James Cameron on Chinese Filmmakers, Censorship and Potential Co-Production


James Cameron, director of “Titanic” and “Avatar,” among other well-known movies, visited Beijing in mid-April for the Beijing International Film Festival. The festival was screening the 3-D version of “Titanic,” which had recently opened in theaters here. More important, Mr. Cameron was here to meet with people in the Chinese film industry to talk about doing joint productions and getting greater distribution for his 3-D films, which use technology developed by Cameron Pace Group, or C.P.G.

China has a strict limit on the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in theaters here, although that number was raised in February when Chinese officials announced an agreement with Hollywood studio executives during a trip to the United States by Xi Jinping, the vice president and presumed next leader of China (and reportedly a fan of Hollywood World War II films).

On April 22, the day after his arrival in Beijing, Mr. Cameron talked about his projects and the Chinese film industry in an interview with The New York Times and The Economist. (The interview took place before it was reported that regulators in the United States were looking into whether American studios might have made improper payments to Chinese officials, so that was not a topic of discussion). Edited and condensed excerpts from the interview follow.

Q.
Can you tell us a little bit about your interactions with the Chinese film industry? I know you’re here partly to promote the technology and to see where the Chinese filmmaking landscape is in terms of using this technology.

A.
Not just filmmaking but broadcast. Everybody just assumes, probably most people know me internationally as a filmmaker, but domestically in the U.S. as co-chairman of C.P.G., most of our business is broadcast. And China has potentially this enormous 3-D broadcast market — unexplored as of right now, to my knowledge, and I just need to know more. I need to know more about it and find out if there are people here who believe as I do that this is where broadcast can and should be going.

Q.
Xi Jinping is a movie buff. He’s talked about American war movies. So are you meeting with him?

A.
I’m not saying anything about who I’m meeting with, but I am in meetings and explorations on a couple of subjects. One is 3-D, both for the filmmaking community and for the broadcast community. And these are very, very preliminary, from my perspective anyway. And the other one is a possibility of co-production here, possibly even to the extent of some kind of technology exchange — bringing over our 3-D technology and things like that. There are a lot of things I want to look at as possibilities. Because it’s such an exciting market that’s growing so rapidly. There’s a lot that I also have to know about – government restrictions and so on. That would apply to the co-production issues, with respect to content, censorship, content requirements, Chinese content and so on.

Q.
As everybody has already seen, you experienced a small taste of that with “Titanic.”

A.
Well, “Titanic” is actually censored less this time than it was in ’97. Because it was their second bite at the apple. It’s gotten much wider and we’re seeing it being less restrictive. So we’re moving in the right direction. The quotas for international films coming in now, it’s a higher quota, the percentage of revenue is higher, so everything is moving in the right direction. You see the market opening up. And I think that that’s having a beneficial effect in that it’s growing the exhibition market internally, if you look at how rapidly theaters are being built here. Eight a day, I’ve been told? Eight theaters a day?

Q.
Are you a fan of Chinese filmmakers? Do you have a few that you like?

A.
I think I like the ones that everybody likes, that we know in the West. You know, Zhang Yimou and, I can never remember, Chen Kaige. But I’m not a student.

Q.
I’m interested in storytellers that you admire. They don’t have to be Chinese. If you could talk a little bit about the films that you are looking to these days, whatever you find inspirational. …

A.
I don’t find my inspiration in movies. I find my inspiration in life – in the natural world, in daily life. There are filmmakers that come along that are quite iconoclastic. And that I’m in awe of, frankly. Zack Snyder’s “300.” I think that was a really revolutionary film, because it was a completely deconstructive form of filmmaking in a way that nobody had done before, other than maybe Robert Rodriguez. That’s inspirational to me. Zhang Yimou’s films are inspirational to me. I have to see them multiple times to really see how he’s doing it and what exactly he’s doing that seems to work so well. So as a fan of film, there are certain films that come along that are just stunning to me, and I’ll study them.

Q.
Who are you in awe of?

A.
I just gave you three examples. You know, there’s the old guard. You know, Spielberg, Kubrick and all that sort of thing. But in terms of new filmmakers, up and coming, I haven’t seen anybody that blew me away in the last year or so.

Q.
What about scripts that you’re looking at? Is there a project that you’re working on right now? Or subject matters or general areas of interest that you’re looking at?

A.
That’s interesting. I’ve divided my time over the last 16 years over deep ocean exploration and filmmaking. I’ve made two movies in 16 years, and I’ve done eight expeditions. Last year I basically completely disbanded my production company’s development arm. So I’m not interested in developing anything. I’m in the “Avatar” business. Period. That’s it. I’m making “Avatar 2,” “Avatar 3,” maybe “Avatar 4,” and I’m not going to produce other people’s movies for them. I’m not interested in taking scripts. And that all sounds I suppose a little bit restricted, but the point is I think within the “Avatar” landscape I can say everything I need to say that I think needs to be said, in terms of the state of the world and what I think we need to be doing about it. And doing it in an entertaining way. And anything I can’t say in that area, I want to say through documentaries, which I’m continuing. I’ve done five documentaries in the last 10 years, and I’ll hopefully do a lot more. In fact, I’m doing one right now, which is on this, the Deep Sea Challenge project that we just completed the first expedition. So that’ll be a film that’ll get made this year and come out first quarter of next year.

