By Edward Wong
HUAIROU, China — The movie has ancient Greek warriors, pirates, underwater kingdoms, a villain called the Demon Mage and mermaids that kill men during sex. There is a sultry Bond girl, too, playing the mermaid queen. Most of the actors are American, and the cameras use 3-D technology.
But the movie, “Empires of the Deep,” is not another fantasy dreamed up by Hollywood. It is being conceived and shot here on the world’s largest studio set, north of Beijing.
This mash-up of “Avatar,” “Gladiator” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” all thrown together in a Chinese hot pot, is the vision of a film-obsessed real estate magnate, Jon Jiang, who says his life mission now is to make movies, video games and theme parks. It is also the boldest effort yet by businessmen here to establish China as a global moviemaking powerhouse, one that can create big-budget English-language spectacles to rival those of Hollywood.
China has been able to dominate one manufacturing industry after another but so far has not made significant inroads into the world’s most glamorous business. If Mr. Jiang, 40, has his way, that will soon change. “Empires of the Deep” could turn out to be a potent demonstration of China’s rising cultural influence and draw international filmmakers here to shoot movies that look and feel like Hollywood projects but that are made with the lower costs of Chinese labor and materials.
The producers say the budget for “Empires” is $100 million, less than Hollywood juggernauts but the biggest ever for a Chinese movie, surpassing John Woo’s dynastic war epic, “Red Cliff.” It is an ambitious departure from the formulaic historical or Communist propaganda movies usually churned out by the Chinese film industry. Its actors come from the United States, Brazil, France, Japan and elsewhere, its directors hail from Canada and the United States, and the script, written by Mr. Jiang, has gone through 40 drafts with the help of 10 Hollywood screenwriters.
Of course, there is a risk that “Empires,” scheduled for a summer 2011 release, could become China’s biggest cinematic flop. Take, for instance, the fact that one French and two North American directors have left the project; the movie is now on its fourth director. And the budget has ballooned from $50 million.
Mr. Jiang shrugged off the project’s tribulations.
“My idea is to make movies on the biggest scale there is,” said Mr. Jiang, who was listed by Forbes in 2002 as one of China’s richest men. “I want to distribute movies to 160 countries. I want it to be epic.”
Mr. Jiang has no prior filmmaking experience but said he had watched 4,000 movies and wanted to make “a very serious love tragedy” that “is a combination of something mystical, something that satisfies your bloodlust and something sensual.” He compares himself not to Chinese filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, but to George Lucas, James Cameron and Peter Jackson, the titans of Hollywood fantasia.
“I’m an international producer,” he said. “I don’t want to make Chinese movies. I don’t know the Chinese way of storytelling. I don’t know how movies are made in China.”
The first movie by a mainland Chinese director that achieved wide global appeal was “Hero,” the 2004 swordplay spectacle directed by Mr. Zhang that earned $177 million worldwide. Mr. Zhang quickly became the favorite director of government officials and remains the most famous mainland Chinese director in the world. No movie made by a mainland director has surpassed the international earnings of “Hero.” But even to Chinese audiences, Hollywood products like “Avatar” and “Transformers” are still much more popular.
Mr. Jiang said that while Mr. Zhang and other successful Chinese directors make competent movies, they have also limited the industry by using mostly Chinese actors and story lines.
“They’re not qualified to make my movies,” he said. “The movies they make are of no value to me.”
Western brand names are still paramount in China, including in the movie business. So the makers of “Empires” claim their movie is a co-production with a Hollywood company, E-magine Studios. But the company is owned by Mr. Jiang and his friends. Another major investor in the movie is a company in Zhejiang Province.
To help open international markets, the producers are hiring foreign talent, including lots of relatively little-known American actors. The biggest star, as the mermaid queen, is Olga Kurylenko, the Ukrainian actress who appeared in the last James Bond movie. (Mr. Jiang had originally wanted Monica Bellucci or Sharon Stone, but they said no.)
“There are as many skeptics in the industry about this project as there are believers,” said Jonathan Landreth, the senior China correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter. “But one thing is for sure: If the producers pull it off — if the finished film looks like they actually spent $100 million to make it — it will begin to attract more real co-productions here, ones with actual foreign company partners, not just partners that are L.A.-based shell companies.”
A real hindrance to the Chinese film industry is the government, which tries to exercise strict censorship control on major projects and insists on conformity to Communist Party sensibilities. On “Empires,” film officials insisted that the movie include more Chinese elements, so the producers had to add a race of dragon people and cast a major Chinese actor, Hu Jun, as a dragon lord. Those scenes are expected to appear only in the version released in China.
Skeptics have zeroed in on other problems during a half-year of production: shoddy shooting schedules, late payments to cast and crew members, and a revolving door of disaffected directors.
First came Pitof, the Frenchman going by one name who directed a Hollywood flop, “Catwoman.” He left before production began. Next in line were Jonathan Lawrence, Michael French and Scott Miller, none of whom had previously directed a big-budget action movie. In late May Mr. Miller, fresh in from Los Angeles, scurried around the set. The shoot was behind schedule. Chinese laborers were frantically building a palace for a banquet scene atop a giant fish. Actors playing mermaids and Greek warriors lounged around in costumes little better than those at a Halloween party.
Several workers began sawing off the top of the palace they had just built. The interior had turned out to be too dark for the banquet scene.
“I guess that’s one way to get light,” Mr. Miller said.
The previous director, Mr. French, had left after completing his contract but before shooting was finished. He worked in 2006 with Rao Xiaobing, the movie’s cinematographer, to shoot an independent North American movie in Beijing, “Heart of a Dragon,” and came on board in February at the urging of Mr. Rao, who has been the overseer on the set of “Empires.”
During a telephone interview from Canada, where he returned last month, Mr. French said that the producers had not paid him for some of his work and expenses and that many cast and crew members, including Mr. Rao, were paid late or not at all.
“The manner in which this film had been run was unlike any movie I had ever been involved in and just not something I could continue to work with,” he said.
Mr. Jiang admitted that some people were getting paid late because of what he called “liquidity problems.”
In Mr. Jiang’s offices in Beijing, where dozens of young Chinese toil in cubicles on computer graphics for “Empires,” a dry-erase board has an informal schedule for the project. There are three items that are telling of Mr. Jiang’s ambitions: “Days until Monica Bellucci shows up on set. Days until the Cannes Film Festival. Days until the grand premiere.”
All the lines are blank.