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Odd Hollywood Jobs: US-China film 'ambassador' (video)

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The Chinese movie-going audience will be worth $5 billion by 2015, and Hollywood wants in on the action. It's Peter Shiao's job to help be their guide.

This is one in a series on Odd Hollywood Jobs — not acting or directing, but rather the tasks you haven't heard of. You can read other segments in this series at the links below the story.

Back in the day, performers used to ask whether they could take their act on the road by asking, “Will it play in Peoria?”

But in 2013, it’s now Hollywood out there asking, “Will it show in Shanghai?"

And it's Peter Shiao's job to help be a guide.

“As you look at the growth of the Chinese market, box-office-wise they’re going to surpass North America within five years," he says.

Shiao is the CEO and founder of the production company Orb Media group and the head of the U.S.-China Film Summit. 

In addition to making films, he also acts as an ambassador between the two countries' film industries. And that partnership is worth a lot of money: The Chinese audience is estimated to be worth $5 billion by 2015.

“That’s going to cause a major shift in how business is done, so we know how to work with that reality," says Shiao.

One piece of insight he gives is what works for Chinese audiences and what doesn’t.

For example, take an action film high on explosions like "The Avengers" or a high-budget romance like "Titanic," and you’ve got a blockbuster in Beijing. (Story continues below the Chinese-subtitled "Avengers" trailer window.)

But make a movie with cultural faux pas or insensitivities, and your film’s chances overseas are sunk.

“Right now if you look at current Hollywood movies, there’s not too many reasons for Chinese audiences to be excited about Hollywood movies," says Shiao.  "They don’t reflect any level of accessibility to any average Chinese person.”

What didn't work

Here’s a movie Shiao says didn’t work: M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 film “The Last Airbender.”

The live-action film was based on a hit Nickelodeon cartoon series. It’s set in a world influenced by Asian culture and martial arts. And it’s about a boy named Aang, born with the power to manipulate the elements.

"By the time [it came] to casting, they made every Asian character in that story Caucasian, and then they decided to make all the bad guys in that movie Asians," says Shiao. "Here’s a potential tentpole franchise that you can use to connect the world, and it didn’t.” (Story continues below trailer window.)

To pitch your tent in China, you also have to win over some tough critics: the Chinese government.

“I think one of the things when people think about China, they think about regulations. How do you dance with the regulatory barriers?” says Shiao.

And you need to take care not to step on some sensitive toes: Only 34 foreign films can be shown in the country every year. That’s tough competition.

To help make the cut, Shiao educates American filmmakers on how to make movies that attract Chinese audiences. But at the same time, he’ll advise them on how to get a thumbs-up from the censors.

“Certain freedoms of storytelling and expression that is here is not there," says Shiao. "So when that is taken from you, you don’t know where to push and where to let go."

But as much as Hollywood needs China at the box office, China’s growing film industry needs L.A., too, for the know-how to make them a worldwide player.

L.A. expertise

“There’s global distribution channels, there’s marketing, there’s a wealth of information that’s been contained here in Hollywood that’s been building for over a century, whereas China is new to the game," says Shiao. "China needs all kind of expertise.”

Shiao helps Chinese filmmakers connect with L.A. screenwriters, directors and more who have those skills they need to develop.

It’s all part of his job as cultural matchmaker.

And when he’s not counseling studios on both sides of the Pacific, Shiao makes his own movies that, coincidentally, also bridge cultures. Like an action film currently in production called "Legend of 18."

“Kuang Ju who is a warrior monk who just emerged from a very, very prolonged meditation deep in the mountains of China," explains Shiao,."And he’s meeting his ancient nemesis and former best friend Joey Sawyer, who’s an American mixed-martial arts fighter being released out of prison.”

It’s an apt metaphor for East meets West. And if this film – coproduced in the U.S. and China – is a hit, Shiao says it could blaze a trail in how more movies make it to your theater.

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