China and U.S. Film Markets Produce Partnerships

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Producer Bochen Zhang shot by Sara Bezdrob

 

Last month, Chinese-based film companies Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Co. announced a $1 billion deal with Paramount. It comes one year after China media conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group purchased Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion. The trend for major Hollywood-China partnerships is growing, with large future investments promised as China is set to surpass the U.S. in box office receipts later this year.

“Chinese moviegoers are hungry for content,” said Hollywood-based Producer Bochen Zhang, originally from Tangshan, China. She grew up watching American movies like The Lion King and Titanic.

Zhang is typical of the artists and filmmakers who are now in demand as international partnerships drive the film industry. Zhang began her career in China working in commercial production for brands like MasterCard, VW and Procter & Gamble before entering the world of creative production.

“I started to become restless with the kinds of production we were doing,” said Zhang. “When I learned how important characters and storytelling were to every kind of media, that changed everything for me.”

When she won an award for her production work on the multi-award winning short film, A Part Apart, Zhang knew she wanted to move to Hollywood to gain the expertise and connections to be a part of the Hollywood-China film boom.

While Zhang was learning the ins and outs of the digital and film business, China’s influence in the world market grew. China became the worlds #2 film market in 2012, just ahead of Japan. Since then, China has added 10 new screens a day and has seen a 34% jump in box office revenues, according to a report last year from IHS Markit.

“Chinese audiences love American films, but they are ready to produce their own extraordinary content, too,” said Zhang.

Like many young filmmakers from China, Zhang came to Hollywood, first earning her MFA at the American Film Institute and later producing films lauded on the international film festival circuit. She helped produce Unremarkable, which was shortlisted for a prestigious BAFTA Award and Wonderland, which earned a “Jury Award” at UCLA’s MFA Director’s Spotlight, Zhang earned a “Best Producer” nomination by the TMC London Film Festival for her work on The Strangeness of Coming Home, a story of an American war veteran.

Zhang is now poised to be part of the estimated billions in digital partnerships between China and U.S.-based productions. “Chinese people have become a sophisticated audience,” said Zhang. “Digital content is a natural extension of that phenomenon.”

Late last year, Zhang helped to produce On Pilgrimage in a Jeep, a four-episode web series celebrating Jeep’s 75th anniversary. She led the production team from China across the U.S. on an off-road excursion through terrain like the Rubicon Trail in California.

The series was produced by The Bag Ladies Productions (Shanghai, Hong Kong and Bangkok) for the NYSE listed Chinese interactive auto platform, Autohome.com.cn. The site draws more than 93 million viewers per month. On Pilgrimage in a Jeep episodes garnered over 8.83 million views on the Auto Home site, and also streams on iQiYi, the largest online video platform in China, with more than 219 million users.

“I think the U.S. is still very aspirational for China. At the same time, China has built the capacity, technology and expertise to take on a bigger role in production partnerships,” says Zhang. “Being in the middle of that intersection is the reason I came to Hollywood.”

This year Zhang produced the concept film Virtual High starring Kylee Russell (Mississippi Damned, Jump In!) and Chelsea Zhang (Andi Mack, The Cheerleader Murders). Directed by Alexander Berman (App, Songs From The Tundra) and Camille Stochitch (Maria Bonita, Interstate), Virtual High is the story of teen adventures in a virtual high school.  

Last August, Disney Channel premiered Virtual High on their YouTube Channel, which has nearly one million subscribers. It earned more than 100,000 views upon its release. Disney Channel approved the concept and is now developing it into a digital series.  

Zhang is working to develop several independent films, currently in pre-production, in addition to a project with Netflix, Ultimate BeastMaster, that is a partnership with the U.S., China and four other countries. “With any project, my goal is to bridge this cultural gap that divides so many of us,” said Zhang. “The way I think that happens is through characters and stories, because that’s what connects all of us.”  

Zhang is a Hollywood-based producer and has guest lectured at American Film Institute and University of New Orleans.

