June 23, 2013

U.S. films building links to China

By JULIE MAKINEN, McClatchy Newspapers

SHANGHAI - When you're competing for a role in a Hollywood blockbuster against 70,000 other people, the gloves have to come off. Or in Ludi Lin's case, on.

MOVIE-CHINA-TRANSFORMERS
click image to enlarge

Ludi Lin is competing for the role of “action guy” in an online casting contest for “Transformers 4” – a contest that was held in China to help promote the film.

McClatchy Newspapers

Given the chance for some major media exposure at the Shanghai International Film Festival, the muscular 28-year-old fledgling actor didn't hesitate. He donned a gray tank top, a jaunty charcoal vest -- and a matching pair of stretchy, long fingerless gloves that stopped halfway between his elbow and his armpit. Left bare: just his rounded deltoids and bulging biceps and triceps.

Unsubtle? Sure, but Lin knows a few well-circulated photos of his beefcake physique could put him over the top in an online Chinese casting contest to land a part -- known only as "action guy" -- in Michael Bay's 2014 giant-robot film, "Transformers 4."

"Right now, I think I'm fourth in the 'action guy' category," Lin said after mugging for the cameras at a news conference Tuesday for the Paramount Pictures film as one of six "representative" contestants. "It's cool because I'm just starting out in China, and a lot of people who are on the same list, they have a long list of credits. So I'm happy that the Chinese audience is willing to give me the interest and the time."

In all, four "Transformers 4" roles -- the others are "tech geek," "sexy goddess" and "cute girl" -- are up for grabs in China as Paramount seeks to cement the box-office prospects for the movie here. The contest is a way for the studio not only to add Chinese elements to the movie but also seed consumer interest in the film a full year ahead of its release.

According to Marc Ganis, whose Jiaflix Enterprises is helping to orchestrate the contest, more than 500,000 people have voted online for their favorite contenders, clicking 200 million times on photos, sample acting videos, biographies and other pages on the contest site.

The third installment of the franchise, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," sold more than $145 million in tickets in China 2011 even without significant Chinese plot elements, making it one of the top-grossing U.S. films of all time here. ("Dark of the Moon" did have several Chinese product placements, including Shuhua milk.)

China is now the second biggest moviegoing market, behind the U.S., and box office receipts grew 37 percent year over year in 2012. So the $200-million record notched by "Avatar" in 2010 could be within striking distance for "Transformers 4." 

LAUNCHED ABOUT six weeks ago, the casting contest drew about 70,000 entrants, including professionals and amateurs. Those ranks have been whittled down to 2,400. As of Tuesday evening, Lin was actually No. 5 in the "action guy" category, with 36,495 votes (the leader was Jiro Wang, aka Wang Dong Cheng, a well-known Taiwanese actor, with more than 133,000).

Lin, who was born in China but later lived in Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and the U.S., looks likely to advance to the next round of the competition. At the end of this month, the top 25 vote-getters will move to the final stage, in which judges including "Transformers 4" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura and casting director Denise Chamian are to put the contestants through some paces during a broadcast TV show in the vein of "American Idol."

English-language ability is a requirement to win a role, but exactly what "action guy," "tech nerd," "sexy goddess" and "cute girl" will do hasn't been determined, Ganis said, even though the film, starring Mark Wahlberg, began shooting in Texas earlier this month.

"There are quite a few Chinese elements that are already in the film, but the four actors and actresses have not yet been selected," Ganis said. "So we want to make sure the roles that they are given are roles that are best suited to their specific talents."

In addition to the four contest winners, Chinese star Li Bingbing has been cast in the film. Ganis said "Transformers 4" will shoot scenes this fall in Beijing, Hong Kong and perhaps other Chinese cities. The producers said they plan significant product placement for Chinese brands, starting with a massive dragon-shaped hotel-apartment-and-mall complex called Pangu Plaza near the 2008 Beijing Olympics site. 

UNLIKE THE filmmakers behind "Iron Man 3," who released a China-only version with extra Chinese characters and footage, Ganis and others involved with "Transformers 4" say all of their Chinese elements will be seen worldwide.

"There will be one version, the version Michael Bay wants the world to see," Ganis said. "The American version will be the version that is shown here in China, a single version."

"There is a meaningful China story line in the movie that involves quite a few Chinese actors and actresses," he added. "There's a number of six floating around out there, six Chinese actors and actresses. Actually it's quite a few more than that."

Given that China allows only 34 major foreign film releases into its cinemas per year, Hollywood studios are taking extreme care to ensure their movies are Sino-friendly.

In Paramount's new Brad Pitt starrer, "World War Z," for instance, a brief reference to China as the possible source of an outbreak that started the zombie apocalypse was changed to India, though it remains unclear if the film will land a release slot in China.

LeeAnne Stables, a Paramount executive in charge of marketing partnerships and brand integration, told Chinese reporters in Shanghai on Tuesday that the "Transformers" film was "a wonderful opportunity to bring the wonderful culture and the beauty of your country to theater audiences around the world," adding, "We're thrilled to be showcasing China within the film."

Lily Ji, 24, invited to appear at Tuesday's news conference as a representative contestant from the "sexy goddess" category, said she was thrilled that China's rising clout has opened up such Hollywood opportunities for performers like her.

"I don't care how much I would be paid," said Ji, who recently graduated from Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Arts, alma mater of Cate Blanchett and Mel Gibson. "It's just an opportunity to be a part of one of the greatest movies in the world. It's like opening a big door for me, for my future career as well." 

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