Thimblerig’s Travels • Yangshuo, China

My family made an end-of-the-school-year weekend trip from Shenzhen to Yangshuo, and it was a blast. The high-speed “bullet” train, which topped off at 300 KPH (187 MPH), made the 600 KM (375 M) trip to Guillin in just over three hours. Then, an hour-long taxi ride took us into the mystical terrain of Yangshuo. We enjoyed our stay at the Outside Inn, and highly recommend the inn if you’re making the trip and looking for comfortable and friendly lodging outside of Yangshuo proper.

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Can a Christian Film Play in China?

Last fall, filmmaker Jon Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn) issued a video challenge to the church to embrace filmmaking as the new Roman Road – a new way to reach the world with the Gospel. The video was well-made, and hit on many important issues for Christians to consider as we move ahead with our attempts to impact culture with our cinematic art. You can watch the video below, and pay attention to Erwin’s arguments at 1:54.

 

One of the questions this video raises, “Can a Christian film play in China?” grabbed me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve lived in China for the past four years, and while here I’ve enjoyed several Hollywood blockbusters on the big screen. Second, I’ve learned about the incredibly stringent guidelines that China places on the western films it allows to be shown in domestic cinemas.

Bottom line? A Christian blockbuster, as Erwin proposes, would have an incredibly difficult time showing up on a Chinese screen for a multitude of reasons. And considering that China is set to be the biggest film market by 2020, this is something that Christian filmmakers need to be considering as we become more and more serious about the films we are producing.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post. Considering China’s enormous untapped film market, and considering that Christians typically want their films to be a positive force in the world for the sake of the Gospel, what can filmmakers of faith do to try and ensure that their film stands at least a chance, however small, of being seen on Chinese screens?

I have three ideas, and unfortunately, none of them are easy.

1. We need to create true blockbusters.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Here’s where Erwin and I agree. Christian filmmakers, producers, investors, all need to be purposeful about creating real, true blockbusters, and this is not an enterprise to enter lightly. China typically only accepts blockbusters in the list of 34 foreign films that they permit to be shown each year, and the foreign movies that have done well in China share the following qualities of a blockbuster: they are four-quadrant, they have lots of big action set pieces (films aren’t typically dubbed into Mandarin, so the action has to keep the audience’s attention), they star big name actors and/or directors, they are parts of successful franchises, they have eye-popping SFX, and…

well… muscle cars and giant fighting robots are always a plus.

The typical small Christian-made dramas will not make a dent in things in China when produced as foreign-made films. In fact, they would never get chosen.

And so, we do need to attempt our own blockbusters, if we want our films to play onscreen in China.

Of course, the argument could be made that attempting a Christian-made blockbuster could very easily lead to our own Christian version of Battlefield Earth (one of the most horrid films ever made, in John Travolta’s attempt to make a Scientology blockbuster), but if done well, it could be also be pretty amazing.

If done well.

2) We Need To Take the “Christian” out of “Christian Blockbuster”.

Yeah, I know. This would be a deal-breaker to many Christian investors. I can hear the rich Christian businessman now: “What’s the use in dropping millions into a picture that won’t have a Gospel message?”

1-20My response to that question would be simple: Romans 1:20.

God reveals Himself in the artistry of creation. Why can’t we attempt to reveal Him in the artistry of our creation, too? There may be a time for being obvious, but as Jesus proved in his parables, there is also a time for just telling good stories and trusting God to do the rest, to make the audience work for their dinner – as Andrew Stanton said about storytelling.

For a film made by Christians to be big in China, the message would need to be shifted from preachy to artistry, or it would it would never be accepted. Christian filmmakers need to become more skilled in the use of imagery to convey our messages: metaphor, imagination, beauty, awe, wonder… these are aspects of artistry that are consistently missing from our films. Learning how to use these tools could not only make the films agreeable to the censors in China, but possibly to the unchurched in America as well.

Can you imagine a non-didactic film made by Christians that people around the world wanted to see because of the excellent storytelling and artistry? In fact, I posit that if we were to do this well, trying to make a film that would play in China could actually help save Christian filmmaking from itself.

[Just a note: Noah and Exodus, two very mainstream Hollywood Bible epics, weren’t accepted as one of the 34 foreign films allowed in China during the year they were produced. And these were big movies with big names made by big studios. But they didn’t stand a chance. Why? Because they were too biblical.]

3) We Need To Find Partners

Having said there is no place for the small dramas, another way to get the opportunity to tell our stories in China is by partnering in co-productions with Chinese companies. Any film producer who is truly interested in learning how to take advantage of the growing Chinese market should be in Hong Kong and/or the Mainland forging alliances and friendships with filmmakers, producers, and investors. The good thing about these sorts of films is that they can be smaller, which might help take care of the problem that making blockbusters is the only solution. Such films might not get the same financial returns, but they stand a better chance of actually being made, and would have the added benefit of getting the filmmaker’s feet in the door.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.59.51 PM

British actor Joseph Fiennes (R) and Chinese actor Dou Xiao attend the press conference of the movie “The Last Race” in Tianjin, north China, June 24, 2015.

