BEIJING — The first trailer for “Iron Man 3” debuted Tuesday, giving fans a glimpse of Tony Stark’s new armor, snazzy shots of his seaside mansion under attack, and a first look at Ben Kingsley as the Mandarin. One thing it doesn’t have: any hint of China.
In April, Walt Disney Co., Marvel Studios and Beijing-based DMG Entertainment announced with no small amount of fanfare their intention to make “Iron Man 3” a Chinese co-production. They talked about incorporating a Chinese angle into the script and said they expected to begin location filming in China in late summer.
“Adding a local flavor, and working with our new local partner, will enhance the appeal and relevance of our characters in China’s fast-growing film marketplace,” Rob Steffens, general manager of operations and finance for Marvel, said in a statement unveiling the deal. DMG Chief Executive Dan Mintz said at the time that the Robert Downey Jr. film would be “the first multibillion-dollar franchise to be produced between Hollywood and China.”
But with the May 3, 2013 release date fast approaching, and stateside filming — primarily in North Carolina — expected to wrap soon, filming in China has yet to begin.
A person familiar with the film’s production said that “Iron Man 3” fully intends to film in Beijing before the end of the year. Production has been delayed in part because of a sprained ankle suffered by star Downey.
But shooting in China does not guarantee a movie will qualify as an official “co-production.” That designation is significant, as it guarantees a release in the nation and means that a distributor can receive up to 40% of box-office revenue, compared to 25% maximum for films designated as imports. Past Marvel movies have been very successful in China — May’s “The Avengers” grossed $87.6 million there — so the difference potentially means tens of millions of dollars.
In a phone interview last week, Zhang Xun, president of China Film Co-Production Corp., which is part of the state-run China Film Group and oversees all official co-productions in the country, said it was looking doubtful that “Iron Man 3” would qualify and that no script had been submitted for approval.
“They have not applied for any co-production” status for “Iron Man 3,” she said. “If they have already finished filming in the U.S., it might be hard for such a movie to meet the requirement for a co-production. Because you cannot make a film with a few cast members from China and a few scenes in China and expect that to be a co-production.”
There are still numerous options that the producers of “Iron Man 3” could pursue before it opens in China, however.
For instance, “Iron Man 3” could apply for co-production status after shooting in China is finished, though that would be unusual.
“The rules are pretty clear that this is something that needs to be applied for and approved in advance” of shooting, said Robert Cain, a producer and veteran studio consultant on China who runs the blog Chinafilmbiz. “It doesn’t say anywhere in the rules that they can’t do it post facto, but I’d be very surprised.”
Another possibility, said the person close to the movie, is that China Film Co-Production may not need to give its approval to “Iron Man 3,” because DMG, a Chinese private company, is co-financing the picture.
Finally, Marvel and its partners could simply receive permission to film in China and not seek official co-production status.
Asked for comment, a Marvel spokeswoman said, “The suggestion that there has been an abandonment of the intention to film ‘Iron Man 3’ in China, or to pursue co-production status in China, is false.”
There is no iron-clad formula by which China grants official co-production status, though having Chinese actors, language and scenes are important factors, as is the amount of financial investment from the Chinese partner’s side. In recent months, authorities from China’s State Administration of Film, Radio and Television have increasingly voiced displeasure that some foreign filmmakers are including only token Chinese elements in their movies and seeking to win co-production status.
“SARFT has really in recent months been getting tougher in its rhetoric” on co-productions, Cain said. “It’s not that they’ve changed the rules, but that they’re saying they are going to enforce them.”
The issue has taken on extra political sensitivity as imported films have performed strongly at the Chinese box office this year, while Chinese films have flopped. In the first six months of 2012, foreign films accounted for 65% of box-office receipts. Since July, China has booked several similar U.S. movies in head-to-head releases in an attempt to limit their ticket sales. Still, through the end of September, imported films accounted for 59.5% of box-office revenue, according to Beijing-based research firm EntGroup.
China this year eased restrictions on the number of foreign movies it allows into the country and the amount of revenue that Hollywood studios can collect from box-office ticket sales there. On top of the 20 films previously allowed in each year under a revenue-sharing agreement, China agreed to permit an additional 14 so-called enhanced-format foreign films — those that are in 3-D or in Imax — into the country annually.
Zhang, of China Film Co-Production, said that she recently delivered a speech at Stanford University about U.S.-China film partnerships and co-productions, and the industry ties between the two countries.
“I think there are still many misunderstandings between the two sides,” she said. “Everyone knows there’s a huge market in China and everyone wants a share of this market, but you need to follow the rules when you enter a new market.”
– Julie Makinen
Times staff writers John Horn and Ben Fritz in Los Angeles and Tommy Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.
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