Updated: Apr 16
Article 1 of our 10-part Screenwriting Staffing Industry Series will focus on writing for the Chinese market.
Scroll through Amazon. Google search SCREENWRITING BOOKS or ARTICLES. What will you find? Recycled, cliche’ literature that all talk about story. Everything from story structure, dialogue, character development, where your “inciting incident” should go, making a lovable character, understanding the 3 act structure -- you name it!
This is all great. Really, it is. Everything starts with a story. Hollywood has abandoned good stories; and it’s a shame. But I’m a firm believer you can either tell a story, or you can’t. You can’t teach it. But it’s always good for storytellers to brush up on it, especially during writers block.
Here’s the truth, though. Story is not enough. Not in today’s market. Every story has been told. And there are thousands upon thousands of good stories/scripts out there. Not to mention talented screenwriters. But why do these scripts and writers fail to make it? Simple: they are so focused on story that they forget film is a business, and with any business you must understand how it works -- inside and out.
This 10-part industry series will shed light on screenwriting topics that are often neglected in film school, books, lectures, and other online industry articles.
So, let's discuss the importance of writing for the Chinese film market, as well as incorporating Chinese characters into your script.
My very first interview on this blog (2014) was with legendary producer, Scott M. Rosenfelt, producer of classics such as: Home Alone, Mystic Pizza, & Teen Wolf (not to mention the 2017 Chinese-produced film, The Jade Pendant).
Here is what he had to say when asked about writing Chinese characters:
“OVERALL, THE CHINESE MARKET IS EXPANDING SO MUCH THAT IT WILL OVERTAKE U.S. BOX OFFICE VERY SOON. THAT MEANS THERE’S A VERY LARGE AUDIENCE THAT WANTS TO SEE FILMS, AND SINCE THERE IS STILL A QUOTA ON THE AMOUNT OF WESTERN FILMS THEY SEE, IT’S BETTER TO WRITE SCRIPTS WITH CHARACTERS IN WHICH THAT AUDIENCE CAN IDENTIFY. AT THE SAME TIME, IT IS NEVER BAD TO INTRODUCE NEW CULTURES TO OUR WESTERN AUDIENCE, TO BREAK DOWN BARRIERS AND PHOBIAS ABOUT OTHER CULTURES.”
Let’s start with some basic facts:
-- China is one of the last markets where the spec script can still sell for $1 Million. Don’t believe me? Google screenwriters Shu Huan and Qin Haiyan.
-- China boasts the highest box office revenue globally, but this should come as no surprise given its population of over one billion people.
-- While the USA bulldozes movie theaters, China builds a new one each day; currently, they have more movie theaters in operation than any other country. Did you know a Chinese company owns AMC theaters?
-- China has the world's most rapidly expanding film industry, with its box office projected to exceed RMB 200 billion, surpassing Hollywood, and making it the biggest film market in history. Hollywood has already acknowledged this fact, and it is high time that others do the same.
-- It is evident that big-budget films produced by American and Canadian studios tend to perform better in China compared to their home countries, as demonstrated by the success of movies such as "THE EXPENDABLES 3" and "TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION". This trend is supported by data from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which reported a 22-year low in movie attendance in the US and Canada in 2018. Unfortunately, the situation did not improve significantly in 2019, 2020, and 2021.
-- Due to strict regulations, Netflix is banned in China. According to Business Insider, iQiyi, the “Netflix” of China, currently has 106M subscribers; Netflix has 300M (both figures have been updated). But consider this: Netflix was established in 1997; IQiyi… 2010. In 2017, Netflix reached a deal with IQiyi to stream a selection of Netflix originals. As Netflix slowly (and cautiously) merges into the Chinese streaming market, more and more of their content will be Chinese-driven.
Why is this important to you as a screenwriter?
China’s booming film industry is relatively knew, so everyone is trying to catch up. Investors and producers in China have an endless cash flow to invest in films. What do they lack? Content. A majority of Chinese-based screenwriters (or aspiring writers) are still learning the craft. Most of these film tycoons are not in the business of waiting -- they want material now; material that sells.
That’s where you come in.
Have you ever watched Chinese films? If not, do so.
Chinese filmmakers have a knack for music, lighting, tension, drama, artistic camera direction, and brilliant production design. What do they lack? Story. Their stories tend to be a little over-dramatic. More so, they lack the skills to cross Eastern culture with Western culture. They nearly accomplished this with CRAZY RICH ASIANS, which grossed tons and tons of money.
From the top studios in China, to ultra indie Chinese filmmakers, their biggest hurdle has been making the jump from strictly Chinese films to Westernized films, specifically in the US market.
The film industry in China is experiencing a surge of interest, even among individuals without a background in film and television. This is due to the recognition that there is a high demand for content, but a limited supply. As a result, people are actively seeking out new material, particularly content from North American screenwriters.
Screenwriting Staffing often times gets requests focused on the Chinese film market. I’m always surprised by the lack of submissions sent to them by our writers.
Here are 4 that were posted in the last 6 months. (note: for the sake of space and to protect the privacy of the industry professional, the following leads are paraphrased.)
