When he was making his directorial debut in China with the action comedy Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, Renny Harlin gambled everything, uprooting his entire life, including his production company, Midnight Sun Pictures, to move from Los Angeles to China. “I put all my chips on red and spun the wheel,” Harlin, 57, says via email.
The movie, about a Hong Kong detective (Chan) who joins forces with a fugitive American gambler (Johnny Knoxville), was an instant hit. Skiptrace sped past the competition on the film’s first day of release in China,
July 21, earning $16 million. The opening weekend gross of $62.2 million was the biggest ever for a Jackie Chan movie in China. In less than two weeks, Skiptrace, with a budget of about $30 million, had grossed over $100 million.
The only US productions that did better in China in 2016 were big-studio movies such as Zootopia, Warcraft, Captain America—Civil War, Kung Fu Panda 3 and The Jungle Book. Skiptrace recently began its global run after an early-September release in select theatres in the US.
For Harlin, down on his luck for nearly two decades, it’s a resurrection. He had early successes with films such as Nightmare on Elm Street 4, Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger. His last big hit was Deep Blue Sea (1999), which grossed over $164 million on a $60 million budget. His last big-budget film, The Legend of Hercules (2014), was a flop, grossing just $61 million, nearly $10 million shy of its production budget. “In Hollywood you’re only as good as your last hit film, so naturally I’ve been through many challenging years,” he says.
Harlin’s migration was inspired by a visit to China six years ago. He’d been approached to make a movie about Genghis Khan and spent a few weeks scouting locations. “That project didn’t come to fruition, but China left a strong mark on me,” Harlin says. When the producers of Skiptrace approached him in February 2014, he was ready to get on board. He felt the film would give him a chance to return to his roots: “I was able to mix action with epic settings and add comedy into the mix, which I love.”
With the US theatrical market shrinking and the Chinese market growing, Harlin sees opportunity. “They have the money to spend, and they want to be entertained. In some parts, people are discovering movie theatres for the first time,” he says. “Chinese financiers and studios want to make more movies for the hungry market and also figure out how Chinese movies can be made to travel better and be appreciated and successful outside the Asian markets.”
Harlin still has ties to Los Angeles but has transplanted himself to Beijing. This wasn’t his first risky move: He’s originally from Finland. Leaving behind his life of over 25 years in Los Angeles was difficult. “I said my goodbyes. I was on a new continent, starting over, like I had done when I was 26, arriving in America. I go to the studio every day, just like I used to do in my heyday in Hollywood. I’m busier than ever. I love this country, and I love my new hometown,” he says. “If I can spend the rest of my career here, I’d be the happiest filmmaker in the world.”
A small number of US-based productions—and an even smaller number of US-China co-productions—have shot in China with American directors, but to Harlin’s knowledge Skiptrace is the first real co-production, meaning that producers and financing came from both countries, as did the development of the script, casting of the actors and the production itself. Skiptrace was approved by the Chinese government as a Chinese movie, which allowed it to bypass China’s quota system, which restricts foreign movie imports, and the non-Chinese-film release blackout periods.
Chinese companies are interested in co-productions with the US and other Western countries, and US studios, financiers and independent companies are eager to find financing and partnerships in China. “If any Western producer is planning to make a movie outside the major Hollywood studio system and doesn’t own the rights to a huge superhero character, they have to ask the question: Why make this movie for a shrinking US market, when they could be making this movie primarily for the second-biggest, and most likely soon-to-be-the-biggest, movie market in the world, which is China?”
Of course, lower production costs are also a draw. “The crews are skilled and extremely hardworking. You regularly shoot six days a week but very commonly even seven days a week, compared to five days a week in the US,” Harlin says, adding that set construction is less expensive, the visual effects industry in China is starting to match Hollywood quality, the country provides a variety of incredibly versatile landscapes, and there are more soundstages there than anywhere in the world.
Harlin was the first Hollywood director to go to China and work with a fully Chinese crew—the only American on a team of 400 people. The film finished ahead of schedule and under budget. “I learnt a lot, and I’d like to think that some of my experience from Hollywood helped,” he says.
Harlin admits adjusting to a new way of life can be a challenge. “The lifestyles are different, the work methods are different, the attitudes are not American,” he says. “You have to embrace the beauty of that.”
Harlin is currently juggling several projects, including The Legend of the Ancient Sword with Alibaba Pictures, based on a popular Chinese videogame. Shooting for the epic fantasy adventure, with an all-Chinese cast, will begin in Beijing in October. “This story offers me a chance to dig into my childhood dreams and create a visually compelling world.”
Harlin also plans to produce several projects with young Chinese directors he’s built relationships with: “I can hopefully help to bring their dreams to the screen.”
He’s enjoying this new chapter in his life, he says, although “it’s been a long and humbling road.” He quotes Sylvester Stallone, an old friend and star of two of his movies: “He once said to me, ‘It doesn’t matter how many times you get knocked down but how many times you get up’. I never forgot those words. They kept me going, even in the toughest of times. I’m glad I got up one more time for Skiptrace. It changed my life.”
(This story appears in the 28 October, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)