Q.
“Avatar,” of course, said a few things in terms of your world view, including on the environment. And here of course, it was interpreted differently as being about China. Some people online and fans took a kind of political overlay that applied here.

A.
Yeah, I’m not too aware of the nuances of that. Other than that there was speculation that it might be problematic for the government, seen as criticism of a resource-hungry nation. Except all the developing or developed nations on the planet are resource-hungry. So the same perspective was in Russia, Europe, Canada and the U.S. I got the biggest political blowback in the U.S., because frankly the U.S. is the most medieval right now when it comes to climate change and the role of business in compromising and devastating the natural world. Way behind Europe.

Q.
How far are you along in working on the “Avatar” sequels?

A.
We’ve spent the last year and a half on software development and pipeline development. The virtual production methodology was extremely prototypical on the first film. As then, no one had ever done it before and we didn’t even know for two and half years into it and $100 million into it if it was going to work. So we just wanted to make our lives a whole lot easier so that we can spend a little more of our brainpower on creativity. It was a very, very uphill battle on the first film. So we’ve been mostly working on the tool set, the production pipeline, setting up the new stages in Los Angeles, setting up the new visual effects pipeline in New Zealand, that sort of thing. And, by the way, writing. We haven’t gotten to the design stage yet. That’ll be the next.

Q.
Would any part of the sequels – I mean two, three, or a possible four – be done partly in China?

A.
It’s conceivable. You know, one of the things I want to explore while I’m here is the idea of co-production on those films, but it’s a slightly different case because they’re studio films. There were zero… I can’t say zero exteriors. We did one night in the parking lot next to the sound stage. But there were no locations.

Q.
So what’s the advantage of doing a co-production at all in China? I mean, your movie’s going to make money, you don’t need the financing….

A.
It’s a major market. Possibly within this time scope of these two films, certainly by the time of the third film, it may rival the U.S. domestic market, if not surpass it. And there are economic advantages with respect to the percentage of gross revenue that flows back. So that needs to be weighed off against what it would cost us to set up our capability here. We’d have to take our capability with us to do the virtual production. The 3-D production is easy. That’s flight-ready to go anywhere in the world, so that’s not an issue. When I say 3-D, I’m talking about the cameras. With my C.P.G. hat on, my Cameron Pace Group hat on, we can put fly packs anywhere in the world to support up to 30 or 40 cameras. We can do it right now. Mobile units and all that sort of thing. So that’s not an issue. That could come here easily, and that might be very beneficial to the Chinese resident film community because the crews would get trained up on this equipment. They would have access to cutting-edge stuff, so that’s partly how we sell our position. But we’d have to bring over our virtual production capability with us. And again, that’s mobile. We took it with us to New Zealand last time. So it’s all doable. It’s just looking at the numbers.

Q.
Some American businesses have expressed reluctance in doing technology transfer here in China because then they’ll lose the proprietary technology. And they feel the Chinese competitors might create products that compete with theirs in the market. You’re so closely associated with this technology, so I’m just wondering whether you have any thoughts on this?

A.
I think that there’s certainly always that danger. But we’ve found that people have tried to imitate us in the past and it usually comes to grief, because they can’t continuously invest in R.&D. So they’ll create a rig. Well that rig then becomes fixed in time at the moment they create it. We’ve got many, many clients across broadcast and cinema. So that allows us to continuously do engineering development of the next generation. And our generations are three to six months apart. Nobody can compete with that. So what we find is that our partners just say, “Look it’s better for us to just do business with you because you’re already ahead.” We’ve seen people buy rigs and then be mired three or four years down the line in that moment of technology, and we’ve gone four generations past that. If it’s embraced here and there’s a big enough market for it, there may be other companies that spring up. But you’re not going to be able to replace 12 years of experience overnight. So I think it’s a question of being first to market with quality and good, solid partnerships. And after that we just have to see where it goes.

Q.
Is it fair to say then that when you’re exploring the possibility of co-production, that includes the next one, “Avatar 2?”

A.
Yeah, absolutely. Sure.

Q.
You must have had people talk to you to give you a briefing on the censorship process, about how it works or how it’s affected certain films here. Do you have any general thoughts on that?

A.
As an artist, I’m always against censorship. But censorship’s a reality, even in the U.S. We have a form of it there. We used to have the Hays commission. We now have the M.P.A.A. ratings system, which is basically a self-censorship process that prevents government from doing it. But the economic imperatives are that if you get an R rating, the studio won’t make a film that looks like it’s headed toward an R rating, and if you get a R you’ve got to cut it yourself to comply with PG-13. So it’s really just a form of censorship indirectly.”

Q.
Do you consider that the same as Chinese censorship?

A.
You’ve got a little more choice in it. It’s not as draconian. But I can’t be judgmental about another culture’s process. I don’t think that’s healthy.

Q.
Did you talk to other filmmakers – your peers – about Chinese censorship?

A.
No. I’m not interested in their reality. My reality is that I’ve made two films in the last 15 years that both have been resounding successes here, and this is an important market for me. And so I’m going to do what’s necessary to continue having this be an important market for my films. And I’m going to play by the rules that are internal to this market. Because you have to. You know, I can stomp my feet and hold my breath but I’m not going to change people’s minds that way. Now I do feel that everything is trending in the right direction right now, as I mentioned earlier.

By EDWARD WONG

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