ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
Well, now to another American business venture getting a chilly reception overseas. "Musical Youth" is a remake of the hit American movie "High School Musical," adapted for a Chinese audience.
The project is Hollywood's latest effort to break into the fastest growing film market in the world, but as NPR's Louisa Lim reports, what made the film a huge success here appears to have been lost in translation.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
Unidentified People: (Singing) Together, together everybody (Unintelligible).
LOUISA LIM: Call it "Romeo and Juliet" for tweens or a winning money-making formula for the Disney Channel. "High School Musical" is on to its sequel number four. It's been done on ice, as video game, reality TV competition and stage show touring Nigeria and Hong Kong. Argentina and Brazil did their own movie remakes. And this summer, China joined the party.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MUSICAL YOUTH")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
People: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: China's "High School Musical" was touted as the first major Chinese remake by a Hollywood studio. Disney co-produced the film with two local partners. This allows it to bypass Beijing's quota system, which permits just 20 foreign films to be distributed in China every year.
The music was written specially, rap elements were added and a cameo by a favorite Chinese comic, but the film flopped. I watched it alone in an empty Beijing cinema. The ticket seller said they couldn't remember having sold any other tickets to the show during its Beijing run.
Strong domestic competition, bad timing and poor distribution were factors, but film critic Zhang Xiaobei says cultural reasons are also to blame.
ZHANG XIAOBEI: (Through translator) I think "High School Musical" wasn't very successful in China because it was overly Hollywood-ized. As remakes become more popular, the problem of cultural differences will become more marked.
LIM: A case in point: China's "High School Musical" wasn't actually set in a high school. It had to be transplanted to a college. That's because Chinese high schools involve such a huge workload, there's no way students could possibly take part in the singing contest around which the film revolves.
This movie may have bombed, but it's still at the forefront of what's likely to be a new trend. Independent producer Dede Nickerson says China's booming film market is increasingly attractive to Hollywood studios.
DEDE NICKERSON: China was a small market. So, only recently has the theatrical market improved rather dramatically. I mean, the box office has grown consistently. It was up 30 to 40 percent a year for five years preceding last year, up 60 percent last year and looks to grow 60 to 80 percent this year. So it's a dramatic increase.
LIM: That growth means China's own film industry is struggling to keep up with demand. Put bluntly, there simply aren't enough good film scripts around. And remakes do make sense, as Nickerson points out.
NICKERSON: The economics of making films here are terrific in terms of the cost. It's a good way for studios to brand-build as well. So it actually is a good marketing strategy for studios, and if the film works, obviously there's economic benefits to it, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHAT WOMEN WANT")
MEL GIBSON: (As Nick Marshall) What do women want? I know it has three syllables.
LIM: She herself is producing the next big-ticket remake, a Chinese version of "What Women Want." The original stars Helen Hunt as a career-driven ad exec and Mel Gibson as her chauvinistic colleague who gains the gift of reading women's minds.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)
Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).
LIM: The Chinese version features film star Gong Li and Hong Kong heartthrob Andy Lau.
NICKERSON: I think the film has a different kind of depth than the original has because of what is going on here right now and again that you didn't have a lot of these issues 10, even 20 years ago because there wasn't this thriving, commercial, go-getter mentality that's really so pervasive in society today.
CHEN DAMING: (Speaking foreign language).
LIM: In a cramped Beijing apartment, director Chen Daming edits the Chinese "What Women Want," which is due for release early next year. He says Chinese audiences tend to be negative about remakes. But with his star-studded cast, he's confident. His strategy to make the film more Chinese includes adding more father-son interaction, a virtual love affair, a satirical poke at ad agencies and honing the gender roles.
DAMING: What I want is to do is make the female character stronger than the original film. China is a little bit different because being a Chinese woman living in China is a little bit harder than in the States because you have to fight for everything.
You look at the Olympics. Who's winning all the gold medals? You know, women, our Chinese women winning all the gold medals.
LIM: So what do Chinese women want? Love and power, says director Chen. And Chinese audiences, he says, want more emotion, less analysis. Chen himself trained as a child opera singer before writing and directing two films. This is his first big commercial film and his first remake. But he's already thinking ahead.
DAMING: I would love to make remake of the Hitchcock films, "Strangers on the Train," "North by Northwest." That kind of movie I'd love to remake.
LIM: China's film industry may be relatively, but its ambitious moviemakers aren't afraid of dreaming big.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.