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Musical 'Casablanca' Receives High Box Return

The stage musical "Casablanca," adapted from the 1943 Oscar-winning film, has reached its expected goal for Chinese audience's enthusiasm coming with high box return, observers said after its world premiere in Beijing's Great Hall of the People Friday night.

The applause was shared between US media giant Time Warner Inc. and the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG), the shows coproducers.

The film "Casablanca," shot in 1942 by Warner Brothers, is popular in China for its tragic love story and heroic and patriotic themes. Many Chinese people can sing the classic song "As Time Goes By" or recite some of the film's dialogue.

"Several years ago, Warner had planned to turn the film into a musical, but couldn't decide where to give its world premier," said Ellen R. Eliasoph, head of Beijing office of Warner's film division. "Then we focused on China."

Having lived in China for nearly 10 years, Eliasoph often marveled at the rapid growth of Chinese consumption, as Chinese audiences increasingly seemed to appreciate expensive high-quality performances.

When Asari Keita, artistic director of the Japanese Shiki Troupe, brought "Madame Butterfly" to China two years ago, he predicted that the market revenue in China's culture and entertainment industry would jump to one hundred times the state quota.

Responding to Asari's optimism, research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2003 showed the added value produced by China's culture-related industry totaled 357.7 billion yuan (about US$43.3 billion), accounting for 3.1 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). It was expected to reach to 390 billion yuan (about US$47.2 billion) in 2004.

As Eliasoph and Asari both observed, this figure, in a country with 1.3 billion people, may seem "trivial." If compared with that of the United States and Japan, however, it is "tempting."

Asari explained that Hollywood films take up almost half of the world's entertainment market. The culture and entertainment industry, with an annual revenue of US$400 billion, is the second largest industry in the United States. Japan also has a booming market, as the production value in culture and entertainment takes up 18.3 percent of the GDP, and has become that country's second largest pillar industry behind manufacturing.

Innovative cooperation

In an exclusive interview with Xinhua, CAEG General Manager Zhang Yu revealed some details of its cooperation with Warner. "Adapting movie scripts or novels into plays is a common practice of entertainment companies," Zhang said. US-based Disney made the animated film "The Lion King" into a musical, and there have been several films and a musical based on Victor Hugo's "Notre Dame de Paris."

"CAEG, the largest performing arts and entertainment company in China, always seeks opportunities to participate in a big-brand product, thus marching into the international market," he said.

Last April, CAEG evolved from the state-owned China Performing Arts Agency (CPAA), founded in 1957. The creation of CAEG was reported as a step forward of the reform in China's culture sector.

In recent years, the company's overseas business developed fast, with more than 100 Chinese performing arts troupes sent abroad each year, and several new branches launched in France and the United States. Statistics showed last year that the company organized more than 80 outward performances, which were staged 4,000 times in 50 countries, for nearly 90,000 people.

"That's why our proposal to Warner and creative ideas for 'Casablanca' were immediately accepted," said Zhang, who declined to talk about CAEG's financial investment in the musical.

Also keeping silent about financial arrangements, Eliasoph said "Warner has full confidence in CAEG for its rich experience in promoting large overseas performances and the innovative ideas its staff contributed."

Test-fly with giant

"China's cultural and entertainment industry faces challenges from overseas competitors with the country's entry into the World Trade Organization," Zhang Yu was quoted as saying on many previous occasions.

"The Chinese people also want more high-quality and diversified products, even disregarding the WTO impact," Zhang said. "The CAEG's transformation does not lie in its name, but in its development into a market-oriented entity with self-developed products like Disney and Warner."

It is undeniable that there is a shortage of made-in-China cultural and entertainment products that can compete with international brands, said critic Li Jide.

"A performance is more like a binding product to an artistic troupe," Li said. "The success of a performance merely depends on the fame of the troupe, which not only frustrates some troupes' creativity, but also suffocates some good performances."

In contrast, the most welcomed performances on the world market are usually worked out by an agent company. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" had successful world-wide tour under the arrangement of arts agencies.

"China's oldest yet largest cultural and entertainment company should also perform in this way now that market-oriented reform has been carried out," Zhang said, still admitting a big gap between CAEG and Warner. "We can learn from Warner through such cooperation, which will reduce our risk in brand sale."

"Of course, we will not be only a brand follower or purchaser, but an experienced producer," Zhang stressed. In the past two or three years, Chinese culture and entertainment circles have come to realize the importance of domestic production. A performance based on Shaolin Kung Fu has made five overseas tours and attracted 300,000 audience members. Two acrobatic performances produced by local troupes in Wuhan and Shanghai have also succeeded overseas.

"'Casablanca' is just a test, however, since a brand should go through the test of time and market," Zhang said.

Target China's tourism

"The world premiere of 'Casablanca' in Beijing will promote the city's image, attracting more and more first-class products, said Zhang Shurong, a senior official with the Beijing Municipal Government.

Eliasoph, satisfied with Zhang's comment, said "Casablanca" is just a kicking-off of Warner's China strategy. Zhang Yu said "Casablanca should be staged as a perennial repertoire." 

He explained that people who can afford first-class performances usually have limited time to see a show, and an open-ended performance can solve this problem.

A recent survey of tourists in New York City showed the abundant resources for culture and entertainment are a top consideration when they choose New York as destination.

"The United States has Broadway and Hollywood, France has the Moulin Rouge and India has Bollywood, yet China still has no such place for perennial performances," Zhang Yu said with a sigh.

Large cultural festivals in China still lag behind international ones due to a lack of Chinese shows competitive for perennial performances.

According to Asari, the Shiki Troupe of Japan produced eight open-ended performance, which were staged in theaters rebuilt on abandoned workshops, respectively. "These performances not only turned in big profits, but also boosted other economic sectors."

"The true value of the culture industry is far more than its box value," Zhang Yu said. "A good perennial performance will boost the business of the local catering and hotels."

Incomplete statistics showed the film box revenue in Beijing last year reached 200 million yuan (about US$24.2 million), and that of the performance already totaled 400 million yuan.

"Beijing needs perennial performances in view of the great tourism opportunity brought by the 2008 Olympic Games," Zhang Shurong said. He said a plan for perennial performances was already under schedule.

(Xinhua News Agency April 10, 2005)

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