Open door: who benefits most from Hollywood’s courting of China?
Art and Experience: With China on course to become the world’s biggest box-office market within two or three years, Hollywood studios have been tripping over each other for a ticket to ride what Stephen Colbert recently dubbed“the pander express”. It’s hard not to be cynical when efforts to engage Chinese audiences usually seem to involve such screenwriting masterstrokes as getting your giant robots to lay waste to Shanghai instead of San Francisco, or some lantern-jawed action hero displaying an unlikely taste for hanzi-labelled soy milk. The world of cinema is supposedly bracing itself for complete realignment, but you could be forgiven for thinking the only people benefiting at the moment are washed-up American directors on the funding trail and Chinese stars you’ve never heard of looking to raise their global profile. But it’s time to look closer – billions of dollars and soft-power pre-eminence are on the table. Here are 10 parties with big stakes in Hollywood’s drive eastwards:
1. Wang Jianlin
Hollywood’s involvement in China is not a one-way street. Looking for finance doesn’t just mean via box office – especially with China’s top media players keen to invest directly in the American industry. At the front of the queue is Wang Jianlin, Asia’s richest man and chairman of the Dalian Wanda conglomerate, which now owns AMC (second largest cinema chain in the US), Legendary Entertainment (producers of The Dark Knight and Jurassic World) and Dick Clark Productions (responsible for the Golden Globes). Some believe his conflicting interests in film production and exhibition might put him in breach of the 1948 antitrust ruling that broke up the studios’ monopoly.
With Wang only one of a number of big-walleted Asian investors bankrolling Hollywood, 16 US congressmen recently called for an inquiry into growing Chinese influence. But with the US industry looking to learn Chinese, how can they not expect the opposite to also be true?
2. Struggling franchises
Warcraft – which took $47m (£38m) in the US and $221m in China – is the latest, greatest example of a teetering piece of IP that came good thanks to a last-gasp top-up from the eastern hemisphere. Pacific Rim (US: $101m/China: $111m) and Terminator: Genisys (US: $89m/China: $113m) also shored up disappointing American showings this way (possibly because sci-fi is still a novelty for Chinese audiences). But this dubious insurance policy is likely to expire soon. Hollywood’s dirty secret in the noughties, after DVD sales declined, was dumping substandard product on overseas territories and aggregating the numbers to break even. With Chinese filmgoers increasingly expecting quality, they’re likely to be one of the first markets to rebel.
3. Zhang Yimou
With other Chinese directorial names such as Feng Xiaogang and Stephen Chow struggling to have impact outside their country, Zhang is the one best placed to benefit from the Hollywood presence. Originally part of the iconoclastic “Fifth Generation”, he is now firmly an establishment figure and already has international clout thanks to Hero and House of Flying Daggers. His 2011 film Flowers of War, an account of the Nanjing massacre starring Christian Bale, was one of the first big-scale US-Chinese co-productions – but was a dud in the west. His $160m The Great Wall, released recently in China and due for release in the UK and US in spring 2017, will be looking to finally perform the great crossover trick so fervently sought by Hollywood: a blockbuster with integral Chinese elements that doesn’t alienate the rest of the world. Hence the contentious (in the west) casting of Matt Damon in the lead, opposite a raft of Asian stars (Hong Kong favourite Andy Lau; boyband fodder Eddie Peng and Lu Han; the up-and-coming star Jian Tian – who is also lining up for Kong: Skull Island and the Pacific Rim sequel).
The Middle Kingdom has been an integral part of Marvel’s dazzling success over the last decades – hence why Doctor Strange chose not to utter the T-word. Before The Avengers in 2012, the company’s Chinese grosses were negligible, with little or no culture of superhero films there. Since then, every Marvel release apart from the second Thor film has made at least 10% of its final box office in China. With its cross-fertilising cinematic universe able to spark interest in even marginal first-time properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, the company has conducted a masterclass in creating and nurturing brand recognition in an ostensibly arid cultural climate; far more so than fellow Disney stablemate Pixar, which has struggled there. So China will continue to be an integral part of its strategy – even if it means that T now stands for Tilda, not Tibet.
