Daniel Zhao - filmmaker in China

BEIJING— He went to Hollywood High, his mother is a scriptwriter and his father an actor. Nate Boyd seemed destined to join the L.A. film industry, but after the circus of auditioning while he was in high school, he grew disillusioned. “I’d queue up with 300 people for one small part. The casting directors would look at five people at a time. You were just a number,” he recalls. A couple of ad jobs and a few roles in student films aside, Boyd’s acting career seemed over before it had begun.

That was before he came to China. In 2006, while on an exchange program at Beijing University, he was asked to play a missionary in a reenactment scene for a documentary. Conditions on set were far from glamorous (he had to share a dormitory with 12 other actors), but he was filming on location in Tibet and enjoyed the adventure.

Boyd’s acting career has come a long way since then. Now living in Beijing, the 30-year-old commands a rate of $1,200 a day, for mostly Mandarin-speaking roles in Chinese television dramas. As an increasing number of Sino-American co-productions are formed, he is landing more English-speaking parts in feature films. In Jackie Chan’s “Chinese Zodiac,” due late this year, he plays an auctioneer, and he recently shot a scene alongside Adrien Brody for “1942,” in post-production.

He’s joined a lively community of ambitious showbiz expats tilling fertile soil here. Cooperation between the Chinese and American film industries has snowballed in recent years, with “Iron Man 3” only the latest in a long string of co-productions. In the last year, Disney, DreamWorks and Relativity have all formed permanent partnerships with Chinese media groups, and the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda has just announced its acquisition of American cinema chain AMC.

Meanwhile, the likes of Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Kevin Spacey are appearing in Chinese films. While these stars have made passing appearances, the increasing entwining of the industries has led to a small but growing demographic of Western film professionals, like Boyd, making China their home.


They are drawn here by the chance to participate in a young, optimistic industry that is only just beginning and though chaotic and tough to navigate holds lots of promise and the chance for people to reinvent themselves. Compared with oversaturated Hollywood, it is also less competitive. Foreigners find their Western training better valued, and although they may make less money, what they do make stretches further.

But the inchoate nature of the industry also means that contracts and on-set rights are not up to U.S. standards. The lucky few find a talent agency or company willing to sponsor them for a business visa, but most try to sneak by on a tourist visa or go through expensive, dodgy agents to secure a business visa. It’s a situation that’s become even more precarious in the last month thanks to the Chinese government’s announced crackdown on illegal foreigners.

While Boyd, for example, relishes the chance to work with Brody, he regrets that the parts he plays in Chinese TV series are often limited. “There are two roles for foreign guys: either you play a military officer during World War II or a study-abroad student chasing a Chinese girl,” he says. “She of course rejects you because you don’t understand her culture and instead chooses the Chinese guy,” says the easygoing actor, now married to a Chinese woman, and laughs.

Kara Wang, on the other hand, confronted a similar frustration in Hollywood. “The problem in L.A. is that you don’t see Asians be the lead unless it’s an ethnic film,” says the Chinese American actress, 23, who grew up in Diamond Bar. “I was either auditioning for the token Asian girl role or I had to be the sexy, kick-ass, kung-fu chick that looks good in latex.”

Fluent in Mandarin, since relocating to Beijing last summer she has played a wide variety of roles, including a lady-in-waiting in a historical period drama (“a real challenge,” she says, “it was like doing Chinese Shakespeare”) and a fashionable Chinese gossip girl in a popular series. She’s worked with leading director Chen Kaige on “Caught in the Web,” which comes out next month in China, and acted opposite Bill Paxton in the upcoming co-production “Shanghai Calling.”

But she had to resign from the Screen Actors Guild because the organization prohibits members from taking nonunion work and there are no unions in China. She has also had to say goodbye to the benefits that SAG membership entails. “The whole eight-hour rule, lunch breaks … in China, all that … flies out the windows,” she says.

Western actors like Wang and Boyd can find themselves working on Chinese productions for up to 24 hours at a time. Worse still, while in L.A. actors are often paid by the hour, in China they are usually offered a lump sumwith no guarantee of how much time they’ll be needed on set. Even when working on co-productions, if hired here, they are considered “local talent” and are paid local rates.

For Wang, this is a price worth paying. “I’ve auditioned for people that in a million years I never would have been able to meet in L.A. I got to the last round for a part in Keanu Reeves’ ‘Man of Tai Chi.’ There’s a relatively small pool of English- speaking actors out here. But in L.A. everyone in the city wants to be an actor, so the competition is out of control.”

