Iron Man 3: Earning the Blessing of Chinese Authorities Without Formal Co-Production Status

The conventional wisdom is that there is only one safe route for producers from the West into the Chinese film market - and that route involves ceding a certain amount of control to a Chinese partner to qualify as an officially-approved Chinese co-production.

As recounted in a March 8th, 2013 Wall Street Journal article (based in large part on the reporting of Robert Cain), Disney's China division and Marvel Studios may have found a new route into China - ignoring the official motion picture co-production process (where US companies take on a Chinese partner and agree to unfamiliar hiring and creative practices in return for a pass around the quota system that currently limits access to mainland Chinese theaters to just 34 non-Chinese films a year).

What is the new route into China that Disney and Marvel are pioneering?

Apparently they're being respectful of the Chinese market and bureaucracy in ways that make doing business with Hollywood very attractive to the Chinese authorities - even if the film wasn't officially submitted for co-production status.

For example, Disney and Marvel decided to partner with Beijing-based DMG Entertainment - reducing some of their own financial risk, while apparently holding onto enough creative and financial control to make the overall deal worthwhile. So, without going through the government formalities, Disney and Marvel have instead picked a strong business partner - with connections and experience to augment their own growing knowledge of the Chinese market - to safely navigate the political and cultural waters where other recent productions have foundered.

The film is not safely home yet, but Iron Man 3 "is already getting big play in China, where officials have allowed [Disney and Marvel] to promote the film for the past year. Typically foreign studios [are] only allowed to promote their films in China a few weeks prior to the their release, [China film business consultant Robert] Cain said, noting that “Iron Man 3″ may even be released in China first. The film was [even] promoted on China Central Television’s annual Lunar New Year’s Gala, the country’s most-watched TV event."

What's the key reason for all this attention for a film that didn't follow the normal procedure for films shot in China?

In addition to partnering with DMG, there are probably several moves that helped Disney and Marvel to get to this point:

First, as the March 8th, 2013 Wall Street Journal piece notes: "The Chinese government has recently pinpointed 3D as a segment of the film industry in which it aims to develop strong domestic players. Officials are eager for local studios to pair up big budget Hollywood companies to learn and duplicate successes to propel China’s name and culture overseas."

Second, large parts of the film were shot in China.

Third, the film includes Chinese stars Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing (in "complicated" and non-stereotypical roles) appearing prominently beside Hollywood stars Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Putting all the pieces together couldn't have been easy. But the Hollywood producers of Iron Man 3 have apparently found a new route to the East.

Let's see if other explorers from Hollywood follow...

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