IMAX rolling ahead with ‘ hitch­ing its wagon’ to China

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA - By LIA ZHU in San Fran­cisco li­azhu@chi­nadai­ By CHINA DAILY in New York

“The suc­cess of an opera de­pends on it en­gag­ing the au­di­ence emo­tion­ally. I think we did our best and have some suc­cess,” said Bright Sheng, com­poser of the new opera Dream of the Red Cham­ber.

It’s a daunt­ing task to adapt the 18th cen­tury Chi­nese mas­ter­piece novel — which is twice as long as Tol­stoy’s War and Peace — into a two-hour Western opera.

“There was tremen­dous pres­sure — you need not only to de­liver the work, but also an ex­cel­lent work,” said Sheng, who has been im­mersed in the opera for the past two years.

The work has drawn me­dia buzz as well as wide at­ten­tion from the gen­eral pub­lic since it pre­miered on Sept 10 at the War Me­mo­rial Opera House in San Fran­cisco and Sheng is braced for the crit­ics.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble that

Just like a 60-foot-tall movie screen, IMAX Cor­po­ra­tion’s con­fi­dence in the Chi­nese mar­ket is hard to miss.

Ear­lier this year, the gi­antscreen ex­hibitor signed a deal with China’s largest cin­ema op­er­a­tor, Wanda Cin­ema Line, to add 150 the­atres to its cir­cuit over the next six years. Last Oc­to­ber, the com­pany’s China sub­sidiary went pub­lic on the Hong Kong Stock Ex­change.

In a re­cent in­ter­view with China Daily, Imax CEO Richard Gel­fond ex­plained how the com­pany has “hitched its wagon” to China, the sec­ond­largest movie mar­ket in the world and one that’s ex­pected to pass the US as num­ber one by 2017.

Q: How’s Imax do­ing in China?

Imax has about 350 the­atres in China to­day and an­other 40 the­aters that are sched­uled to open over the next several years. We li­cense our ev­ery­one will like it,” he said. But the ap­plause, laugh­ter and tears from the au­di­ence prove that his goal of “en­gag­ing the au­di­ence emo­tion­ally” has been achieved.

Call­ing him­self a “dilet­tante redol­o­gist” (the term for an aca­demic de­voted to study­ing the clas­sic Chi­nese novel), Sheng said he first read Dream of the Red Cham­ber when he was 12 dur­ing the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76) and had read the novel ev­ery 10 years or so since, in­clud­ing two more times since get­ting tech­nol­ogy to our part­ners, about 45 Chi­nese ex­hi­bi­tion chains. Wanda is the largest of them.

In China, we de­liver both Hol­ly­wood movies and local movies. We work with al­most ev­ery ma­jor stu­dio in China, in­clud­ing China Film Group, Bona Film Group, Wanda, Huayi Broth­ers and many oth­ers. We also work with some of the lead­ing di­rec­tors, in­clud­ing Zhang Yi­mou, Feng Xiao­gang and Jackie Chan.

Q: Why China?

We had a com­bi­na­tion of good judg­ment and luck. We en­tered the mar­ket in the late ’90s, a time when the mul­ti­plex ex­pan­sion was boom­ing and the qual­ity of Chi­nese films was really in­creas­ing. So we in­vested cap­i­tal and re­sources. Now we have about 100 em­ploy­ees in China, al­most all Chi­nese.

Cine­mas in China have grown from around 2,000 to 35,000 (since our en­trance), and Imax has grown from five the as­sign­ment to write the opera. Sheng said he took the job, com­mis­sioned by San Fran­cisco Opera, be­cause the epic novel is great op­er­atic ma­te­rial where mu­sic can play an es­sen­tial role. At the cen­tre of the plot is a love tri­an­gle in­volv­ing Bao Yu, a young aris­to­cratic fop, and his two fe­male cousins — beau­ti­ful soul­mate Dai Yu and his also beau­ti­ful fu­ture wife Bao Chai — against the back­drop of the fall of the il­lus­tri­ous Jia clan. “It’s the first novel in Chi­nese lit­er­ary his­tory that de­picts char­ac­ters’ de­tailed sen­ti­ments with ex­quis­ite screens to 750 — all fu­eled by Chi­nese con­sumers’ in­creased dis­pos­able in­come, spare time and will­ing­ness to the see the best movie ex­pe­ri­ence pos­si­ble — and that’s Imax.

