Visit any toy aisle in America and you’ll probably find an action figure based on a Hollywood movie, and there’s a very good chance it will stamped “Made in China” — but will that be that same phrase soon apply to Hollywood’s biggest action movies as well? Disney has just announced that “Iron Man 3,” one of the highest-profile popcorn films for 2013, will be a joint production with DMG Entertainment of Beijing. It’s a major moment in the American film industry’s intensifying courtship of China, which many industry experts say is on track to be the No. 1 movie market in the world by 2020 (it’s ranked third now, up from fifth a year ago).
Tom DeSanto is among the many Hollywood players poised to exploit that surging marketplace. The 43-year-old New Jersey writer and producer was a key figure on the first two “X-Men” films, and he wrote the treatment for the first “Transformers” movie and was credited on all three of the toy-based Michael Bay films. These days DeSanto is ramping up a co-production with Beijing-based Yi Shang Media and is mid-script on “Gods,” a tale of a superhuman pantheon that draws on China’s classic literature, but his more pressing focus is a speech on movie franchises that he will deliver at the Beijing International Film Festival next week. Hero Complex caught up with him on the eve of his trip.
HC: Recount your reaction to learning that “Transformers” was a stunning success in China.
TD: China is the future. We were No. 2 at the box office there, behind “Avatar,” with the first film. There’s nothing more gratifying than finding out that stories you’re setting up are translating across language and culture, that there are no boundaries. Each film we’ve released in succession has gotten more and more popular in China. It’s a great time to be a part of Chinese storytelling and Chinese cinema.
HC: But were you surprised your films were popular in China?
TD: I’d known that there were the toys there, but the success [of the film] in China is a little more surprising. I loved my Rock’em Sock’em Robots, but I don’t necessarily think that’s going to make a good movie. But I’m not that surprised that we were successful [in China]. Technology and robots, the soul beneath the machine as a story works well. The title was translated [into Chinese] as “Buddha’s Metal Guardians.”
HC: What are you going to say about U.S.-China co-productions at the upcoming festival in Beijing?
TD: I’ve been blessed by being involved in three projects that I wanted to do since I was a kid: “X-Men,” “Battlestar Galactica” and “Transformers.” It was fun to be the person that was key to pulling all of those things out of mothballs and awakening the sleeping dragon in each of them.… The key for me with franchises is that stories are great, but characters are king. When I was 10 years old, I didn’t care where Han Solo went next; all I knew was that I wanted to be his sidekick.
HC: How early in the process of a film franchise do you have to talk with the toy makers?
TD: I was the kid rushing home from football practice to play Dungeons & Dragons. It was always about the larger imagination mega-brands: “X-Men,” “Transformers” and now, hopefully, “Gods” are all stories where children can put themselves into the shoes of the character…. There’s this whole process, which is kind of magical. There’s nothing more fun than handing an actor their own action figure for the first time. They look at it like they’re 8 years old and they have this twinkle in their eye that says, “Is this really happening?” There’s a joy to it all.
HC: What’s your advice for Chinese filmmakers about learning to work with Hollywood?
TD: The first thing I’ll tell them is, you never want to chase success. You never want to chase money. You never want to chase all those trappings. You want to follow your heart. If you love small indie movies, then follow that and tell those intimate stories about two people around a coffee table talking about life and the trials and tribulations of everyday living. If you love period pieces, then make them magnificent and nuanced and rich and allow the audience to step into that time. And if you love big crazy franchise films that resonate around the globe, then follow that…. What’s interesting to me is the evolution of culture. What’s not really being appreciated is how far China has come in the past 10 years along the very slow-moving wheel of history. It’s a pretty epic leap. They’re moving out of their comfort zone and still trying to keep it together. I think we’re at an interesting point in history right now.
HC: How do you approach the source material on something like “Gods”?
TD: For me the key, in that Joseph Campbell sense of the word, is “What is the story saying about the human condition?” Having grown up with the X-Men and then finding myself with an opportunity to go after that and make it into a film, I had to take almost 40 years of mythology and condense it down into a treatment that could be shot in a two-hour movie. I think with “Gods,” it’s a similar situation. You’ve got a very complex group of characters with a large supporting cast, but what is at the heart of the story? For me, that’s what attracted me to the project — universal themes and a global voice on things like power and abuse of power and things like when does a person stand up and say, “Enough is enough”? When do they give up fear about being the nail that sticks out and gets hammered?
HC: What do you make of the challenge of storytelling in a country where the censors’ whims take the place of a transparent film ratings system?
TD: I’m a big fan of the saying “Walk a mile in somebody’s moccasins before you you judge him.” Sometimes artists want an immediacy in change, but it doesn’t happen that way. I think it’s up to the Chinese to decide for themselves. And I think they are. Look at the epic leap in China in the past 20 years. It’s probably the most explosive growth that any country has ever seen on the planet, ever. And they’re juggling tradition. In Western storytelling, it’s a little simpler. It’s good versus evil, and good wins. Through my reading of old Asian myths, it’s good battles evil and they have to find tranquility and they have to find peace. That’s something that we in the West could learn from. Every person is your student and your teacher. I’m learning a lot about myself from my visits to China. Hopefully, vice versa.
HC: Are there Chinese films you like?
TD: Having grown up in New Jersey, we’d get “Kung Fu Theater” on Saturday afternoon on television, so we’d watch these old Shaw Brothers movies coming out of Hong Kong. They were the chop-socky of that era. I became very familiar with “Five Deadly Venoms” or Sonny Chiba. I was looking at that form of storytelling, which is very different from Western storytelling. As I grow older, some of my favorite films are Chinese films. “Hero” is a masterpiece. I love that film. I’ve watched recent stuff, too, such as “Confucius” with Chow Yun Fat, or [John Woo’s] “Red Cliff,” to try to see what’s working and not working. At the end of the day it’s about trying to see what the audience is responding to and how do we tell stories that make them care. In “Red Cliff,” some things work and some things don’t. With “Confucius,” it was pretty to look at and he’s such a great character in history, but I’m not emotionally invested and it feels a little bit distant. That’s a problem when you’re trying to have the audience say, “Whose shoes am I putting on when I sit down with my popcorn? Whose journey are we walking through?”
— Jonathan Landreth
RECENT AND RELATED