big stars. And that’ll change over time.
The other thing is that Chinese people – I had a lot of students who are now making projects and some of them are getting fairly successful or they’re developing some pretty big things. And this next wave of folks from here is very international. They’re very global in their outlook. So, they’re going to be making things that feel more like the United Nations versus one country.
Caryn McCann: OK.
Brendan Davis: So, that’s going to help. That’s going to happen too. So, I’m actually optimistic about co-pros in the long run. But it’s not a primary channel and that has to do with release dates in China. What you have to remember is that you could have the perfect – you could build the perfect co-pro from a Western point of view – in terms of elements. You could magically crack the story etc. etc. You’re still competing for a very limited number of release slots and yes co-pros are not subject to the quota the practical reality is that the government has actually tightened up the restrictions on how many foreign films or non-Chinese only films get screened every year.
You’re not competing against the quota but you are still looking for screens. There are all these blackout dates. You can’t get in a theater on Chinese New Year. About 15-20% of the year – you can’t be on a screen in the first place. So, you’re fighting a real uphill battle if that’s what you’re focusing on. I think it’s better to focus on a film that’s really for China that has some appeal to the West intrinsically, and organically. Or a Western film where you use some Chinese folks and maybe they even see it outside of China and you get the Chinese diaspora who’s watching. You increase your box office in your other markets because you’re especially attracting Chinese people who are relocated.
Caryn McCann: You’ve given us like four different pieces of advice there but let’s just because that’s my last question. My last question is what advice can you give to those aspiring to tap into the Chinese market? Let’s kind of tie the ribbon around that.
You said there is an opportunity in VFX and managing the pipeline. Focusing on films for China, perhaps you know hopefully they appeal to the West but that’s not the main goal. What would other advice in a nutshell give?
Brendan Davis: I could give you the short answer to your question would be to really make an effort to learn this market and care about this culture. If you approach this in a transactional way without a sincere interest in the culture and the people – you’re not going to succeed. So, you need to actually care about getting to know China and getting to know the people. This is not a transactional market. This does not work like the European film market or the U.S. You can’t approach this in a transactional manner. So, you need to approach this in a much more organic relationship, focused way.
Caryn McCann: Good advice Brendan. Lastly, would you like to tell the audience how to keep track of you or share some social media details or website links?
Brendan Davis: Absolutely, thank you for asking. I would love it if people would check out my podcast which is Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom all about foreigners who’ve come to China – like myself. And my website the blog for that is URL is https://www.crazyinagoodway.com.
Because I think that you have to be at least a little crazy to do this but hopefully it’s in a good way. And I’m in all the popular podcatchers if you search Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom you’ll find it. And you can also find me on LinkedIn I’m blanking on my URL but I’ll get it to you for your show notes. But if you search Brendan Davis China or Beijing, I think you’ll find me. And there’s a picture of my big fat head – so it’s easy to see.
Caryn McCann: (Laughs) Well, Brendan, thanks a lot. I’ve learned a lot. Thank you very much. I’m sure our audience has learned a lot too. Thank you for coming to the show today.
Brendan Davis: Caryn, I really appreciate you having me on and I think you’re doing a great show.
Caryn McCann: Oh, thank you. Thank you. And we’ll see you at the premiere.
Brendan Davis: Deal.
Caryn McCann: (laughs)
3 Key points:
Caryn McCann: I have three key points.
- Brendan compared Hollywood relationships to relationships in China. He said Hollywood relationships were more transactional and in China – it was more of a courtship that just seems to never end. But in terms of getting Chinese to invest in your project he did make this point: Even if you drink baijiu till 3 AM with some deputy mayor – it doesn’t matter. You may build that relationship but until the money is in the bank – financing is not real.
- Brendan cautioned about Chinese syndicated investments. He mentioned how one investor wasn’t putting his own money but syndicating the investment and ended up wanting a giant piece of the project. Also, because it wasn’t this one investor’s money – it couldn’t be moved offshore and ultimately the project didn’t go forward. As Brendan says – if the money isn’t in escrow – it’s not real. So, make sure your Chinese partners are transparent. Or find someone you implicitly trust dealing with the China-side of the production.
- In China, right now – it’s the director, not the producer that drives the project. So, if you’re shopping for your script –get a director first.
- China is looking to advance Chinese filmmaking. Technically China is already there. Creativity – it’s catching up to Hollywood. But as we all know – currently Chinese language films don’t travel that well. Brendan said if Chinese films are to travel they don’t have to be produced as a co-production. But somehow they have to magically minimize the language problem. Now if heard my interview with Larry Namer of Metan Development – he was told by the Chinese government to start shooting his Chinese projects in English. So, I believe you will see China wants to export their culture – shoot some domestic films in English to sell films more internationally.
- Brendan, on one hand, doesn’t think China-Hollywood co-productions are the holy grail as he calls it – mainly because they’re so hard to pull off. So, what can you do? Brendan suggests localizing your IP for China. I completely agree with this – in fact, I’ve taken it a step further and am now shopping for two of my projects as Chinese – domestic films. He added that even the perfect co-pro despite avoiding quota restrictions will still lose about 15-20% of screen-time in Chinese theaters due to China’s preferential treatment of Chinese domestic films.
- Another area of opportunity would be VFX. Now you need an expert and someone who has set up shop in China – hard to pull off. But you can always be like some pioneering spirits and just show up in China and sell your talents to studios as Sky Moore mentioned in our interview. He has clients who have done just that and they’re doing great.
- Regarding co-pros, I have an optimistic attitude – and even Brendan said the next wave of Chinese filmmakers have a more international outlook and they’ll be making things that look like a mini-United Nations versus one country.
The Asia-Hollywood Greenlight Podcast – Episode 12
Brendan Davis, VFX expert
Host: Caryn McCann
Twitter: @AHGreenLight https://twitter.com/AHGreenLight
GUEST: Brendan Davis
Podcast: “Big Fish in the Middle Kingdom”: https://www.crazyinagoodway.com/podcast-links/
Mentioned in the podcast:
Alan Watts: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Watts