You know that China has fully entered the world of late capitalism when good Chinese folks are willing to blow $100 million on a sci-fi film for an American audience. Today’s Variety reported developments on this “ultra-ambitious” CGI film known as Empires of the Deep, an English-language tale of “mermaids, mermen and a hero who saves the world from an evil empire”. The $100 mil budget is impressive considering they were it was a $50 million project one year ago. Previously called Cutthroat Island, I mean Mermaid Island, it will be directed by special-effects guy Pitof of Catwoman fame (they actually mention that in Variety), with a screenplay written by Randall Frakes, and Irvin Kershner attached as producer.
Kershner, Frakes, and um, Pitof are not exactly household names. Sci-fi fans will recognize Kershner as the nominal director of The Empire Strikes Back. Those fans will be equally quick to note that George Lucas was fully in control of that blockbuster. That’s not to say that Kershner, the quintessential journeyman director, did not have his moments, including the thriller Eyes of Laura Mars and the bootleg Bond film Never Say Never Again. It is to say that Kershner has not directed a film since 1990’s RoboCop 2, and has only one real producer credit, a direct-to-video number. And he is 85.
Frakes has been more active recently, scripting (actually, co-scripting) a number of direct-to-DVD actioners starring Mario Van Peebles, Charlie O’Connell (brother of Jerry), and Mark Dacascos (martial artist, now of Iron Chef America fame) According to IMDB voting, his most widely-viewed work is 1987’s Hell Comes to Frogtown with then-wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. Screenwriters aren’t wholly responsible for the fate of their works, of course. Acting, directing, production values count. If only he’d had Irvin Kershner to direct. I think the script will be scripted first by co-writer Jiang Hongyu, and then translated into English and film convention by Frakes, who has done is share of co-writing and novelization work.
And the mono-monikered Pitof? Again, I went to trusty IMDB to find his next film, called Only in New York. One of the user comments is titled simply, OMG! Pitof? NOOOOO!!!!! Apparently the commenter fears for the career of Jim Cavieziel (The Passion of the Christ, The Thin Red Line). To his credit, Pitof directed the well-received Vidocq, the Gallic fantasy which was the first filmed entirely with high-def Sony-Panavision cameras, using technology that Lucas developed for the Star Wars prequels. And he did visual effects work with Jean-Pierre Jeunet on City of Lost Children and Alien Resurrection.
What’s really going on? Even with the weak dollar, 100 million is still nothing to sneeze at. The Variety fluff piece goes on to say the film is being put together by “China’s Fontelysee Pictures in collaboration with the Emagine Studio of Hollywood.” Though that line depicts a grand US-Chinese partnership, I believe these two entitles are in fact run by the same people, and that “Emagine” is a Chinese company with offices in the US. Check out for yourself: here is the Chinese Emagine site, and here is the US Emagine site. Even the name “Emagine” seems designed to conflate it with Imagine Studios, a real Hollywood entity, much in the manner of those Asian knockoff “Adidos” and “Pummas”. Same with Irv Kershner - the very mention of his name is supposed to evoke sci-fi spectacular, though his involvement in high-profile movies is two-decades old. Chinese entrepreneurs will soon learn Western audiences and mass-media are more sophisticated than that.
The real connection between the two, and the actual producer of this film, is “Harrison Liang, PhD” whose bio on the Chinese site states he was an investment banker who moved to China in 2001, and is now Fontelysee’s CEO as well as head of China’s sister city program. Somehow I feel comforted that a competent businessman will be in charge instead of an 85-year-old. Even if this venture does not become, as Mr. Liang puts it, “Star Wars under the sea”, it will be one interesting step into the brave new world in commercial movie-making.