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China Is Near

By Michael Berry

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The game-changing power of the Chinese box office

On September 22, 2013, the Dalian Wanda Group announced that it was embarking on a multibillion-dollar enterprise to build what is expected to be the largest film studio in the world. With cost estimates ranging from $4.9 billion to $8.17 billion and a scheduled completion date of 2017, the Wanda Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis project was unveiled in Shandong at a star-studded event featuring Hollywood studio heavyweights like Harvey Weinstein, A-list celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman, and a veritable who’s who from the Chinese film industry. The announcement comes on the heels of other bold Wanda moves, such as its 2012 purchase of the AMC Theatres chain and a 2013 donation of $20 million to the Academy of Motion Pictures’ new film museum, all of which bespeak Dalian Wanda and its chairman Wang Jianlin’s increasingly large footprint in Hollywood. But the Wanda factor is but one aspect of the increasingly complex transnational courtship that has been taking place between Hollywood and the Chinese film industry over the past decade.

House of Flying Daggers

House of Flying Daggers

The new millennium began with a new model for the transnational Chinese blockbuster in the form of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which remains the single highest-grossing foreign-language film in U.S. box-office history. It was followed by a series of high-budget martial-arts spectacles that tried to cash in on the success of Lee’s juggernaut. One after another, films like Hero, House of Flying Daggers, Curse of the Golden Flower, The Promise, Curse of the Black Scorpion, and others tried to emulate and tweak the Crouching Tiger formula: pan-Asian superstar casts, cutting-edge martial arts choreography harnessing state-of-the- art CGI, epic story arcs set in a fantasy version of ancient China, and complex international financing and distribution deals. Though they sought to break U.S. and international box-office records, for the most part these films met with success only in the Chinese market. After more recent forays with a new breed of Chinese blockbuster predicated on kung-fu stories of the late imperial and Republican era (best represented by films like Bodyguards and Assassins and the Yip Man series), by decade’s end Chinese studios had modified their blockbuster formula yet again. The new model seems to favor the modern historical epic and bold pairings of leading Chinese actors with Hollywood A-listers. The Dark Knight’s Christian Bale removed his cowl and took up the collar to play a priest in The Flowers of War, Zhang Yimou’s epic portrayal of the Nanjing Massacre; Adrian Brody and Tim Robbins signed on to Feng Xiaogang’s wrenching cinematic exposé of mass famine, Back to 1942. Similar tactics were adopted by lower-budget collaborations like Dayyan Eng’s Inseparable, which paired Chinese stars Daniel Wu and Gong Beibei with Kevin Spacey. As Chinese studios started experimenting with these new transnational pairings, Hollywood recognized the increasing importance of the Chinese market by way of its miraculously expanding box-office figures. According to Variety, “From 2007-12, China’s box office has improved at a compound annual growth rate of 47%, to $2.7 billion.” Tinseltown began to aggressively court Chinese stars to appear in some of its most lucrative franchises. The growing list of action and comic-book franchises in which Chinese talent has appeared includes Resident Evil: Retribution (Li Bingbing), The Expendables 2 (Yu Nan), Iron Man 3 (Wang Xueqi, Fan Bingbing), and two forthcoming blockbusters, X-Men: Days of Future Past (Fan Bingbing) and Transformers: Age of Extinction (Han Geng, Li Bingbing). Running parallel to these onscreen alliances are the even higher-stakes ones behind the scenes between the Hollywood studios and their Chinese counterparts. Since 2011 there have been partnerships between production companies like Relativity Media and Huaxia Film Distribution, as well as the formation of a new series of Hollywood studio ventures in China, such as Oriental DreamWorks. And while these new collaborations have yet to bear fruit, the emergence of more dynamic coproduction attempts is already apparent: Skiptrace, starring Jackie Chan, Fan Bingbing, and Seann William Scott, takes clear aim at global markets with English-language dialogue and Chan’s signature action-comedy formula.