A perfect example of this can be seen in an upcoming film, The Last Race, an unofficial sequel to the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire. The film, which is due to be released this year, tells the true story of Eric Liddell (played by Joseph Fiennes of the upcoming Risen), the Olympic runner who went to China as a missionary after the 1924 Olympics and who died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.

The Last Race was written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin, produced by Canadian Michael Parker, and distributed by Hong Kong powerhouse Alibaba Pictures Group (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). It’s hard to say how much the film will bring out Liddell’s faith story, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.
So, what do you say, Christians filmmakers, producers, writers, investors? Are you serious about making films that can have a worldwide impact or are you just satisfied to see your name on a marquee at the local cineplex after your church rented the space for the night?
Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 4.15.35 PMAre you willing to undertake the hard work, step out of your area of comfort, and for many of you – risk everything to try? Yes, you may fail. Unless your name is Spielberg or Cruise, you probably will fail. After all, as Erwin says in the video quoting an unnamed filmmaker, “If we knew how to make hit films that’s all we’d make,” and so even making the attempt is a gamble of epic proportions.
But this sounds like what filmmakers all around the world do every day.
So why not go for it?

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 20, 2014

Today is November 20, which means that the end of the month is just ten short days away.  If you are doing Nanowrimo, this is the time to pick it up, push yourself, and get yourself over that finish line!  Maybe you haven’t done as well as you were hoping this year, and you’ve only written a few thousand words.  It doesn’t matter!  Kick it to the end!  Maybe you’re right on track, but you’re running out of steam.  Push yourself!  Don’t let your hard word go to waste!  In the immortal words of Rob Schneider in Waterboy…

And in case you need a bit more encouragement, let’s see what Jenny has to say about it.

Forrest-Wrimo

Now on to the three interesting things I found on the internet this past week.

1.  The Peanuts Trailer

peanuts-charlie-hd

This one is really, really interesting to me.  Like a gazillion other folks out there my age, I amassed stacks of Peanuts books growing up, and read them over and over and over again.  As a somewhat shy kid with self-confidence issues, I identified with Charlie Brown and the problems he faced.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I could have become a part of any children’s literature at the time, I would have grown a round head and jumped into the panels of Charles Schultz’s world.

When Blue Sky Studios (the guys behind the Ice Age and Rio movies) announced that they were going to be making a new Peanuts animated feature, with CGI, I was initially pretty skeptical.  You could wallpaper your house with the bad reviews of bad movies that decent filmmakers have made from fantastic properties that I grew up with:  Transformers 1,2,3 & 4, Scooby Doo, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull, Smurfs, Smurfs 2, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, Superman Returns,  Knight Rider, The A-Team, Charlie’s Angels, Get Smart, The Pink Panther, Robocop

…the depressing and continually growing list represents a non-stop assault by lazy Hollywood producers on the pop culture treasures of my childhood.

Given, there have been some successful reboots/reimaginings:  Battlestar GalacticaThe Muppets, Star Trek, Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, the recent Planet of the Apes movies, James Bond, to name a few.  And while they prove that it can be done, they are the exception to the rule.

And now we have Peanuts up next on the horizon.  And I have hope that it will be an exception.

The two things that gives me hope about this film are this:

A)  The studio

If you go to the Blue Sky Studios website and look at the films they have released, they are almost all good movies.  The one exception was the underwhelming Rio 2, which I forgot right after watching it.  However, they did well with the Ice Age franchise, and have several other good standalone movies under their belt.  Peanuts is in good hands with this studio.

2)  The Creative Team

Peanuts has a strong animation-experienced director in Steve Martino (Horton Hears a Who, Ice Age: Continental Drift) and Charles Schultz’s son and grandson are sharing screenwriting credits with newcomer Cornelius Uliano.  Also, I was totally stoked to see that Christophe Beck (one of my absolute favorite movie score composers) is doing the soundtrack.  Hopefully, this creative team will seek to stay true to the spirit of the original stories, and not try to reimagine Peanuts for a new generation to the point of getting rid of everything that made Peanuts special and timeless in the first place.

That leads me to the message I would communicate to the creative team if I had the opportunity:

PLEASE MAKE PEANUTS THE MOVIE TIMELESS BY KEEPING IT FIRMLY ROOTED IN THE TIME AND SPACE FOR WHICH IT IS KNOWN!

