Black & Cameron's Take on a Bustling Market|
Shanghai production shop takes
a long-term view of the China market
while positioning itself for future growth.
Tao Wright is a partner and Executive Producer in the Shanghai-based production company Black & Cameron. A native Australian, he’s been in Shanghai for the past three years, having founded the production company with fellow EP Christine Zhang Min after having produced jobs in China with both local production houses and those based outside the market. The brands that Black & Cameron have produced broadcast work for include Danone, Mars and Volvo, with directors such as Gerard De Thame, Ian Sharpe and Richard De Aragues. His goal at Black & Cameron is to build a production company based on producing great work for some of the top brands in the Chinese marketplace and working with the local offices of major multinational agencies. Already Black & Cameron has shot for agencies such as Y&R and Nitro, among others. He spoke with SourceEcreative about the subtleties of the Chinese market for directors, and some of the challenges facing TV commercial production in China.
What was the market like for production when you first set up shop?
There were a lot of people working in commercials who had been here for a long time and had put down roots—not a lot of foreigners, mainly Taiwanese and local Chinese. Most of them are trying hard to do a good job and to develop all the right standards and business practices.
Has Black & Cameron teamed up with shops in the US, UK or Europe to produce jobs for the Chinese market?
We generally don’t do co-productions. We have a small roster of directors we represent, as well as access to lots of other directors whom we work with from time to time. Co-productions with Western companies can present challenges, usually because these companies don’t understand how the local market operates. We’ve done some production service work, and have worked with other production companies when we’ve needed to shoot overseas. But here, everything depends on the relationship. As Westerners, we have a pretty good success rate in China. The issue is often that Western-based production companies working in the China market don’t understand the agencies’ limitations and expectations, nor do they understand our expectations or limitations.
What are they?
There’s a number of them. Most of the agencies we work with are of a certain size, and these shops often bring in their own people from overseas, so their expectations are as high as it is anywhere in the world. And now you’re getting quite a few experienced people coming through the China market. But the local end of the business—the people on the ground actually doing the work in production—they haven’t been working that much with foreigners.
Directors from overseas are used to having a high level of creative input on the work. Similarly, we’re a production company that usually makes a pretty significant contribution to the work we do. We give our clients recommendations and tell them when we don’t think something will work. That process succeeds if we do it in a way that’s a bit more passive than confrontational. But often overseas companies or directors will do this in a way that’s more confrontational, and it doesn’t work so well.
How does Black & Cameron work with directors? And how is it commonly done here?
There are lots of different models here in terms of presenting directorial options to clients. There are quite a few shops that just represent their own directors. They generally don’t deal with anyone else, and when they do it’s out of necessity. There are also people who are sort of go-betweens—they go to agencies, sell their directors, recommend the production company and take a commission. They don’t even get involved with the job.
Our goal was to operate in the traditional production company manner, representing a good slate of directors who complemented each other’s talents and specialties. And I’ve sort of got that built now—we have a number of directors we work with regularly who specialize in a specific category. They don’t get all the jobs, obviously, but our regular clients like working with them. We also have access to directors around the world.
What do Chinese agencies look for in a director?
It’s a bit of a combination. For example, we tend to only work on bigger budget assignments. Generally, foreign directors will only do the bigger budget work. And if that’s what they’re doing, then it means they’re being hired by an agency that’s spending a bit more than they usually do. They’re looking for someone who has experience with that board, as there’s a certain amount of safety with that.
Experience is next—if the director hasn’t shot the kind of board they’re working on, they’ll need to at least have done a certain amount of good work. The next quality they’ll be looking for is what the director can add to the script. Clients here are not huge risk-takers. They’re looking for someone who’s going to be able to do the board and who might make it better than it already is. Much of the creative here tends to be rather mainstream, so it can benefit from what a good director can bring. And the directors who work in China typically can take an average storyboard and make it above average. And since they usually don’t speak Chinese, typically what you’ll get are visually-oriented storytellers.
Is that because they can’t get into the nuance of performance and dialogue?
Well, performance is seen separate from dialogue here, ironically—it’s seen as something that can transcend language. I’m reading a book by Milan Kundera called “Immortality,” and in it the author describes a scene in which an older woman is walking away from a swimming pool and she shoots a glance back at the attractive young pool boy. And as he puts it, even though she’s older, the look she gives is that of a flirting teenager. The point is, the gesture is the same across every culture, even if the language is subtly different.
So in performance, a director can explain the reaction he or she wants the audience to have, but in order to evaluate the reading of a line of dialogue, you need to be able to speak the language?
Exactly. So it’s an interesting insight in the way that Asia or China looks at performance. It’s not just dialogue. And so quite often we get boards that would be good for foreign directors that require some very complex performances, very nuanced. Take comedy, for example. Comedy is tough, no matter where you are in the world. Often agencies here will put up a local Chinese or Taiwanese director against an overseas director on a comedy job, because the overseas director may have comedy work on his reel that’s similar to the nuance they’re trying to achieve. So it’s not just the visual storytelling that works for directors here, it can be their strength in directing performance as well.
What’s important for directors who want to work here to keep in mind? What do you tell them about coming here to shoot with Black & Cameron, or with other Chinese production companies?