As Wang points out, competition in L.A has become even fiercer in the gloomy financial climate. “People would rather invest in the fourth season of an established series than take a risk on something new, which means it’s harder for new actors to get their foot in the door. When I speak to my friends back home about what they’re going through,” she adds, “I’m so grateful I’m in Asia.”

It’s not only actors who are being lured eastward by the promise of jump-starting their careers. With more than 500 movies shot here annually, there is huge demand for Hollywood expertise from producers and directors to set designers and visual effects technicians. It is hard to establish just how many of the 600,000 foreigners who now live in China are working in the movie business, but it is clear numbers have shot up in recent years. One casting agency claimed to have more than 1,000 English-speaking actors on its files, and a producer estimated that the number of foreigners working in the film industry has perhaps doubled in the last five years.


China-born Daniel Zhao grew up in Hacienda Heights and, after graduating from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 2009, started directing commercials, music videos and the occasional TV pilot. “I just didn’t see any route for me outside Hollywood,” he says with a confident, deep voice not unlike his hero, Clint Eastwood, though his fresh, bespectacled face makes him more resemble a Chinese college student.

Then came an offer to work as an in-house director at DMG Entertainment, the Chinese studio co-producing “Iron Man 3” with Walt Disney. Just months into the job, he was supervising post-production work on a Hong Kong director’s feature film. “We did a lot of major fixes from shooting pick-up shots, to editing scenes to re-writing dialogue,” he says, with obvious bursts of excitement. “In L.A., for the amount of time that I’ve worked, it would be rare for me to work on a feature of this scale and have such an integral part in changing it.”

Zhao, Wang and Boyd’s knowledge of Mandarin helped them build careers in China, but it is not essential. The demand for Hollywood skills is so strong that, at the top levels at least, some people who don’t speak a word of the language are being hired.

With over three decades worth of experience, having worked as a set painter, then as a visual effects art director on a string of blockbusters including “Escape from Alcatraz,” “Ghostbusters” and “The Fifth Element” and “Alice in Wonderland 3D,” Ron Gress could have easily continued to enjoy a fruitful career in Hollywood. LA.

However, after working in Beijing for three months with Peter Pau (the cinematographer on behind “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) on the Chinese state-backed epic, “Confucius,” his interested in China was piqued. He soon moved back to work for the visual effects studio Base FX, where he supervised work on the upcoming film “Looper” (starring Bruce Willis) and HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” which won a special effects Emmy. With companies such as Base FX offering their services for sometimes a third of what their U.S. counterparts quote, more and more American studios are outsourcing post-production work to China.

Gress is busy seizing the opportunity that this growing demand offers. He is now vice president at CTC Entertainment, based near Chengdu, in southern China, where along with the new title and pay rise, he is tasked with recruiting talent. “The goal is to bring over U.S.-trained supervisors to train young people here. I’m hiring matte painters, compositors, lighting technicians and people proficient in 2D to 3D conversion.”

“Most people don’t take much persuading,” he says. “We can at least match their U.S. wages and offer them free apartments, and it’s cheaper to live out here.” However, not everyone is enthused. some of the people he has approached have responded, “Why should I train someone to take my job away from me?”

For now, though, at least, those with Hollywood training continue to have the upper-hand. “As a foreign filmmaker here, you have an intrinsic advantage,” says Zhao. “The Chinese education system doesn’t foster creativity. Your skills and creativity are valued here because the industry badly needs them.”

But while the infantile state of China’s movie sector has allowed Zhao to blaze a path not open back home, it also has its disadvantages. “There are fewer good technicians,” Zhao says. “I’ve been on sets where the grips, gaffers and even some of the key PAs are just migrant workers who would have otherwise been working on a construction site,” Zhao says.

And then there’s sticky issue of corruption, recently thrown into the spotlight by the Securities and Exchange Commission’s investigation into allegations Hollywood studios bribed Chinese officials for the right to shoot and show films in the country. Zhao admits, “The film industry here has a lot of kickbacks at every level – it’s expensive and against the morals of a lot of Americans.”

For Zhao, China’s movie business today is best compared with Hollywood in the 1920s– “before the anti-trust laws, before regulation and before the industry matured.” “It is,” he says, “The Wild West. But if you come with an open mind, it’s a great time to be here.”

First appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 6, 2012.