 

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Actress Valeria Gonzalez travels the world doing what she loves

 

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Valeria Gonzalez, photo by Rudik Osorio

Valeria Gonzalez was born in Monterrey, Mexico, but her career has taken her all over the world. The diverse actress speaks six languages, and is completely fluent in three. Her cultural experiences both from her home country, and the many places she has been, help make her the extraordinary actress that she is, combined with innate talent, and a passion for what she does.

Despite working in some of the most beautiful and unique locations the world has to offer, Gonzalez remains humble. One of these spots was the island of Carloforte, Italy, when she shot the film Isola.

Isola tells the story of Martina, played by Gonzalez. Martina is of Italian origins, but lives in Madrid. She visits Sardinia to see her Italian grandmother. While on the island, she decides to conduct some video interviews on her late grandfather, Nonno Eugenio, who she was very close to. Unfortunately, the interviews are a disappointment when Martina discovers that those who knew her grandfather, especially as a young man, have very different memories from her own.

“The island is just stunning, and the people there are so beautiful,” said Gonzalez. “It was one of the best experiences of my life. While I was playing a complex and beautiful character going through such an interesting journey, I was also exploring a delightful island together with the wonderful people that helped make the film happen.”

The role required Gonzalez to speak Italian, which is among the six languages she can speak, including Spanish, English, Catalan, French, and some Swedish. Despite Italian not being her native language, and coming from Mexico rather than Italy, Gonzalez’s versatility as an actress shone through, and she was empowered by the character she was playing.

“Martina is hopeful. When she decides to interview her grandmother and other people who knew him, she gets very defensive towards her grandfather, since their view of him doesn’t fit the perception she has always had of him, being an incredible human being. She feels very disappointed when they keep making fun of him even if it is in a harmless way. She finally comes at peace when she realizes that her little cousin still thinks their grandfather was a good person,” she described. “I loved her journey, how she starts being so excited about her personal project, to then being disappointed and hurt when she finds out other people have a very different perception of her grandfather, and then finally she realizes her image of him might be only hers but it is strong and beautiful, and she won’t let that change.”

This message, and Gonzalez’s performance, resonates with viewers, and went on to be selected for the Botti du Scoggiu film festival in Italy. Gonzalez was excited and proud of their film for making it to the festival, but she always trusted the director of the film, Catherine Dewar, to make something exceptional.

 

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Valeria Gonzalez working on the film Isola

“Valeria is an extremely talented and inspiringly natural actress. She is always empathetic and open towards those she works with, generous in her work and in life. While working with a young boy their connection was evident, she really took the time to build a relationship with him and gain his trust. She enjoys improvisation and can manage challenges such as performing and improvising in a foreign language, such as Italian, the language of the film. She is adaptable, open and always enthusiastic about new projects. She is extremely hard working and always positive, a joy to have on set and a precious collaborator,” said Dewar.

 

Continuing her streak of working in some of the world’s most breathtaking places, Gonzalez then worked in Joshua Tree National Park while shooting the award-winning film Sexy Jalapenos. Although the film was set in a Mexican desert, Joshua Tree provided the perfect landscape for the setting.

Sexy Jalapenos tells audiences the story of a devout desert dwelling Latino family, whose harmony is disrupted by the arrival of their teenage daughter’s white boyfriend. Ramona, the teenage daughter played by Gonzalez, meetings her boyfriend in New York, and when she brings him to Mexico to meet her family, she finds herself struggling between her parents’ conservative rules and views of the world, some of which are difficult for her to dismiss, and the freedom that her boyfriend offers in their relationship. In the end, she decides to be brave and accept the consequences, whatever they may be, by choosing an adventurous life with her boyfriend.

“I read the script and really liked the struggle Ramona was going through. I also found it very comedic and I love working in comedy,” said Gonzalez.

The film went on to win the award for Best Directing at the School of Visual Arts Dusty Film Festival.

When shooting the web series Okupados, Gonzalez got to shoot in Spain where the series was set, she filmed in London for the film The Pick Up, and she just finished shooting in Tijuana for the upcoming film Jaloguin. Gonzalez is not afraid to cross borders to tell stories that she wants to tell, and audiences always can expect a treat when they see her name appear in the opening credits.