Enter the dragon

by Rebecca Macfie / 31 July, 2010
Patience and persistence have paid off for Dunedin documentary-maker Natural History New Zealand, now the largest foreign producer of documentaries in China.

Michael Stedman likens China's business environment to a river. "You can either swim with the current, or you can swim across it, but you can't swim against it."

For the past 12 years, Stedman and Natural History New Zealand (NHNZ), the acclaimed documentary company he runs from Dunedin, have been ­quietly and persistently paddling with the current. Long before New Zealand politicians and commentators began spouting superlatives about China's rise and the opportunities it presents for New Zealand, NHNZ was carving out a niche as the largest foreign producer of documentaries in China.

When Stedman first looked to China as a potential market in the late 1990s, New Zealanders were still largely ignorant about the emergent Middle Kingdom. Few Kiwi companies were venturing there (and those that did generally came home with their tails between their legs), the New Zealand-China free-trade agreement hadn't even been thought of, and our politicians weren't yet queuing up for photo opportunities with Chinese ­dignitaries.

But Stedman - who had led NHNZ to success in the Japanese market - could see the place was full of stories ripe for the telling.

He started visiting China in 1998. By then, NHNZ - formerly the Natural History Unit of TVNZ - had been bought by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Television Studios, and Stedman was able to tap into the sage advice of Murdoch's top man in China, Laurie Smith. Stedman recalls how Smith, an old China hand and fluent Mandarin speaker (and now North East Asia director of Austrade), told him: "Keep knocking on the door, mate. Don't take no for an answer. It's going to be tough at times, but don't bullshit them, be straight, know what you're after and take the time to learn about the culture."

Stedman called time and again on the offices of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (Sarft), whose approval was essential if NHNZ was ever to start filming in China. He was given polite hearings and then shown the door. He knocked repeatedly on the doors of the State Council Information Office, whose remit is to tell stories about China to the world, and the state broadcaster, China Central Television (CCTV).

It took three or four visits over the course of a year, but eventually his dogged­ness was rewarded: "Sarft realised I was serious. They get so many people through the door who promise the earth and are never seen again ... It's all about persistence, it's about being prepared to learn and listen, and do a lot of research."

NHNZ's first foray into China's tightly censored media environment was, bizarrely, to do a film on Tibet. The State Council Information Office suggested it, and Stedman says he and his team gulped at such a sensitive topic. But NHNZ's Emmy-winning producer and director, Mike Single, was keen to take it on. "We told State Council we would have to be able to make the film we wanted to make, and they agreed," says Stedman. "We were in [Tibet] for two months and they pretty much left us alone. They were very, very nervous."

The outcome was Tibet: Wheel of Life, Winds of Change, which followed pilgrims on a journey from the holy Mt Kailash to Lhasa, capturing the vast landscapes and rich culture - and some fleeting photos of the Dalai Llama. Stedman says the authorities were uneasy about the images of the Tibetans' spiritual leader. "But we said, 'They stay', and they said, 'Okay, they stay.'"

The completed documentary was screened in Beijing for Communist Party officials. "We were really nervous, really sweating," recalls Stedman. "One guy came up to me beforehand and said, 'You're either very stupid or very brave.' Then at the end he came up and said, 'You're very clever.'" Stedman says the film wasn't political, but he rejects any suggestion that NHNZ was being used as a tool of Chinese propaganda. "We're not political in any film we've ever made - even in films [in New Zealand] about habitat loss and endangered species."

The Tibet programme was screened in 180 countries, including China, and marked an important milestone in a long and evolving relationship between NHNZ and China. These days the company produces five to seven hours of television a year in China, with the National Geographic and Discovery channels major buyers. Among the raft of NHNZ productions to come out of China are shows about circus training schools, kung fu, pandas, the Great Wall and the Olympic "Water Cube". Programmes on the terra­cotta warriors and the pyramids of the Han dynasty are in production.

Last year NHNZ was the only foreign crew allowed into the Sichuan earthquake zone, capturing apocalyptic images of flattened towns.

This month, a five-part series on Rewi Alley - revered as one of China's most important foreign "friends" - screened to a CCTV audience of up to 300 million. Produced with CCTV and New Zealand's Ministry for Culture and Heritage, the series shows Alley's early life as a Taranaki farmer and follows his 60 years in China as a factory inspector and fireman, volunteer, founder of the Gung Ho movement, and loyal ally of the communist regime. Stedman predicts "huge benefits" for New Zealand's profile in China as a result of the series.

NHNZ's China operation runs from a poky corner of News Corporation's Beijing offices, under the leadership of former Sony and Viacom executive Lauren Wang. Earlier this year former Dunedin-based producer Kyle Murdoch shifted to Beijing to hunt out stories that could double the company's China output. Murdoch's presence sends an important signal to the Chinese about NHNZ's commitment to the market.

He admits there's a fine line between being an empathetic and curious producer of Chinese stories and a tool of the propaganda machine. "But I'm a storyteller, and as a storyteller you always have to use a line that will entertain people and be interesting. In China I have no problem, because it's such a rich place with so many stories to tell." And, he says, the ultimate judge of NHNZ's China documentaries is the international tele­vision market.

"We have to have a story that will appeal, or people will flick to America's Next Top Model or Project Runway. Those are our competitors."

Relationships with CCTV and China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC) remain vitally important. At CCTV, producer Wang Xin Jian describes the liaison as "co-operation between friends"; Yuan Lili, vice-president of CICC, extols the Kiwi company as "one of the best" documentary producers, and the foreign company with which it does the most ­productions.

NHNZ has nurtured those relationships by running workshops and lectures for Chinese producers, and bringing them to Dunedin to observe its operation.

"They really want to understand the Western approach to documentaries," says Stedman. "Over the years we have become trusted, and in China that's very, very important."

Personal relationships matter far more than in the Western business context, he says. "You build a relationship, and then you build a friendship, and then you do business. There's a whole series of layers to the relationship that don't exist here, where it's very American in that the deal is the most important thing and you don't really care if you don't see the person again. In China's it's very different."

Twelve years on from those first tentative visits to China, Stedman boils NHNZ's success down to this: "At the end of the day, we like them, and they like us."

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