Finding Mr. Right

But even as Hollywood takes these and other increasingly bold steps to capture a larger piece of the expanding Chinese market, preliminary figures released in October 2013 suggest that while overall Chinese box-office receipts continue to expand with record growth, Hollywood’s take is down, even though the quota for foreign films was increased. While a complex set of factors explain this unexpected shift—from Chinese control and manipulation of screening times and release dates to film piracy—one of the biggest threats for Hollywood is the Chinese film industry’s adoption of Hollywood forms, genres, styles, and even settings. Among the big winners at the Chinese box office in 2013 were a series of comedies and dramas that liberally borrow from Hollywood models to produce Mandarin-language films that are more accessible to local audiences. These include the action comedy My Lucky Star, for which producer/star Ziyi Zhang recruited American TV director Dennie Gordon. Veteran Hong Kong filmmaker Peter Chan’s American Dreams in China not only borrowed heavily from The Social Network for its plot and structure—three entrepreneurial-minded college friends start what becomes a multimillion- dollar enterprise, tearing their friendship apart in the process, with story developments framed by a litigation hearing— but also featured major scenes shot in New York and highlighted a fascination with all things American, with the mastering of English as a key plot line. And then there is Xue Xiaolu’s Finding Mr. Right, a romantic comedy that was not only aggressively marketed as “The Chinese Sleepless in Seattle” and drew heavily on Hollywood rom-com conventions, but was actually filmed in Seattle. Collectively, these and other like-minded Chinese films are hijacking popular Hollywood formulas, stories, and even settings to such a degree that domestic audiences now have homegrown alternatives to give them their Hollywood fix. Big-budget action spectacles like Avatar and Pacific Rim tend to do business in China, while romantic comedies and smaller scale films struggle to find a footing. The axiom that comedy doesn’t travel well across cultural borders holds true in China as elsewhere. The aforementioned trio of romances and comedies—along with other recent local hits like Tiny Times and Lost in Thailand—demonstrates that American romance and comedy formulas are much more appealing to Chinese audiences when they have been internalized and reconfigured for homegrown tastes. Even those “foreign elements” that have attracted audiences to Hollywood fare can now be provided through the casting of foreign actors and the exploitation of foreign locales in Chinese productions. Furthermore, what does not bode well for Hollywood is the simple fact that these domestic romantic comedies (even those shot partially overseas) are produced for just a fraction of what the American studios spend on the kind of action fare that brings out the Chinese public. So while both genres have been performing well at the Chinese box office, the recent wave of romantic dramas and comedies has a clear advantage over their budget-bloated Hollywood competitors when it comes to profit margins. (For example, Finding Mr. Right grossed $83 million in China with a budget of only $5 million, whereas Pacific Rim grossed over $111 million there with a hefty $190 million budget.)

Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3

It remains to be seen just how much of an impact Wanda’s new super-studio will have on the situation, but even the most conservative industry observers see big changes afoot. According to early media statements made by Wanda, approximately 70 percent of their new studio facilities will be reserved for local productions. Of course, as more “foreign films” are shot in China with Chinese studio facilities, the definitions of “Chinese film” or “foreign film” may start to break down. At the same time, the Chinese-Hollywood co-production, a term that describes titles ranging from The Forbidden Kingdom to Iron Man 3, has been gaining traction thanks in part to their exemption from China’s strict quota system regarding international releases. While it’s likely that the Wanda Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis will increase the number of such collaborative ventures, the rules of the game will undoubtedly change if Wang Jianlin gets his way. In a recent television interview Wang seemed to take issue with the model adopted by Iron Man 3 (in which Chinese stars Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing appeared in a short scene that was omitted from the film’s U.S. theatrical version), expressing dissatisfaction with Hollywood’s sometimes perfunctory approach to co-productions: “Hollywood wants to make money by throwing in a few famous Chinese actors, giving them a couple of scenes and a handful a lines, and then cutting them out for the North American market. But if American film companies approach China like a money tree and do not respect the Chinese market and Chinese consumers, then these types of companies are destined to fail in the Chinese market.” As Wanda’s new enterprise unfolds, while Chinese and U.S. studios vie for one another’s markets, and the two countries’ film industries become increasingly intertwined and mutually dependent, we can expect even more radical changes as both sides navigate the treacherous waters of transnational filmmaking in the 21st century.

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