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Hollywood & China – “To fight monsters we created monsters”

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“The film market in China is like an experimental supermarket – with more and more racks but only one product… The viewers don’t care what they see as long as it’s a film. They’ll watch whatever is put in front of them.”

– Zhang Xiaobei, CCTV

LA is “a favourite place for Chinese businessmen to do business”, according to the objective opinion of China’s general counsel to Los Angeles. And that was back in 2011, before China extended its annual quota of foreign films allowed to be exhibited on the mainland. We’ve written before about the relationship between Hollywood and China, which in the two years since we wrote that piece has only deepened. It’s little wonder; EY has predicted China will be the largest film market in the world by 2020. Revenue is being squeezed in the film industry as millennials hang out on their smartphones and games consoles. When they do pay for movies, it’s more likely to be streamed rather than owned. Worse, that stream may be hosted by someone like Netflix, whose burgeoning clout makes negotiations for license fees increasingly difficult. So China provides a timely cash cow; an antidote to Western media fragmentation and fatigue. But at what cost?

China’s economic rise to superpower status has logically meant a rise in its viability as a place to invest in. From infrastructure, where cinemas screens have been springing up at the unbelievable rate of seven a day (as of May this year), to co-productions between Hollywood and homegrown Chinese outfits. These collaborations have resulted in overt references to China in storylines, such as that seen in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The Karate Kid and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, or the additional scenes filmed for Iron Man 3. This also includes the more recent Transformers: Age of Extinction, which saw not only a large part of the film take place in Hong Kong, but also included local talent and featured a mind-boggling amount of inappropriate product placement from Sino brands. The few production companies in China are also expanding, looking beyond more traditional propaganda fare, as well as to foreign markets, as is the case with China Film Group.

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But the film industry in China is not quite as rosy as it appears. Interestingly, there have been few efforts at US talent getting involved in Chinese productions. This may be partly due to the mess that was The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale, which was reportedly little more than a propaganda piece. And from a content point of view, caution has been the watchword for studios; The producers of World War Z removed a discussion over whether the zombie apocalypse started in China; Chinese villains were edited out of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Men in Black 3. Is that really necessary? And while scripts are edited to appear more appealing to China, so are balance sheets. For while Transformers 4 is now China’s highest-grossing movie of all time, according to The Hollywood Reporter, what THR don’t mention was the way the gross is measured. For, says Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, box office revenue is arbitrarily inflated. She elaborates,

“I think everyone agrees there’s some fudging that goes on… It’s fairly common to go into a theater, say, ‘Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,’ and they say, ‘Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else’s basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”

Moviegoers aren’t being particularly discriminating yet because the act of going to the cinema as an event or experience is still a relatively new phenomenon for many. Product placement, which we referred to earlier, while an opportunity for some synergy between film and brands, risks being too commercial and overt if done without context. A recent article in the Financial Times said such promotions in Transformers 4 quickly “start flying faster than bullets from an Autobot’s wrist-mounted Gatling gun”. Apart from bringing viewers out of the fictional narrative into reality, creating a disappointing experience, inappropriate product placement can also cause ire between businesses. (We’ve written several times over the years about product placement, here.) Such an occurrence took place at the end of July when a tourism group in China sued Paramount Pictures for failing to show a logo of the park that the company had paid to be prominently displayed in the movie. The implementation of co-productions between the two countries evidently needs work too. Scenes added exclusively for a Chinese version of Iron Man 3 added little except some questionable product placement as well as the dubious plotline of Tony Stark heading to China, of all places, for medical convalescence. Lastly, the current quota of films to be exhibited in China means that many good-quality US films fail to be seen in the country. Much like bans on US games consoles and the Android app store, Google Play, the result of this has been an explosion of home-grown imitators. In this case, films in China are made that precisely mimic the formula and set-up of popular American franchises like The Hangover, which was never seen by Chinese audiences, thus the extent of emulation isn’t evident. Assuming that eventually the quota will be entirely relaxed, this type of tactic can only ever be a short-term measure.

One of the greatest opportunities the film industry in China has is in part due to one of its greatest weaknesses. Because of historically protracted release windows, and a narrow selection of films making it to cinemas, piracy has been rampant. Indeed, infringement has been widespread enough that the industry has had seemingly no choice but to innovate. We reported back in April how China has relaxed its embargo on foreign games consoles, and, more to the point, how Tencent, in partnership with Warner Bros., were making the latest 300 film available to rent, while the film was still in cinemas in the US. Such forward-thinking is welcome. As well as offsetting any losses from piracy, it also hopefully points the way to a more open business environment in China, at least for TMT companies. Such innovative thinking will need to be extended, however, to the structure of China’s film industry itself, which is reportedly a vertically integrated engine driven almost entirely at the whim of the state.

Just as China’s tastes have held increasing sway over the production of art and wine in recent years, so with film. The middling global box office performance of Pacific Rim found salvation in Asia, and that was all the justification needed for a franchise to be developed. There is certainly much to be gained from investment and co-productions in China’s films industry, especially while it is still relatively nascent, not least of which are the financial returns. How such relationships impact the content itself is another matter. Hopefully some of the approaches China is taking with regard to multi-platform releases might even trickle over to Western markets. Studios should also be wary about putting all their eggs in one basket; CNBC reports that growth in ticket sales for Hollywood films in mainland China hit a five-year low in 2013. Only three US movies made the top ten highest-grossing films in China last year, down from seven in 2012. One reason for the slowdown is a lack of variety. And yet don’t expect the blockbuster formula to change anytime soon; as much as it was born in the USA, it is also what audiences in the worldwide market love to gobble up. (Michael Bay’s films – expertly dissected in the above video – prove that point no end, and it has been particularly driven home recently as Bay himself as well as sometime employee Megan Fox have expressed nonchalance about any negative press from critics, knowing their products make millions despite nasty reviews. Specifically, actress Fox told naysayers to “F*ck off”.) There is a certain amount of momentum behind the two industries’ relationship with one another, but recent productions have shown that future projects should perhaps be treated with a little more caution, particularly as Chinese audiences tastes mature. Last month the film historian Neal Gabler was quoted in the Financial Times, in a point that usefully sums up this piece,

“The overseas market has changed the DNA of American movies… The bigger-faster-louder aesthetic is very deeply embedded in the American psyche. No one else can do it. It’s one of the reason they export so well. It’s so much a part of who we are. But we have been victims of our own success. It’s a Catch-22. The things that make our movies so popular overseas are now larger than the American market can support by itself.”

UPDATE (30/8/14): The production side of the industry continues to evolve, as China’s largest video website Youku Tudou demonstrated on Friday when it promised to produce 8 films for cinema release and 9 to premiere on the internet. Chairman and Chief Exec Victor Koo pointed out to the Financial Times that there was a gap in the market left by Hollywood, “The US film industry is highly developed. It tends to be either blockbusters or franchise films. But in China you’re talking about small to mid to large budgets…”. The logistics of creating a film for online release – more than likely to be consumed on a smartphone – must consider important limiting factors such as, according to Heyi Film chief exec Allen Zhu, smartphones in China running films get “very hot after 20 mins”. Youku Tudou’s plans may seem ambitious – particularly given it reported a $26m loss for the second quarter – but when 18 screens are erected in China every day (last year more cinema screens were added in China than the total in France), it seems a risk some are willing to take.

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