Chinese are undoubtedly passionate about Hollywood fare. As one young English-language interpretor told me during my recent visit to Fuzhou (a city in China), he would any day prefer an American film to a Chinese work.
“Give me a Tom Cruise or an Angelina Jolie, and I would queue up for hours to watch that movie”, he said with all the earnestness of a die-hard Hollywood lover.
Indeed, Hollywood seems as addictive as nicotine, and I have seen this craze for especially American blockbusters in South Korea, in Japan, in Europe, and this is a kind of obsession which has got several countries scrambling to impose quotas on foreign (read Hollywood) movies.
But come 2017, China’s restriction on the import of foreign films will go, and Beijing will not be able to protect its own movie industry. The common phrase heard among Chinese film companies is “the wolf is coming”.
So, China has wisely — and with all the business acumen of a capitalist economy — begun to invest in Hollywood, so that when 2017 dawns, Chinese investors can still enjoy a share of their own market.
So what if films are in English. So what if the lead guy is Brad Pitt or Daniel Craig in yet another James Bond avatar. The fact will be that this movie will have Chinese investment, and the Chinese investor will reap a share of the profit. Which, given the enormous appeal of Hollywood in China, will be no mean sum.
Cruise’s new blockbuster, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, is the latest example of this new thinking. Alibaba Pictures’ and China Movie Channel’s logo can be seen prominently in the film’s opening credits.
But look at the content of Mission Impossible. The Chinese elements are but a brief appearance by the country’s actress, Zhang Jingchu, and a one-second frame where a China map blinks.
One can well infer from this that China is no longer interested in changing the content of the Hollywood movies into which it puts its money. Beijing is merely looking at getting a slice of Hollywood profits.
China Movie Channel invested 10% of the Mission Impossible budget. The company then sold most of these shares to its three partners — Alibaba Pictures (a new entrant into China’s cinema business), Wanda and Contemporary Eastern Investment. And these firms have been given an opportunity by the government-supported China Movie Channel to explore the home market.
China is no longer interested in using Hollywood to propagate Chinese ideology. Instead, Beijing wants its own capital to “occupy the market” as one writer aptly said.
This will ensure that once 2017 arrives and when China will not longer be able to protect its own home-grown cinema against Hollywood (in particular), Chinese companies will still be able to have a piece of the Hollywood pie. Otherwise, Chinese film enterprises may sink into oblivion.
There is no way that Chinese cinema can compete with the fast-pasted, wonderfully-edited, well-enacted and content-rich American fare.
If one were to look at ground reality during the past two years, one can see that the most popular Chinese movies were not directed by professionally trained helmers, but by writers, actors or actresses whose box-office appeal lay in their own celebrity status.
And they also succeeded because they enjoyed China’s protection month policy — wherein only domestic films can been screened during peak periods. Chinese works will find it difficult to vie with Hollywood productions once the quota system goes.
In this scenario, Chinese firms are looking for good content in America.
“China is the most capitalist place I’ve ever seen…the government doesn’t want it to stop…they want to see capitalism occur,” said Relativity founder and CEO Ryan Kavanaugh.
He was speaking at a panel discussion in Milken Institute last April, ‘Can Hollywood Speak Chinese?’
Here is one example. Hunan TV, the second largest broadcaster in China, signed a three-year $ 1.5 billion deal with America’s Lion’s Gate Entertainment. Hunan’s investment is 25 per cent.
“We do not know which movies will make money, or which films will lose money, so we invest in all of them,” said vice-president of Hunan TV Liu Shabai.
There can be another reason for China to look towards Hollywood. Chinese movie guys have realised that however much money they might have now, it is virtually impossible to get hold of Hollywood’s core technology and talent.
Bona CEO Yu Dong told the Chinese magazine recently: “I would not spend money in Hollywood in the old way, because it will mean that Hollywood can build an aircraft carrier to defeat China’s movie industry”.
Does all this mean that China is not thinking of exporting its own cinema, its own culture some day.
China’s most daring director, Zhang Yimou, is testing the waters. He is making The Great Wall and it stars Matt Damon. It is backed by Legend Films and co-produced by China.
The helmer hopes that his film will be a success internationally, and Hollywood may be tempted to invest in China — and not the other way round.
But today, this idea appears far-fetched. For, Chinese investment in American cinema stands at $ 5 billion now, and with Chinese exhibitors and distributors hungry for content, there may not be any let-up in the yuan flowing into Los Angeles.
China’s huge middle-class enjoying movie going experience for the first time is fuelling the nation’s appetite for cinema — more significantly Hollywood. By 2022, it is estimated that 75% of China’s urban population will be part of the middle-class. In 2000, the figure was a mere 4%. And the average middle-class man or woman is now keen on sitting in a theatre and enjoying a film.
Box-office spending in China is likely to be $ 5.9 billion in 2018 — up from $ 3.13 billion in 2013. A lot of Chinese have never watched a movie in a cinema, and they are now really keen on doing so.
Unfortunately, they are not so keen on Chinese fare. What excites them is American drama. This is what propels them into high adventure — and takes them on a journey of spectacular fantasy.
And theatres and the movie business in China are almost desperate to get more and more Hollywood films. But, at the same time they do not want to lose out on the profits arising out of this new love for motion pictures. So, well, let us invest in the great American celluloid dream, they say.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.
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