Behind the scenes of China’s booming film industry

Some people toil for years to break into the movie business. In China, it took me five hours.

One evening a few months ago, I read an online ad for foreign extras needed to play journalists, police officers, FBI agents, and military personnel in a Chinese film. At 7:30 p.m., I sent an e-mail with a photo and bio, listing my only acting experience: a humiliating turn as a token white guy in a low-budget Chinese music video.

Later that night, my phone rang. A woman I’ll call Cathy told me in an exasperated tone that she was a casting agent urgently looking for foreigners for a shoot the next morning.

“Do you consider yourself fat?” she asked. “Do you think you could play a police officer?” I explained that I was not very fat but I would do my best to play a police officer. “Can you come at six?” she said.

I looked at my watch. It was 12:30 a.m. already. I’d get less than five hours’ sleep. “I’ll do it.”

The movie business is booming in China, and I wanted an inside look. Last year’s box-office earnings topped $1.5 billion, a 64 percent increase from 2009, making China’s movie market on target to be the world’s second-largest by 2015. Sometimes dubbed “Chollywood,” China’s movie industry pumped out 526 films in 2010 (versus 754 in the U.S.), and the government has announced plans to more than double the size of the entertainment industries, including movies and television, over the next five years.

Hollywood has noticed. Chinese-U.S. co-productions are on the rise, and Christian Bale, Kevin Spacey, and Keanu Reeves are among the stars who have sought projects here. So eager are American studios to crack the Chinese market that MGM recently edited Chinese villains out of the remake of Red Dawn, replacing them with North Koreans. Studios can’t afford to offend the officials who decide which 20-odd foreign films are allowed to play each year on Chinese screens, whose number grows by four a day.

The morning after Cathy’s call, I met up with more than a dozen foreign extras in the lobby of a Beijing hotel. Cathy, a short Chinese woman with a knit cap sitting crookedly on her head, immediately deemed me not fat enough to play the cop, a role she assigned to a beefy Bulgarian dozing on a nearby couch. I was made an FBI agent.

We piled into a minibus, and Cathy filled me in on the movie. Called Qian Xuesen, it was based on the true story of a Chinese rocket scientist of that name. In the 1950s, after helping to build up the American missile and space programs, Qian was accused of being a Communist spy and forced back to China, where he started the country’s own rocket program. The film’s budget, Cathy said, was 60 million yuan—about $9.3 million.

We drove to a run-down hotel on the city outskirts for hair and makeup. A stylist shaped my hair into a retro look: shorn to the width of a nickel on the sides, parted far to the side on top. (My protests went unheeded; the next day, a friend described my hairdo as sort of “Hitler youth.”)

The set, in a former factory, was made to look like a 1950s FBI office, complete with dated newspapers, ashtrays, and file folders marked Confidential. It was freezing. The crew wore bulky winter coats and warmed their hands with their breath. People scurried about, placing “FBI agents” and “military officers” behind desks, in offices, and around a big table in the middle covered with stacks of documents.

On set were an actor from the TV series Lost and several American crew members. Cathy cared a great deal about this. “Shut up!” she hissed, grabbing my arm as I chatted with a fellow extra. “They’re from Hollywood.”

Outfitted for my role in a boxy gray suit, I walked from desk to desk, pretending to talk to fellow agents. I was then instructed to remove a book from the center table, where a group of “scientists” were looking for evidence of Qian’s betrayals.

After a few takes, a Chinese crew member inserted a mic inside my collar and told me to “say something” to the scientist when I picked up the book—one precious, unscripted, mumbled line. Over the next half-dozen takes, I tried several variations of the line “I need to take this book for a minute.”

I nailed it.

Unfortunately, my line didn’t bump me up a pay grade. Cathy paid me the standard 500 yuan ($77), and a few hours later, I crammed into the minibus heading back downtown, fantasies of Chollywood stardom floating in my head.