Q: How does the Chi­nese mar­ket dif­fer from the US?

It’s pretty much growth ver­sus ma­tu­rity. China is a rel­a­tively new mar­ket in en­ter­tain­ment, and Chi­nese con­sumers really seek out the new­est and best ex­pe­ri­ence. Peo­ple are will­ing to try dif­fer­ent things and see what they like, and if they like it, they go back for more. For­tu­nately, they like Imax.

In other mar­kets, peo­ple may be more used to ex­ist­ing pat­terns and are less likely to try dif­fer­ent things. Also, Chi­nese con­sumers tend to be very loyal, so brand and rep­u­ta­tion are very im­por­tant.

The US mar­ket is very ma­ture. It is grow­ing very slowly, adding very few screens. The stu­dio sys­tem in the US is en­trenched, while writ­ing,” said Sheng.

The novel has been adapted count­less times into film, drama and twice into pop­u­lar TV se­ries in China. But un­like for­mats that rely on di­a­logue, opera has a lot more to do with ex­press­ing the char­ac­ters’ in­ner mono­logues or and ex­ag­ger­at­ing their un­con­strained feel­ings.

“Mu­sic car­ries emo­tions that words can­not ex­plain or say,” said Sheng.

One of the most emo­tion­ally charged scenes is the Burial of the Flower Petals in Act II, when Dai Yu finds her world grow­ing bleaker as her health con­tin­ues to de­cline.

“When spring had fled and beauty is spent, who cares for the fallen petals?” she sings.

“My wife asked me why China is much more dy­namic and grow­ing like crazy. There are al­ways new stu­dios, new tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and a lot of money pour­ing in.

Q: Do you fore­see any ob­sta­cles slow­ing the com­pany’s ex­pan­sion in China?

I don’t. A lot of out­siders say that we can’t keep up this the frag­ile Dai Yu sings in such a loud voice,” said Sheng. “To me, it has to be loud cry­ing, beat­ing one’s bo­som as she looks to the heav­ens to ask these ques­tions.”

Sheng un­der­stands that the ex­pres­sion of hu­man emo­tions is a way to em­power a mu­si­cal work and his mu­sic is nat­u­rally in­flu­enced by his cross-cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences.

Born in 1955 in Shang­hai into an in­tel­lec­tual fam­ily, he was ex­posed to tra­di­tional Chi­nese and Western mu­sic at a young age. His fa­ther, a ra­di­ol­o­gist, played the jinghu, a two-stringed fid­dle, for Pek­ing op­eras and taught Sheng to play. His mother, an en­gi­neer, stud­ied pi­ano grow­ing up and started giv­ing him lessons when he was 4-years-old.

But it was his ex­pe­ri­ence as a per­cus­sion­ist with an art troupe in Xin­ing, a re­mote north­west­ern re­gion in China, at the age of 16 that really made him in­ter­ested in com­pos­ing and got him fas­ci­nated with the sen­su­al­ity and the rough­ness of the local folk mu­sic.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic where he stud­ied com­po­si­tion from 1978-82, Sheng moved to New York City and con­tin­ued study­ing com­po­si­tion at Queens Col­lege, City Univer­sity of New York, earn­ing his MA in 1984.

Grounded in the Western growth rate, or real es­tate is chang­ing, but we are in 121 cities with 48 dif­fer­ent part­ners. I think the ap­petite for en­ter­tain­ment is big enough in China that over the next five years, I’d be really sur­prised if there’s any­thing that slows us down.

You al­ways have to be at­tuned, as a busi­ness­man, to clas­si­cal tra­di­tion, he has freely drawn on his her­itage for ma­te­rial and his score is marked with Chi­nese in­flu­ences.

