Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Hollywood-China movie mania: A two-way street

Hollywood-China movie mania: A two-way street
Published 16 May 2016 

Could Captain America be showing the way forward in Sino-US relations? In contrast to tensions around territorial disputes and currency battles, the burgeoning Hollywood-China filmmaking relationship is a case study in the type of 'win-win cooperation' that President Xi is so keen on.

Anthony and Joe Russo, the Russo Brothers of Captain America fame, are collaborating with Beijing FangJin Visual Media Culture Communication Company to create a Chinese action sci-fi movie. This collaboration is one more example of Hollywood's recent surge of interest in the Chinese market. But, unlike some celebrity marriages, the Hollywood-China relationship is more than a publicity stint; both sides have skin in the game.

In a recent interview about the planned collaboration, Joe Russo stated the American market is 'stagnant'. No doubt he meant creatively stagnant but the reality is Hollywood market is increasingly economically stagnant. 

Production costs continue to increase while box office revenue is volatile with the number of regular movie-goers fall off as home entertainment options multiply. To offset these pressures, American film makers are turning to international markets.

The value of the Chinese film market is expected to overtake Hollywood next year, spurred on by China's growing middle class and maturing movie market. In 2015 American movies grossed over $US2.3 billion and in the first five months of 2016 the top five American made movies have taken over $US640 million at the Chinese box office. It's not all clear sailing for foreign film makers though. In China, Chinese movies come first and foreigners a distant second.

This is evident in various ways. To begin with, China is keen to promote domestic films over international films and has recently announced cash bonuses for films that do well domestically and internationally. Films that gross more than ¥20 million can apply for a bonus of up to ¥$6 million. The release date of foreign films is also tightly managed to ensure only Chinese films are shown in the most profitable cinema-going weeks in China such as Lunar New Year and the summer months.

The quantity of foreign competition is also controlled. China allows only 34 foreign films entry each year, and these films must adhere to China's rigorous censorship requirements. The body tasked with determining which films can enter China is the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT). Like all Chinese government bodies, SAPPRFT is opaque. There are only vague guidelines about what is permitted. However, it is generally accepted that films depicting supernaturalism, explicit sexual or violent content, crime or illegal activities within China, or containing any anti-China content (including anything disparaging the police, army, government or even damaging Chinese sites and monuments), will be banned. So foreign film makers have a clear choice: cater to Chinese censorship requirements or put millions of dollars of potential revenue at risk.

Given the central role of SAPPRFT in approving American films, and the potential money that can be made in the Chinese market, American filmmakers are starting to alter scripts, scenes and casting to increase their chances of gaining entry. For example, the James Bond film Skyfall appealed to Chinese audiences with films shot in Shanghai. Despite this, in the Chinese version, makers had to remove a scene where James Bond kills a Chinese security guard as SAPPRFT did not approve of a foreigner killing a Chinese citizen.

Other filmmakers have had to make extensive changes, editing or removing entire scenes. The film Pixels deleted a scene involving destruction of China's Great Wall (even though the film also depicted the wreckage of other international monuments including the Taj Mahal and Washington Monument).

So Hollywood loves China, but is this love unrequited? No, China is also looking to Hollywood. [fold] The Chinese government wants to boost the presence of Chinese films, domestically and internationally. To do this, Chinese filmmakers and producers are turning to the home of movies to learn how to make films that can succeed in both markets. Chinese filmmakers want some Hollywood know-how they can use to tell their own stories.

Certainly Hollywood films wow Chinese audiences. Hollywood excels in making action packed films with car chases, attractive leads and big explosions and there is a huge market for this type of film in China.

As the success of the Captain America franchise shows, there is also a huge thirst in China for mainstream American 'hero' storylines. The hero protagonists in this series (and also other American 'superhero' films) embody American values. They are patriots who will do anything to protect their country. But they also distinguish between loving one's country and loving one's government. In these films, 'individuals are the ultimate arbiters of right and wrong.' Given that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the ultimate arbiter of everything in China, it is impossible for a Chinese filmmaker to create a character who is above the CCP. Chinese directors are left making nationalistic films with kung-fu heroes fighting state-sanctioned enemies such as the Japanese and British. It is left to American films to fill the market with vigilante heroes.

You may also be interested in