Yes, I’m suggesting that they should keep the film in the 60’s – 70’s era.  No cell phones, no internet, no Facebook references, no hip lingo or jokes about celebrities, no setting in modern-looking neighborhoods.  Keep the music reminiscent of the jazzy style of Vince Guaraldi, as well as orchestral music – but no pop songs by One Direction or Christina Aguilera or some other teeny bopper music group that would plant the movie firmly in the 2014’s.

Go CGI all you want, and make it fun and funny for the kids!   But remember that the setting and the score are characters into themselves, and if they aren’t there, they will be missed as much as Linus or Schroeder.

At least by 40-something guys like me that grew up with Peanuts.

Now, I started all this saying that I was excited to find the release of the new Peanuts trailer, and so, without further ado…

The trailer looks pretty good.  We’ll hold out hope for the finished product!

2)  Bono and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week

bono

First, Bono is on an airplane over Germany that loses a door (and Bono’s luggage) mid-flight.  Then, a few days later, Bono is involved in a very serious bike accident in New York City while biking in Central Park.

I don’t mean to sound snarky with another man’s misfortunes, but… I mean, wow.  That has to go down in the books as one of the worst weeks ever.  I sincerely hope that Mr. Hewson will have a very quick recovery and be able to get back on the road sooner rather than later.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon had to have the best response of a host having a guest not be able to make it, when he and the Roots stepped in for Bono and U2.  I have not been the biggest Jimmy Fallon fan before, but this cover might just have made me a believer.

3)  10 Year US/China Visas

chinaThis one is quite selfish, but I was thrilled to hear that the United States and China agreed to extend ten year visas to each other’s citizens.  Living in China, one of the most annoying hassles is reapplying each year for the work visa.  This past year was especially excruciating, as we had several extra things we had to do to be able to get visas for all of my family.

But, thanks to President Obama and President Xi Jinping and their diplomatic staffs, I’ll have one more visa for which I’ll need to apply, and then I’ll be done!

Hopefully my airplane won’t lose a door as I fly home this summer…

 

Thimblerig’s Three Interesting Things of the Day • November 4, 2014

I’m home from work with a sick daughter and wife, and so while everyone is blessedly sleeping, I decided to throw up (sorry) a few things onto my blog that I’ve found of interest the past couple of days.

First, my Nanowrimo word count is just over 4,000 right now.  Not as high as I’d like it, but not as low as it could be considering the sickness and family responsibilities I’ve been dealing with these past couple of days.

Snape WAYW

Second, Mat Kearney’s very cool new music video for his upcoming album, Just Kids, just went up.  The video was taken with a drone in one shot, and features some really nice dancing and video work.  I’ve been a big Kearney fan since 2007, when listened nonstop to his breakout album, Nothing Left to Lose, on my way too and from screenwriting classes in Hollywood.  I have a feeling that Just Kids will be immediately going to my writing playlist, as soon as it’s released.

Unfortunately, I can’t link directly to the video as it’s still not wide released, but if you click on the screenshot, it’ll take you to the video.

Screen Shot 2014-11-04 at 10.04.59 AM

Finally, living in China never stops being interesting.

For example, when I went to our local Walmart yesterday to get something to feed the sick women in my house, I found that – even though it’s November 3 – and even though China doesn’t celebrate the holiday – Christmas decorations were already up.

WP_20141103_001

November 3, in China, and Christmas decorations are already up.  In China.

Isn’t the world fascinating?

Anyway, got to get back to Nanowrimo while things are still quiet.   Why aren’t you writing?

Cheers!
Nate

 

You think you know the story of the ark? Think again.

You already know about Noah.

Just wait until you read the animal’s story.

“I found the pages flying by…”

“a breath of fresh air…”

“not just for children…”

4stars

Four and a half stars on Amazon!

Thimblerig is a little groundhog with big problems.

He’s a loner con-artist who’s losing his mojo; the wild dogs who run the forest harass him at every turn; he’s having vivid nightmares of apocalyptic floods; and worst of all, he believes he sees unicorns when everyone knows unicorns are only the stuff of legend.

But what one animal might call a problem, Thimblerig calls an opportunity.Thimblerig's Arc_3 (1) copy

In a moment of inspiration, he comes up with the ultimate con: persuade as many suckers as he can that a world-ending flood is coming; the fabled unicorns have told him where the only safe place will be; and only he can lead them to safety.

All for a reasonable price, of course.

When the flood really does come, Thimblerig has a choice: either save the ones who trusted him, or lose everything.

And that’s when he discovers that his problems have only just begun.

Author Nate Fleming at a book signing at the Bookworm, Chengdu, China - summer 2014

Children’s book author Nate Fleming at a book signing at the Bookworm, Chengdu, China – summer 2014

Author Nate Fleming at a a book signing at the Binding Time Cafe in Virginia, summer 2014

Children’s book author Nate Fleming at a a book signing at the Binding Time Cafe in Virginia, summer 2014

 

Purchase and/or download Thimblerig’s Ark today!