Features

Is China Taking Over Hollywood?

Writer: Casey Lee


There is a scene in "Looper" when Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets with his future self about what will happen in the future. "Go to China" said a wrinkled Joe (Bruce Willis) to his younger self. When the younger Joe insists on going to France, "I'm from the future. Go to China", the older Joe reiterates. While future Joe's reason for choosing China over his first plans of going to France would be plot-related, it is still good advice nonetheless for any young showbiz hopeful in Hollywood today with the direction of where things are headed. Here at Cinema Online, we examine what are the cards in play for this gradual takeover.

Huge China Market = Bigger Box Office Collection

As the second largest territory for film distribution in the world, surpassing Japan in 2012, the annual compound rate of China's gross box office sales have been standing at more than 47 per cent from 2007 to 2012. The gross sales movies made in Chinese cinemas alone have amounted up to U$2.8 billion in 2012. This is crucial as where Hollywood once represented 65 per cent of the world market, is now only worth only less than 50 per cent.

Hollywood simply cannot make colossal million dollar budgeted movies anymore without first considering the huge market in China and the potential box office collections they can reap from the territory. Already the Chinese market is looking at plenty of room for expansion, as Chinese cities around the country are adding an average of 10 screens daily to shorten the gap of the ratio of 103,932 moviegoers for each screen in the highly dense nation. Although these figures are still mostly a third of what the United States has, IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond has estimated that the China market could exceed the U.S. market in gross box office sales by 2018, and even double it by 2025.

Breaking Into China And Its Foreign Film Annual Quota

China's 2013 box office collection. Out of the top 20 movies, 11 are Hollywood. (Box Office Mojo)

With such profitable opportunity and massive influence, there is little reason why Hollywood studios and executives are not paying attention, and they have already employed strategies, from the blatant to behind-the-scenes, to get closer to their Chinese dollars. Inserting any mere mention of China into scripts, plots and locations that wouldn't have a major impact on the stories American directors wanted to tell, is certainly an easy way to make a shout out to the Chinese.

Says Mark Pennell of Beacon Films on Fox News, "Hollywood filmmakers are making their movies with a mixture of actors, locations and ethnic themes. This is just good commerce, opening up a movie to the widest possible market. By casting Chinese stars alongside American, producers have unlocked several sources of incentive production money and expanded the potential audience."


Chinese actress Qing Xu in "Looper" is not much of a talker.

A first example of this is in the aforementioned "Looper", when writer/director Rian Johnson had added China as a minor plot point and destination, with Chinese actress Qing Xu as Joe's future wife barely saying a word. Understandably audiences may find that this approach was a little tacked on, little more than just a wink from Hollywood to the Chinese audience, but by having actual shoots done in China, it helps these so-called 'co-productions' to bypass one of the 'great walls' of penetrating into the Chinese market. Only as recent as 2012, China has increased its strict quota of foreign films entering into the country from an annual amount of 20 to 34, So productions with credits to foreign and Chinese production companies would be considered as a Chinese production and therefore allowed into the country without taking a notch off the still limiting quota.

The Chinese Star In Every Blockbuster

Another method of Hollywood making relevance to a Chinese audience is to have Chinese celebrities making appearances in Hollywood blockbusters, be they cameos or minor roles. "Iron Man 3" uses this by casting veteran Chinese actor Wang Xueqi and actress Fan Bingbing for roles with short screen time. Malaysian audiences may not recall having seen Fan while watching the finale installment of the "Iron Man" series, because her appearances was in a special cut of the movie that was only shown in Chinese cinemas. If you haven't figured it out, the only and most obvious reason why this was done was to pave the way for smooth access past the foreign film quota and to tap into the Chinese market by featuring their stars.

This would not be the last time you would see Chinese faces in upcoming blockbusters, already there are Chinese names establishing themselves in major Hollywood franchises like Li Bingbing, who first appeared in "Resident Evil: Retribution", starring alongside Milla Jovovich and is already expected to reprise her video game character in the next installment. Li is also set to appear in "Transformers 4: Age of Extinction", another blockbuster by Michael Bay which is sure to rake in the big bucks, but even more so now that it has the relevant connection to the Chinese market. What distincts this joining of Chinese stars than the exodus of Hong Kong big names (e.g, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, Jackie Chan) to Hollywood back in the 90s, is that it uses the star power of these eastern celebrities to win its local audience rather than to try and appeal to a western audience.

Made With China = Automatic Chinese Production

Oriental Movie Metropolis at Qingdao, the world's biggest production studio will be ready in 2017.

While inconsequential shoutouts and forgettable appearances are the more obvious ways of injecting Chinese elements into Hollywood blockbusters, China's influence is slowly reaching through the unseen areas of production. While Hollywood studios are seeking to have a piece of the Chinese market, Chinese entertainment companies are flexing their financial powers to tap the specialised production pool of Hollywood talents or turning China into the next 'Chinawood'.

In September 2013, major Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group had begun work on the Oriental Movie Metropolis at Qingdao. The estimated U$8.17 billion studio and theme park is expected to be the largest movie production studio in the world when it is completed by 2017. While many Hollywood and Chinese studios may not have the tremendous backing of the Dalian Group (that in 2012 went on to acquire the second largest cinema chain in the world, American movie theatre chain AMC Theatres), the path for them is into making more 'co-productions' with both sides putting in their money.


Second largest cinema chain in the world, the American AMC Theatres is owned by China's Dalian Group.

China Film Co, a subsidiary of the China Film Group which coincidently is also the country's gatekeeper in maintaining the foreign film quota, has ventured an undisclosed eight figure investment to Legendary East, the Chinese arm of Legendary Pictures, for "The Seventh Son" starring Jeff Bridges, and Duncan Jones' directed adaptation of "Warcraft". This isn't the first time a Hollywood studio has created their own Chinese division, with Dreamworks Animation forming Dreamworks Oriental that is already planning to make four installments for its "Kung Fu Panda" series. The impact of having production stakes from the Chinese would mean that creative control could be asserted to appease, if not pleasing, to the taste of the Chinese audience.

What Does It Mean For Us?

Moviegoers at TGV Gurney Paragon, Penang.

To the average Malaysian and Singaporean audience, China's influence as obvious as they are onscreen, may have little effect on the enjoyment of their everyday Hollywood fare, with only more and more snippets of Chinese celebrities or product placements.

However, the far reaching influence way beyond the screens could have an impact on the number of Chinese-produced releases reaching our shores. Realising and capitalising on their potential to attract Hollywood talents and resources, Chinese commercial filmmakers are looking to use that to their advantage and launch the recognition of the Chinese movie industry to the world. Already the recent box office hits in China ("Lost in Thailand", "Finding Mr. Right" and "American Dreams In China") are based on money-churning (and some say cliché) formulas and tropes that had worked during the heydays of Hollywood comedies.

If this shifting trend is to continue, Chinese movies may eventually be a mainstay in our cinemas, either because they feel familiar to us or because they are coat-tailing on the distribution powers that were once held by Hollywood distributors. So be ready to be able to tell your Bingbings apart in the future (you can start with "X-Men: Days of Future Past).

Cinema Online, 09 May 2014



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