HORROR SCREENPLAY SET IN CHINA. We are in search for a horror screenplay. Budget is around 1M. Script MUST take place in a populated Chinese city.
CHINESE ROMANTIC COMEDY. Searching for a universal romcom with a Chinese cast. Film can be set anywhere. Budget will not exceed 5MM. Only features.
CHINESE FILMS ONLY. We are seeking a film that can be shot in China with Chinese main characters, but also involves American customs and characters. ONLY drama or comedy. Also, please have a few feature film credits under your belt. Compensation will be in the 5 figures.
LITERARY AGENT SEEKING SCRIPTS. Literary Agent with locations in Paris and New York seek Hindu & Chinese screenplays. The scripts must have a western civilization slant to it, since the film is being shot in the U.S. The script must take place in the present, and portray Hinduism and Chinese culture in a respectful way.
Let’s quickly breakdown these adverts.
The pro posting is not seeking a Chinese screenwriter based in China. They are seeking a screenwriter, based anywhere in the world, with a script that is focused around Chinese characters and culture, that can be properly marketed in both China and the USA.
Pay close attention to the three genres they were seeking: Horror, Comedy, and Drama. Horror is universal. So that’s easy to write for both markets. But comedy and drama are subjective.
When industry professionals post these adverts, whether it’s with my site or a competitor, 99% of the query letters that come across their desk do not follow directions. But what’s worse? Most are insulting.
Here’s an example of a query letter a Chinese producer forwarded to me earlier last year after posting for a moderate-budget horror script set in China, with an all Chinese cast:
“I have a horror script set on a lake in Northern Michigan. It has a small cast and can be made on an indie budget. All the characters are Caucasian, but they can be changed to be Chinese to fit your needs.”
So what’s wrong with this pitch?
Well, in short, EVERYTHING.
I surveyed 10 Chinese producers who have posted with me over the last 8 years.
The overwhelming response was simple:
Some American and UK screenwriters attempt to create Chinese characters that align with the stereotypes perpetuated by Western media over the past century. They often believe that by replacing a character originally written for a Caucasian or African-American with a Chinese character, they will appeal to Chinese audiences. However, in doing so, they often resort to portraying the Chinese character in a highly stereotypical manner.
Here’s the deal: Eastern culture is different than Western. I am by no means an expert in Eastern culture. But the way in which they live, work, socialize, view religion and politics, are very different than Western culture. It takes someone well-versed in both cultures to properly bridge the gap. The good news is, it can be done.
(Note: refer to Ghost In The Shell and the controversy with casting.)
Scott Rosenfelt, while doing an interview with me on my blog, nailed it:
“DON’T JUST DEAL WITH THE FOOD BEING DIFFERENT, THE LANGUAGE…WE’VE ALL SEEN THAT A HUNDRED TIMES. NO NEW NEWS THERE. FIND REAL STORIES WITH PEOPLE DEALING WITH ISSUES LIKE IN THE WEST, WITHOUT GETTING POLITICAL. SHOW HOW CHINESE ARE DIFFERENT BUT THE SAME…THAT’S WHAT I BELIEVE IN. “
To emphasize, American screenwriters often believe that simply changing a location or character to fit a producer's requirements is enough. However, this approach is not only lazy but also disrespectful. Moreover, it would necessitate hiring another screenwriter to revise the script.
Chinese producers, like any other producers, seek content that is ready for production. They are not interested in adapting an Americanized story, as they lack the time and motivation to do so.
Simply put: you can love it or hate it, but you better learn how to write for the Chinese market if you want to have a long and thriving career.
You may not be able to take a trip to China to learn and understand all that’s beautiful and rich about their country. But there are a few activities you can do to get the ball-rolling:
-- watch Chinese-produced films...
-- attend Chinese art exhibits...
-- attend plays and operas centered around Chinese culture...
-- read literature about Chinese culture, traditions, history, and beliefs….
-- attend as many Chinese (or Asian) film festivals you can (and there are plenty!)...
-- but most importantly, form friendships and relationships with those in the Chinese community to fully understand and embrace their culture.
This may seem overwhelming, but don’t panic. Chinese producers are not expecting you to ditch everything you are currently writing and focus on their market. But it is imperative to have at least one script in your arsenal that:
-- features a strong (preferably lead) Chinese character….
-- incorporates Chinese customs and traditions in a positive light....
-- set in China, or a good portion of it...
-- and lastly, and I can’t stress this enough, avoid throwing in cliché Chinese “product placement” ads/messages to appease Chinese investors...
Note: I’m NOT saying take your existing screenplay and change your clearly Romanian character, who plays basketball at Duke, and make him Chinese. But the next time you sit and write a screenplay, think about how you can incorporate a powerful Asian character.
If the aforementioned points are disregarded, the outcome could be disastrous, as demonstrated by "THE GREAT WALL," featuring MATT DAMON. The movie revolves around the most iconic landmark in China, with a Caucasian protagonist. The film was a box office failure in the US, highlighting Hollywood's inability to accurately merge both cultures. Additionally, the movie faced significant criticism leading up to its release, further exacerbating the situation.
OKAY -- now onto the really good news.