There’s a different set of criteria for when you’re dealing with agencies or production companies. When dealing with agencies, most likely you’ll be working with someone who’s shot with an overseas or foreign director before, because they’ve got to be of a senior level to be working on a job that would have the kind of budget it takes to bring in a foreign director. So we’re not usually working with someone who doesn’t know English. And in the event that they don’t, they’ll at least have worked with someone before who’s a foreigner.
But even then, the way you’ll communicate with agencies is different. Anyone who’s worked in a foreign country understands the frustrations of working in one. Just getting around can be frustrating enough. Communications are slower. Things take longer. We can get shit done here a lot faster than we can in the West, people here work twice as hard, but it takes longer to communicate. So there’s a different allocation of time, if you like: You need to take your time and be specific about something and make sure you get it right, rather than try and race through that bit and get to the shoot, because what’s really key comes before the execution.
The second thing is that the agencies here, unless they’re an incumbent or they’re part of a globally aligned account, are often not on a retainer basis with the client and many times they’ve just been called in to do this job. If they do it well, they’ll get additional business. So they’re in a situation of trying to please their client even more so than if they’re an incumbent agency. And that can set up a lot of the tension, the creative control, all the kinds of questions you have when you first work with an agency that relate to how much input can you have on a board—what sort of director can we bring in, can we bring in someone who’s got a very strong creative background, or do we bring in a shooter to just execute this job? Those sorts of issues are all relative to what kind of financial position the agency’s in with the client.
Another thing that directors need to know is that when they arrive, they’re considered gods. Everyone thinks the director will solve everything. And this is where the co-production and support side becomes vitally important, because the director is given all this responsibility. But if something should get screwed up, then they think, ‘Ah, the director, he’s useless.’
It can damage their reputation?
Instantaneously. One director I did a job with, I had a lot of trouble convincing the agency to use him because he’d done another job with a different production company that was an absolute disaster. And these problems were not his fault, they were production failures, but there was no way to work around them.
Is the corps of local directors getting better?
The best directors here want to make films. They’re not that interested in advertising. They’re getting very good in terms of feature films, but in terms of advertising, the budgets they get when they do spots is so tight, they just do what they have to do. The budgets don’t allow for things like an extra day’s shoot or better talent, so the work reflects that.
What’s the production support like there? In terms of post production, visual effects, all the other thing you need to make good film? Is the structure in place, or are you flying to other markets consistently for this expertise?
For the kinds of jobs that we do, where the budgets are higher, then the expectations are equally higher—in these cases, yes, we’re generally travelling overseas for these services. I fly to London a lot, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, etc, for various specialties. The thing to remember about China is that, at this point, much of these services are a rung below what you’ll get in more mature filmmaking communities. Whether it’s the gear or the software, it’s not at that top level that you can get elsewhere. For example, it’s really hard to finish a job in HD in China at the moment. There are just a few places that do it. And major effects work, which is an important part of the finishing process, is hard to do here. With telecine, there are only a few transfer systems here and they’re primarily for the feature film industry.
Across the board, there is enough post production capability here to do a job. If you want to put a team together, you always can. But there’s not a great depth.
Is the quality increasing on an ongoing basis?
Definitely, but there are still lots of complications. The big production toys are not available here. Same with post. You don’t get that high level, but it is improving.
What about some of the bigger effects and post companies, are they thinking about the China market?
They’re all trying to figure out how to do it. But everyone is here; they’re meeting with people and checking out the market all the time. I hear about them every single day.
What’s the outlook for them?
It’s not as easy as they think. Even for production companies, it’s not that easy. Some of them that are coming here are looking at it as a long-term investment, understanding that they might have to take a hit for the first couple of years while they get established. And there’s a talent factor, too—who among the top artists and operators are going to want to come and live in China, if they’re living in London? But if the world economy stays as messed up as it is now, then maybe we’ll start to get the best people coming here, since we might finally be able to pay for them.
Is there a lot of work there? What’s the volume like for you? The impression is that China is exploding, especially compared with other economies that are in recession.
There’s so much work coming through here, it’s ridiculous. But there’s very little of it that can afford foreign directors. And it’s usually very good directors that are getting this work—they’ve got to have a strong reel with really good work, and on top of that have to fit the right brands and categories. And there are not usually that many jobs in those categories, since they tend to be higher-end products—cars, stuff like that.
And the clients here, they’re not increasing their budgets—if anything, they’re cutting them back. What they’re trying to do now is achieve a Western standard. They see these show reels, they look at the spots and say, ‘We want ours to look just like that.’ But they won’t or can’t pay for the full crew—that spot that they’re looking at looks the way it does because they had a fantastic art director, an effects team that did tons of research and tests before they shot the thing and the post house had a decent budget. And everything that they have available here is a level underneath that, in terms of budget and quality.
In our case, for Black & Cameron, we’re not making that much in terms of margins, but our theory is that, in a year or so, the money will come back into the market and we’ll have a showreel that will be that much better than anyone else’s. That will help ensure that we’re in the bidding for all the top jobs. What we’re doing now, the investments we’re making, is really about making a mark for ourselves.
Chapter 1: Black & Cameron's... Chapter 2: Agency Producers... Chapter 3: Directors Say... Chapter 4: China Showcase...