Veteran Hollywood TV director eyes China market

By Matthew Fulco
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, May 22, 2012
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Hollywood veteran Roger Christiansen [Photo courtesy of Roger Christiansen]

Roger Christiansen had just finished a 4-year run on the directing team of the award-winning American sitcom "Friends" when he received an invitation in June 2004 to serve as a judge of television dramas at the Shanghai TV Festival. Making his first trip to China, the Hollywood veteran and former film instructor at Columbia University and the University of Southern California sat as the only American on a jury of renowned television directors and producers.

For Christiansen, the visit to Shanghai opened the doors to Asia and new career opportunities. He won a Fulbright scholarship to teach for two summers at Taipei's National University of the Arts, lectured at Tokyo University of Technology and helped design the curriculum of a new film school in Malaysia's Iskandar province set to open next year. Most recently, he joined Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts of Fudan University (SIVA) as an instructor, with his first classes scheduled to start in September on the campus of Songjiang University.

During his trips to Asia, Christiansen also spent weeks at a time in Shanghai and Beijing, consulting with Chinese television industry heavyweights seeking to replicate the success of "Friends" in China.

The celebrated comedy series, which made actress Jennifer Aniston an international star, ran from 1994-2004, averaging more than 20 million viewers per show by the final season. It earned six Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series, winning in 2002.

"Friends" maintains a loyal following in China among educated professionals under 40, who identify with its characters.

Director Roger Christiansen on the set of "Friends" with star Jennifer Aniston and guest star Christina Appelgate. [Photo courtesy of Roger Christiansen]

"Everyone can identify with the characters on 'Friends' and the stories," Christiansen said. "The series was made in America but its themes are universal."

"The characters and dialogue drive the show," Shanghai-based screenwriter Ginger Wrong Chen said. "You don't have to watch every episode to enjoy it. I would compare it with gong bao chicken, a Chinese dish that nearly everyone finds palatable."

Cindy Yu, a former English major at Changchun University of Science and Technology who now works as a project manager at a German manufacturing firm in Shanghai, has seen every "Friends" episode three times. She said the show has helped her understand American humor and improve her colloquial English.

"The show is very funny and the characters have distinct personalities." she said, "After regularly watching the show, you feel like you're part of a great group of friends."

From 2008-2010, Christiansen worked with a Shanghai-based team writing original scripts for a "Friends"-inspired sitcom that would focus on the lives of a group of expatriate professionals in China and their Chinese friends.

Although the project was ultimately shelved because of differences between the writers and production team, Christiansen said he remains open to reimagining the hit series for Chinese television, albeit with several caveats.

"You have to retain the same level of excellence as the original series and make it resonate with a Chinese audience," he said.

Christiansen said he is optimistic about the prospects of directing an original television series in China. In spite of disparities a new show would have with the period dramas currently in vogue, Christiansen sees an opportunity for innovative programming.

Certainly, citizens of the world's second-largest economy are tuning in. The nation has more than 1.2 billion viewers – about 98 percent of the population. There are more than 2,400 television stations and 284 million online video users, according to the consultancy CMM Intelligence, which tracks China's media market.

Drawing a comparison to the United States' former love affair with westerns – stories set primarily on the American frontier in the latter 19th century – Christiansen suggests that romanticizing elements of the past may also appeal to a Chinese audience.

"For a while in America, westerns dominated mainstream television," he said. "Audiences identified with a romantic image of the American frontier. But as popular culture evolved, westerns faded out."

Chinese period dramas look and sound great – the wardrobes, camera, lighting, sets and historical stories," he said. "But I think there is room to do something more contemporary that still has that same high production value."

Christiansen will have the chance to brainstorm new ideas for Chinese TV with his students at SIVA from September. He will teach intensive week-long workshops at Songjiang University on the western outskirts of Shanghai.

The Beijing-based DeTao Master's Academy (DTMA) placed Christiansen at SIVA and is providing him with a studio in Songjiang University Town. DTMA, based on a master-apprentice-model, brings global experts in the creative industries and sciences to China and connects them with the nation's educational institutions, said chief executive officer John Xia.

Besides SIVA, DeTao's partners include the Peking University Innovation Education and Research Institute (PIER) and Xiamen University School of Energy Research.

During his trip to China this week, Christiansen will speak about his experience directing "Friends" at SIVA on May 24. He will then travel to Beijing, visiting Tsinghua University on May 27 and the China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) on May 30.

Matthew Fulco is a freelance writer based in Shanghai.

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