Small Village in Southeast China goes From Poverty To Stars and Glam

From poverty-stricken village to teeming production center, Chinawood features studios, backlots and even tram tours
By Anne Howard for Hollywood Today

chinawood-film-sets-draw-tourists-like-universal-studio-tours-in-us.jpg Chinawood film sets draw
tourists like Universal
Studio tours

A teeming production center with indications of closer kinship to Hollywood than Beijing has sprung from a tiny farming village in Southern China. The once-impoverished town of Hengdian is the new “Chinawood” where 5,000 pictures have been made in the last 10 year and shacks have been replaced with studio offices, backlots, soundstages and even tram tours for sightseers.

While there is not yet an Ivy Restaurant catering to agents and moguls, there are up to 18 films are being shot on some days on soundstages and the miles of picturesque forests, fields and lakes. While most of the films and TV shows are made for China, about 20% of them are considered international productions.

Chinawood is capitalizing on the skyrocketing costs of shooting in North America and Europe. Though all aspects of production are cheaper there, the key is in the massive workforce where an extra makes $2.50 a day compared to $100 in the U.S.. And while the communist country may in effect cheer the concept of labor unions in America, a union worker on a Hollywood production can cost more for a day than a Chinese counterpart earns in a month.

Studios have built hundreds of sets, which include a replica of the Forbidden City (100 acres) and have been home to Sino epics “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Hero,” according to press materials touting the locale to international location scouts.

“Labor is cheaper, all across the board. There’s no union. It’s a free hand for directors,” said Canadian producer Shan Tam during a break last year outside a dynastic palace set where she was shooting “Son of the Dragon,” starring US actor David Carradine.

Behind Hengdian’s rise is hometown boy Xu Wenrong, a confident 72-year-old multimillionaire who made a fortune manufacturing and exporting textiles, electronics, chemicals and pharmaceuticals. From a single lot, its brainchild Hengdian World Studios, has spread to a 25-square-kilometer area, almost twice the size of Beverly Hills. The local government has given him permission to expand tenfold.

Not only has he turned his village into a number one destination for film crews but also has a hot tourist attractions, complete with bus tours and visit to the sets, giving birth to a whole economy for the villagers, who were more familiar with poverty and hunger than lights, camera and action.

He decided against Beijing, the cultural center of China, and Shanghai, which had its heyday in film during the 1920s and ’30s, because both centers struggle with rising cost of living and water shortage,

“Beijing can’t compete with me,” said Xu, who was himself a poor farmer but now beams with the confidence of a Hollywood mogul.

Filming of “The Children of Huang Shi”, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, “was very positive and the surrounding scenery breathtaking” the actor stated at a press conference, he chuckled “even if after a while I could think of a few restaurants where I would have liked ordering from.” Culinary limitations aside, it seems that this small village under the leadership of a visionary will fulfill its Chinawood status in no time at all.

Besides a production location, the size of the Chinese market in terms of film-goers is not lost on American major studios either. All are vying to get a foot in the red-tape encrusted door with Warner Bros. slightly ahead. The first Sino-U.S. studio deal, Warner China Film was created by Warner, the State film unit China Film Group and the private Hengdian Group back in 2004. The new company makes films in the $1 million to $ 6 million range there, but more importantly for Warner, it’s a funnel for WB films into China.

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