He was pro­claimed by the MacArthur Foun­da­tion in 2001 as “an in­no­va­tive com­poser who merges di­verse mu­si­cal cus­toms in works that tran­scend con­ven­tional aes­thetic bound­aries.”

“I con­sider my­self 100 per­cent Chi­nese, and 100 per­cent Amer­i­can,” said Sheng. “I am thank­ful to be able to come up with some­thing that is au­then­ti­cally and deeply felt. You have to have a pro­found un­der­stand­ing of Chi­nese cul­ture, in this the risks you don’t see. I’m not sure what govern­ment poli­cies will be; we’ll have to pay at­ten­tion to that, and the longterm health of the econ­omy and dis­pos­able in­come — the kinds of things that would be ob­sta­cles in any mar­ket in the world.

Q: What’s next? What’s new?

We are al­ways in­no­vat­ing and pro­vid­ing new tech­nol­ogy. We just in­vented our next gen­er­a­tion “Laser” pro­jec­tion sys­tem and in­stalled it in China, and we plan on broad­en­ing our busi­ness to other ar­eas.

Vir­tual Re­al­ity (VR) is def­i­nitely one of them. We just es­tab­lished a joint ven­ture with Google in the US to de­velop a cam­era that we’ll use world­wide to cre­ate spe­cial VR con­tent. We have a spe­cial head­set, which is like the Imax of VR, with a much larger, more im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence. We are launch­ing the first test sites around the world in a few months and I case, and Western cul­ture.”

Af­ter the world pre­miere in San Fran­cisco, the opera will be per­formed on March 17 and 18 at the Hong Kong Cul­tural Cen­ter as the fi­nale of the 45th an­nual Hong Kong Arts Fes­ti­val. Sheng said he was also in talks to take the opera to the Na­tional Cen­tre for the Per­form­ing Arts in Beijing, prob­a­bly in a Chi­nese-lan­guage ver­sion.

“This is the best I’ve done in terms of opera,” said Sheng. “But I still have a long way to go. I think I’ll get bet­ter with the next opera and the one af­ter that.” Hon­ors be­lieve one or two of the six will be in China. first

Q: Are Chi­nese films catch­ing up to Hol­ly­wood?

Chi­nese films are def­i­nitely mak­ing a lot of progress. There are more skilled cam­era­men, more skilled di­rec­tors of pho­tog­ra­phy and more skilled di­rec­tors. Bud­gets are go­ing up, hence you’ll see bet­ter spe­cial ef­fects, higher paid ac­tors and higher pro­duc­tion value. Over time, the gap be­tween Hol­ly­wood films and Chi­nese films will nar­row.

Of course, the Chi­nese will have to deal with some is­sues on the con­tent that they pro­duce. Is it dis­tributable on a world­wide scale? I think that’s the aim, but it hasn’t been achieved yet.


A scene from DreamoftheRedCham­ber, BRIGHT SHENG Com­poser, con­duc­tor, and pi­anist

Ed­u­ca­tion • Shang­hai Con­ser­va­tory of Mu­sic (1978-82) Queens Col­lege, CUNY, MA (1982-84) Columbia Univer­sity, DMA (1993) • • Bright Sheng (cen­ter), com­poser of the opera Dream of the Red Cham­ber, with Tim Yip (left), the pro­duc­tion de­signer and Stan Lai (right), the direc­tor. Ca­reer • •

The Leonard Bern­stein Distin­guished Univer­sity Pro­fes­sor of Mu­sic. at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan

The Y.K. Pao Distin­guished Vis­it­ing Pro­fes­sor at Hong Kong Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy • • • MacArthur Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship (2001) The Amer­i­can Award in Mu­sic from the Amer­i­can Academy of Arts and Let­ters (2001) The Achieve­ment Award from the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Com­posers, Au­thors and Pub­lish­ers (2002)


IMAX Cor­po­ra­tion CEO Richard Gel­fond (right) and Peggy Gel­fond at China In­sti­tute’s an­nual Blue Cloud Gala last Tues­day.

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