Hollywood and China: A Special Relationship

By  · Published on November 23rd, 2016

China’s footprint can be found on the blockbusters of this year and beyond.

Take a look at many of the blockbusters released this summer and you’ll likely see some effort to make Chinese characters more prevalent than ever. Plenty of movies have found success in China before, but now all the studios are chasing that money. As the Chinese film market continues to grow, more movies are looking to capitalize on the staggeringly large market that has untapped potential.

If there’s one thing U.S. producers have learned in their experiment to make movies for a Chinese audience, it is that they love giant machines. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim opened in the U.S. with modest numbers, but the opening day gross of $9 million in China was their biggest ever at the time. There is little doubt that the reason Pacific Rim: Maelstrom even exists is because the Chinese market ate it up. Not to mention that Transformers: Age of Extinction had a $93 million dollar opening weekend, shattering records in China for a weekend opening. While it doesn’t hold that record now (that would be Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid), there’s plenty of money to be had.

Stephen Colbert noticed the pandering to the Chinese in 2015’s mega-hit The Martian. He believed that the film was going to do well in China because it showed their space program in an extremely positive light. He certainly isn’t the only one bringing up this change in the U.S. film market. Business Insider talked with Aynne Kokas, author of the forthcoming book Hollywood in China and a professor at the University of Virginia about the developing market. “You won’t see the Chinese government acting as an enemy to the US state, but you will see the counterexample of things like The Martian and Gravity where Chinese astronauts save an American astronaut,” Kokas said. “If the US and China had that level of cooperation in their military and space programs, we wouldn’t be having all these conflicts in the South China Sea.”

So how many of this summer’s blockbusters added elements to satisfy Chinese audiences? Quite a few. An article by Vanity Fair listed many movies that added plot points or devices in order to reach a new market. Movies such as Captain America: Civil War, Warcraft, and Independence Day: Resurgence were a few of the titles. While Civil War slyly used a Chinese brand of cell phones, the others were much more calculating with their decisions.

China will be the reason Warcraft 2 happens. Half of the player base for World of Warcraft resides there and the CGI creatures made translation to multiple languages a piece of cake. Add in the fact that the cast included Daniel Wu, the picture gained incredible momentum in China. While the actor is best known in American for his role in Into the Badlands, he is a national sensation in China. Independence Day: Resurgence used a Chinese model turn actress, Angelababy, as Rain Lao who gets an entire subplot that seems extraneous to the overall plot of the film. Furthermore, they used a popular messaging service called QQ that would only be noticeable by Chinese audiences. In both cases, Warcraft and Independence Day were able to bring in significant extra revenue for extending an olive branch to a new audience.

This is only the beginning of a much bigger strategy by studios to leverage a new audience to make their movies successful. China is going to surpass the U.S. film market as the world’s largest by as soon as next year. So studios are taking steps to be included in anyway possible. Bob Simonds, chairman and CEO of STX Entertainment, has a partnership with Chinese film and television company Huayi Brothers for an 18-film investment. The biggest hit for STX Entertainment is this summer’s Bad Moms, but they have released six titles in 2016 alone and are seeing growth. They recently released the Hailee Steinfeld coming of age film, Edge of Seventeen. With the investment from the Chinese they will be able to continue to operate, bringing new movies to the marketplace, knowing that they have a significant financial backer. Aynne Kokas collaborates this by saying this is very much the direction many studios are taking, creating slates for films shared between Chinese and American companies.

2017 will have plenty more movies in the mix for that sweet foreign market cash. High profile movies such as Kong: Skull Island, Ghost in the Shell, and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are among the films in Q1 2017 alone. It is extremely important for these films to cater to Chinese officials as well because they notoriously strict quota system, which allows just 34 foreign films into Chinese theaters on revenue-sharing terms each year. Kong: Skull Island is actually co-produced by Tencent Pictures, the Chinese social media conglomerate who owns the QQ service, as well as other e-commerce markets. Essentially two Chinese companies are working in tandem since the Wanda Group bought Legendary Pictures in January 2016. Tencent and Legendary are hoping to bypass the quota restrictions by claiming both companies are Chinese based. One actress that will see a significant rise in her profile due to this deal is Chinese star Tian Jing, who will be appearing in Kong: Skull Island, Pacific Rim: Maelstrom, and The Great Wall. These projects are all in the Legendary and Tencent agreement.

Ghost in the Shell and Valerian both have their ploys to reach the Chinese audience as well. Scarlett Johansson was seen recently attending the Tmall 11:11 Global Shopping Festival, basically promoting Chinese goods. Ghost in the Shell was also partially shot in China which can only help its chances. Valerian did some creative casting of their own, hiring Chinese-Canadian former K-pop star Kris Wu, so even if it doesn’t do well in the U.S. it will certainly chart with the Chinese box office. That is if they are even selected as a film suitable to that market.

The U.S. film market was always the place where movies succeeded or failed. The global market has opened many more paths for a movie to reach profitability, even if it is a catastrophe across America. As China’s market continues to grow, many more movies are going to be making concessions to reach that market. It will be interesting to see how much American movies bend to meet the standards of a strict and growing Chinese audience.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.