Jenny Zhang is the CEO and founder of Totem Pictures. She is also the Director of the Online Video Research Centre in China and a former actor.
You started as an actor but decided it couldn’t be your full time job in Australia, why was that?
Simple. There weren’t enough roles for Asian females and not only in terms of quantity, the roles available were quite stereotypical, so as an actor they didn’t give motivation. If you look at Australian TV, you think you’re in 19th century England. But if you land here, you go ‘Oh, this is like Hong Kong’. What you see on TV hasn’t caught up with reality. Australia prides itself as a multicultural country but it hasn’t been reflected on screen.
There are new programs appearing like The Family Law which tell multicultural stories in a very accessible way, in some ways in the tradition of Acropolis Now. Do you see these as one-offs or part of a broader change?
I hope they are part of change, a bit like in the US where Empire, with its totally black cast, is a big hit. My producer and director friends in Australia say they watched Family Law because it was a good story and they could relate to it on a human level, rather than just because there are Asians in it. Hopefully, this is the direction in which we are going. I don’t want people to choose me just because I’m female Asian. But obviously I don’t want people to not choose me because I’m female Asian. Choose whoever is perfect for the job but it’s such a globalised world, if you want your program to travel, it should reflect the world now.
You spent time at MTV selling programs into South East Asia. What did you learn about the market when you were in that role?
We looked after 13 brands under the MTV network, for example - Nickelodeon, Comedy Central. Programs like Spongebob Squarepants and Dora the Explorer travel really well. Comedy doesn’t travel quite as well in that region because so much of the humour is embedded in the cultural nuances and it doesn’t quite translate. In China we see a growing market in many reality formats, The Voice in China has phenomenal reach. They are buying a lot of formats from overseas and constantly looking to collaborate with format partners, from Korea, the States, from Holland. There’s a shift from direct program sales to formats that can be localised.
Which reality formats are growing?
Definitely talent shows, because music doesn’t need to be translated, you recognise a good voice. Also talent shows come with a lot of drama - the heartache, the triumph, the underdog - it’s one of the genres that just works really, really well.
Totem Pictures specialises in facilitating Sino western productions, what are the main areas of help you provide?
When we first started we thought we would be helping Chinese productions shoot in Australia - where to go, who to talk to - and vice versa, helping Australian producers go into China. And not just the language but the etiquette, how people do business over there. But lately I have worked more in development, for example helping Australian producers look for finance or localise their show or feature for China. I’m also spotting formats in China for some Australian clients.
What should Australian content makers focus on for the Chinese market?
First and foremost concentrate on creating great content that’s going to actually travel, don’t get stressed trying to find the Chinese ‘angle’. Some Australian clients say, ‘I want to make something for China, so how about a Chinese overseas student story?’ I say, ‘great, if you have a great story with great characters and it’s something you really care about, then go ahead. But don’t do it because it’s an obvious Chinese angle’.
Also, you must go there and learn what people actually like. A lot of producers say, ‘I have produced a lot of stuff in Australia and I have met a lot of Chinese people in Australia, I can just wing it’. It doesn’t happen. It’s important for you to at least to make a trip over there, talk to young people from the 3rd and 4th tier cities and be open minded. Be ready for a ride.
Why the 3rd and 4th tier cities?
The growth [in film] is coming out of the smaller cities because they previously had no cinemas but are getting more and more now. For them going to the cinema is a new thing, a really exciting event. The young kids might not have seen a lot of movies but they go online a lot and are glued to their mobiles, so they are not as detached from the rest of the world as we might imagine.
Even though they were brought up differently, they are interested in what is happening overseas. They love underdog stories because to a large extent, they are perceived as underdogs. They also love gaming and new technology, they are not that different from younger generations around the world, but there are nuances that you only get when you talk to them.
What are the major differences between Chinese and Australian film makers and what are the areas of overlap?
It is equally hard getting a film off the ground and into the cinemas; the biggest challenge is finding the balance between creating a film that has both artistic value and commercially viability. That’s probably the major difference between Australian and Chinese film makers. The Chinese filmmakers are more concerned with the box office, as everyone should be. For example they use apps that track the daily box office of each film, how many people are going to each film and how many sessions each film has in each cinema. For investors coming from a financial background, having statistics helps them make decisions. They say, ‘I know for this genre the box office has a maximum of 2 billion RMB, but if I invested in another genre, I have potential for a bigger box office…or if I use this actor or that director…’. The creative process is so fickle, you can say ‘I have a great story,’ but how do you measure it? Whereas statistics are something they really understand.
I was talking to one of my investors the other day, he’s Australian/Malaysian/Chinese, he runs a securities company. He invests in different portfolios and gets a lot of filmmakers knocking on his door. The problem is not that he doesn’t want to help them, but that the projects submitted are not commercial; he doesn’t think he’ll get his money back. Even though he doesn’t have high expectations, it’s not a charity. They don’t call it a show business for nothing. Many producers are driven by ticking the boxes - the tax rebates, the incentives - and have forgotten their responsibility to the audience and to the investors.
What mistakes have you seen Australians make in the Chinese market? How could they have been avoided?
China is such an interesting market, it’s where everyone wants to go but no one has figured out a golden formula, not even Hollywood. For example, House of Cards has so many fans in China, people love it. Marco Polo, didn’t do so well and that’s the irony, House of Cards is about American politics and Marco Polo is supposed to be part of Chinese history. So it goes to show that it is not about what you think people want, but creating content that you know has a universal theme and has great characters people will be attracted to.
You are interested in transmedia [multi-platform] filmmaking, what benefit comes from making additional, related content for other channels, particularly online channels?
I wanted to explore transmedia filmmaking because the shelf life of a feature film is so short. If you get lucky you might be in the cinemas for a month but you might have created good content and it just needs a bit more time to brew to reach its audience. A transmedia strategy allows that [extra time]. For example, if you’ve created a character you think will be great but you tested it out in a web series where people told you they don’t like something about the character, you can tweak it. It is a smaller investment to make a much bigger gain. You could have invested millions of dollars and you’ve built a character nobody can relate to.
Tell us about the Online Video Research Centre in China and your role with them...
The China Online Video Research Centre started off as a collaboration between the Communications University of China and the CEOs of streaming platforms. It has collaborative partnerships with TV stations as well. We dedicate a lot of resources into researching the market - researching formats both locally and internationally - and then developing formats or shows for the streaming platforms. What I do as a Director of the International Department is to spot great formats from overseas that could work in China. I also facilitate the communication whenever we are working with an international rights owner or a production company to get the bible right or negotiate deals.
What sort of incentive could we create as a country that would increase the amount of collaborative creative work between China and Australia?
I know there are people who want to work in a collaboration for TV, so maybe the 40 percent producer offset for film should apply to the TV sector as well, because currently it’s only 20 percent. To encourage investment in the new media industry - virtual reality or gaming - maybe the producer offset should apply to those areas as well. The easiest way for people to get to know each other and to promote people working together is to have an incentive to recruit Australian talent or crew.