English-speaking screenwriters are in great demand in China, as the quality of Chinese screenplays often appears to be written by an eighth-grader. This is primarily due to the lack of screenwriting software available in the country.
Moreover, most Chinese screenwriters have only a basic understanding of English, resulting in syntax and grammar that may seem awkward to American producers. This creates significant challenges when Chinese and American companies attempt to collaborate on a film project.
China is also behind the US when it comes to screenplay story structure. The one thing Hollywood has always mastered is story. We know how to tell a masterful story from A to Z. This alone makes you highly desirable in the Asian film market. But this won’t last forever. As film continues to grow in China, more and more Asian writers are turning their focus to screenwriting. Universities in China are now teaching screenwriting as a major. Not to mention many Chinese Nationals are flocking to USC or UCLA to learn the craft. 15% of last year's Screenwriting Staffing's success stories came from Chinese-American writers.
OK, so you think you're ready to write a screenplay for the Chinese film market?
Not so fast.
Things to consider:
-- the Chinese government only allows a certain number of foreign films to screen at their theaters.
-- China has some of the strictest censorship laws. The list of topics and subjects to avoid would be too long to list in this short article. But here are a few topics to avoid: religion, politics, discrimination, pushing crazy theories and superstitions, and inciting hatred/war/violence. Again, the list is long, and some areas are grey, but be mindful of their censorship laws before writing.
-- passing the rigorous censorship process can be tiring and intimidating. Many screenwriters in North America and the UK team up with a Chinese producer to help guide them through the process. So this might be something to consider after completing your script.
FYI: I was hired to pen a romantic comedy feature screenplay for Maeya Films in 2018 called "The Cupids". My job was to take a Chinese script written in a WORD document and turn it into a professional American screenplay that can appeal to North American audiences. But... guess what? We are still waiting for government approval as I speak.
FACTS ARE FACTS.
Ready Player One and Pacific Rim: Uprising and Tomb Raider had bigger turnouts in China than in the US and Canada combined. According to Variety and Market Watch, The number 1 film in March of 2018 wasn’t Disney's wildly-successful blockbuster film BLACK PANTHER, but rather Chinese-produced OPERATION RED SEA. This news shook the entire landscape of the film world.
Cannes Film Festival has always been one step ahead of the game. In 2018, they selected Chinese-produced ASH IS PUREST WHITE to complete for the prestigious Palme d'Or. The film also has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, proving China is taking “story” more serious.
China is not the only Asian country taking the film world by storm. Japan, South Korea, Republic of Singapore, and India are all global leaders in cinema.
In 2017, an Indian production company (Cine Productions) produced my low-budget indie feature, AN ADDICTING PICTURE. which is now on Amazon. I was also hired to turn a short script into a feature script (Dark Waters) for an Indian producer./company (Blue Life Productions).
While not Chinese, it is Asian: PARASITE. You know, the Oscar-winning South Korean film that swept the Oscars.
Times have changed, and American producers are NOT knocking at my door looking for me to pen their next great idea -- no, it’s all coming from producers in Asia.
P.S. Facebook (and other social media apps) are banned in China. Skype is not banned, but not popular. Wechat and QQ are the preferred means of communication. My experience with working with Chinese producers, whether it’s for my own personal work or for Screenwriting Staffing, is I have yet to find a producer who has not asked me to communicate with them through Wechat.
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Need your screenplay translated? We can help: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/screenplay-translation
A good portion of this research came towards the end of 2018 and the early part of 2019. 2019 was a monster year for China. 2020 is expected to be even better (assuming the coronavirus outbreak can be halted, as some films have already been put on hold).
Are you an industry professional or buyer searching for a Chinese screenwriter or screenplay? Post here fore free: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/industry-professionals
Join Screenwriting Staffing for free today: www.screenwritingstaffing.com/sign-up-free-membership
Check out China's top films of 2019: www.cinemaescapist.com/2019/12/best-chinese-movies-2019
Check out last year's top Asian films: www.imdb.com/list/ls042336912
References from article:
Original article with Scott Rosenfelt: https://thebackstoryscreenwritingstaffing.wordpress.com/2014/09/15/interview-w-scott-rosenfelt-one-of-hollywoods-most-successful-indie-producers-some-credits-include-home-alone-mystic-pizza-teen-wolf-screenwriting-staffing
Learn about investing, gaining credits, or joining our team on DE GRINGO A LA TUMBA [www.screenwritingstaffing.com/gringo].
This article was written by:
Jacob N. Stuart is the Founder of Screenwriting Staffing, an online community that connects screenwriters and screenplays with film and television entertainment professionals. Since 2013, Jacob has helped facilitate over 250 success stories (sales, options, hires, and representation), most notably a Christmas movie produced by Hallmark in 2017. Here is a small list: www.imdb.com/search/title/?companies=co0524287.
Jacob is also an award-winning and produced screenwriter, with over a decade of film experience. His films have been screened at theaters across the globe, as well as distributed traditionally through dvd/blu-ray. He currently has 3 films (2 features, 1 short) on VOD. He holds a Bachelors in both Film and Entertainment Business from The Los Angeles Film School.
For more on Jacob:
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