5. China Film Group
China might be the new box-office Klondike, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood is walking away with all the nuggets. Only 34 foreign films are allowed into the country each year under the quota system – and the studios receive only 25% of the profits under a revenue-sharing scheme (around half of their takeaway elsewhere). China Film Group, the state-film behemoth, is the only sanctioned film importer and takes about 22% of the proceeds for the pleasure.
So what’s good for Hollywood is good for the local coffers. Especially in 2016: the mostly poor performance of local films has seen box-office projections flag well behind the $7.5-9bn range projected at the start of the year. Meaning China Film Group has sneakily extended this year’s quota to 38; a permanent expansion is expected in 2017.
6. Donald Tang
When two culturally far-flung entities such as Hollywood and China sound each other out, it’s the hour of the intermediary. Beijing-based media agency DMG made a name early as “gatekeeper” to culturally tone-deaf LA newbies, and had a hand in Iron Man 3, Looper, Transcendence and the Point Break remake. But investment banker Donald Tang is shaping up as perhaps the most significant broker between worlds. The Shanghai-born former head of Bear Stearns Asia is now based in California; he helped shape Dalian Wanda’s AMC coup, secure Chinese financing for hyped startup STX and has connections to most of the big Chinese moguls. Now, with his company recently acquiring the mini-studio IM Global (responsible for Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence), he’s getting his hands dirty. Proof, in this cross-border world, of how a flap of a banker’s chequebook in Beijing can start the cameras rolling elsewhere.
7. Scarlett Johansson
Chinoiserie was a popular style of western 18th-century decoration in which ceramics, interior design and gardens were given an oriental veneer. It’s still working for the 21st-century blockbuster industry as a quick-fix means of appealing to both east and west: Pacific Rim appropriated Japanese kaijudestruction, and Big Hero 6 took place in the fusion city of San Fransokyo. Both were big hits in China. After scoring decently there with 2014’s Lucy, set in Taipei, Scarlett Johansson is fully embracing multiplex chinoiserie by putting a Caucasian face on an iconic Japanese character: the cyborg The Major in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell. The cries of yellowface will only be worth it if the film gets a Chinese release, and a chance at cementing Johansson’s stardom on that epic playing field.
8. Fan Bingbing
China’s biggest female box-office draw, and the “flower vase” (as locals dub stars opportunistically cameoing in Hollywood films) currently most likely to break through. When Tony Stark turned to Chinese medicine to get his chest shrapnel removed in Iron Man 3, she was the wonky-eyed beauty in the operating theatre; she also had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in X-Men: Days of Future Past (literally – she played the mutant Blink). Her English still isn’t fluent enough to fully leap the language barrier that has hindered most Asian actors, but she has more momentum than the old generation of bilingual Hong Kong stars and peers such as Zhang Ziyi who may have already spent their Hollywood currency. Getting sandwiched between Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville in this summer’s Skiptrace, one of the few big local hits of the year, will only have enhanced her crossover credentials.
9. Qingdao Movie Metropolis
Another way in which China is trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood is by establishing itself as a production base to entice the “runaway productions” that have spurned Los Angeles over the past 30 years. Recently fanfaring a massive 40% tax rebate for foreign productions, this Wanda-owned complex will be the world’s biggest studios when it opens in 2018. The Great Wall filmed scenes on the existing facilities, and Legendary’s forthcoming Godzilla and Pacific Rim sequels will line up there, too. But they’ll need to pack in more than in-house productions to give Qingdao that international lustre to match LA, Mumbai or even, hundreds of miles to the south, the fading glories of Hong Kong. Which means pulling in Hollywood blockbusters.
10. Cao Cao
As Hollywood tries to pack China with its wares, one man has made the most of a highly specialised niche that remains outside its sphere of influence. Jonathan Kos-Read, 43, is the go-to guy for the token foreigner role in domestic Chinese films. With more than 100 appearances since the late 90s, Cao Cao – as locals know him – is the most recognisable white actor working in the country. Totally unknown in the west but handsomely capitalising on a parallel cinematic dimension that exists in Hollywood’s shadow, you won’t know him for such iconic parts as corrupt British copper in Ip Man 3 and zombie lawyer in last year’s No 3 Chinese film Mojin: The Lost Legend.
Source: the Gaurdian