HENGDIAN, China—A five-hour drive southwest of Shanghai, in the hills near a manufacturing hub, something like a mirage appears among the smokestacks: a full-scale replica of Beijing's Forbidden City.
Welcome to "Chinawood," the world's largest outdoor film studio in the fastest-growing film market.
At more than 2,500 acres, Hengdian World Studios, as it is officially known, is larger than Universal and Paramount Studios combined. Its sets have appeared in more than 800 Chinese television shows and films.
Hengdian has plenty to offer beyond the Forbidden City. There is the Qin dynasty imperial palace that was the backdrop for the movie "Hero." There are 100 authentic Ming dynasty riverside houses shipped in from southern China, and the largest indoor Buddha in China.
"We've already surpassed Hollywood in volume," says 76-year-old Xu Wenrong, a one-time farmer who owns the studios. "Here, we offer everything."
Even dreams of stardom.
The remote town has seen its population grow to about 70,000, from 19,000, in 10 years. New residents lured by the glamour of show business have earned a nickname: hengpiao, or "Hengdian drifters."
Many become extras. Mao Mao, 25, came to Hengdian three years ago from the southern province of Fujian with dreams of becoming an actor. Playing a pedestrian or a guard earns him 60 yuan ($9) a day—enough to send some money back home. And shaving his head for a Qing period show earns him another 40 yuan. (For women, he says, a shaved head commands much more.)
"I've seen myself on TV. If I look realistic, I'm happy," he says, standing in front of a makeshift hospital on a fake Hong Kong street.
Since Mr. Xu constructed his first set in 1996, extras have poured into town. Some 3,000 extras are under the studio's control.
Productions must use the studio extras, says Nansun Shi, a Hong Kong film producer. "They stick out like a sore thumb," she says.
Initially, many were nearby farmers and factory workers who happily traded their jobs for a gig on set, without any acting training. One extra on a kung fu movie, who called himself Mr. Ge, said he's been working in Hengdian for 10 years. Every day, he says, he is told where to go by the studio's extra association. Days when he isn't acting, he goes back to work at a nearby factory.
"There's no other choice. It is what it is," he said, in his Qing dynasty costume, head shaven so he can don a queue—a man's long braid typical of the period.
The more than 10,000 yuan ($1,540) he makes a year far exceeds what he earned at the factory—though the money doesn't always come easily. The bespectacled Mr. Ge has to take off his glasses on set for historical accuracy. He can't afford contacts, so he acts half-blind. That hasn't stopped him from being deemed a "special" extra, he says, which gets him close-up shots, the highest honor short of a speaking role.
Some younger hopefuls come armed with skills that command higher salaries, such as martial arts for men and dancing for women.
Mr. Xu sells Hengdian studios as a one-stop production shop. While the outdoor lots are free to use, he makes money through equipment and costume rentals, restaurant and hotel fees.
To create more studios, Mr. Xu, chairman of Hengdian Group, a multibillion-dollar private manufacturing concern, invests his own money and explodes nearby mountains to create space to build. "If they're missing something, I'll build it," he says.
"He's a visionary," says Bill Kong, the Hong Kong-based producer of world-wide blockbusters "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which were both shot in Hengdian. "He's managed to turn a place in the middle of nowhere into the best studio in China."
Hengdian's success has come on the back of China's booming film market, expected to become the world's second-biggest market, after the U.S., by 2012. Domestic box-office revenue surged 64% to $1.5 billion in 2010, while the number of theaters has doubled in the last four years to around 6,300.
Increasingly, Hengdian is featured in Hollywood co-productions hoping to cash in on both U.S. and Chinese markets, such as "Mummy 3" and "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
The studios also draw seven million tourists a year as a government-sanctioned 5A tourist destination. Extra entertainment comes in the form of aerial acrobatics, horse jousting and water stunts involving pirates.
At night, for $23 , visitors can catch the "The Largest Volcano Performance in the World"—a dance extravaganza with fireworks, glow-in-the-dark figurines, fire breathers and simulated lava.
Hengdian has its detractors. Some cast and crew members who have spent months in the remote town secretly call it "Helldian," for its lack of luxuries.
Top stars, such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, stay at the best hotel in town, The Grand Hotel of International Conference Center, simply called the VIP Hotel, owned by Mr. Xu. Its rooms with views of an amusement park fetch about $49 a night—pricey for the area, says Chao Chao, art director for "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan."
Food options are limited. "We've eaten at all the restaurants to the point where our mouths are sore," he says.
Mr. Xu's most ambitious project has become a national controversy. In 2008, he announced a $3 billion plan to construct a full-scale copy of the Old Summer Palace, the Qing dynasty imperial gardens sacked by British and French troops during the Opium War.
Building a replica of the palace, which has become a symbol of foreign oppression in China, crossed a line with many people. Representatives of the real ruins site in Beijing denounced the Hengdian reconstruction as "neither possible nor tolerable."
Local authorities stopped construction of the 1,000-acre site, citing illegal use of farmland. The ban was lifted last year.
Mr. Xu says he has every intention of finishing his "New Old Summer Palace." He's encapsulated that dream in a two-story building devoted to a miniature model of the would-be grounds.
For now, he's looking ahead. New projects include an antiques trading center and a Chinese wine production business that will carve cellars into nearby hillsides.
The man behind China's most epic films has little to say about his favorites. "I don't watch movies," he says. "I don't have the time."