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Chinese Movies on the March

Is the Chinese movie industry going to take over Hollywood?

08·12·2014

Months ago, Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group and richest man in the China, announced the largest single investment in production facilities in the history of cinema, to fanfare and cynicism alike. The “Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis” will open in 2017, featuring 20 sound stages, including the world’s first underwater studio, a convention and exhibition complex, a shopping mall, amusement park, and much more, the Guardian reports.

Famously, the announcement’s ceremony attracted Chinese stars as well as Hollywood celebrities such as John Travolta, Nicole Kidman, Jet Li, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Leonardo DiCaprio, luring them away from the Emmys. The ceremony took place just a few months after Beijing-based Wanda Group agreed to buy US exhibitor AMC for some $2.6bn, instantly becoming the world’s largest cinema chain.

According to Wang himself, the project is to usurp Hollywood’s financial and artistic supremacy. He told Xinhua:

“The Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis is an unprecedented project that will create history; a major measure to implement the national policy of building a cultural power. With the huge potential that comes with a population of 1.3 billion, the global film industry will recognize that the sooner you partner with China, the sooner you make more money.”

But how do the actions match up to the statements so far? The movie industry is growing in China. And while Chinese citizens’ recent wealth is a helping factor, many are wondering if it’s enough.

Ever since the 电影 (diànyǐng, lit. “electric shadows”) arrived in China, movies became an important feature of the local culture. They developed quickly, from its Beijing Opera-ish start to the most recent commercial films modeled after Hollywood hits.

As a result, screens and theaters are booming in China. More than ten a day were erected in 2012, and there are more than 18,000 today: twice as many as two years ago. Furthermore, the Chinese movie industry just surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest, as pointed out in a report by the Motion Picture Association of America.

It is still far away from what the American industry grosses, but it is expanding at an incredibly quick pace; particularly shocking is the fact that Chinese movies constantly dominate local box offices. In 2013, 60 percent of Chinese box offices’ revenues came from Chinese movies, shot, produced, and released in China only.

Given the present trends in the industry, it’s not just the ridiculously rich Chinese tycoons getting on board, but a few critics have hopped on  the “Chinawood” or “Chollywood” bandwagon. Producing movies, and especially outsourcing post-production, is very expensive in the USA, whereas they can be taken care of for cheap in the Middle Kingdom.

While there is no denying that those numbers are pretty encouraging, they still register as bold expectations.

First off, the competition isn’t that bad and China still often gets beat; not many Hollywood or international movies make it in China. The Economist explains that, every year, only 34 Western big-budget films are shown in Chinese theaters, due to Chinese import quotas. Also, foreign producers are allowed to take only around 25 percent of the box office revenues.

Also, China is the world’s largest movie producer, benefiting from national subsidies and quotas. But, those same quotas are a bit of a double edged sword, as they burden the local industry with a clunky and largely despised government department, formerly known as SARFT, according to the Economist. This results in high gross while not being up to the technical and artistic standards of their foreign competitors.

Other Chinese hits have no success abroad because of cross-cultural differences. A perfect example is Finding Mr. Right, a comedy about a woman who goes to Seattle to give birth to her baby, and finds a lover there. The story attracted many Chinese to theaters but was simply not appealing overseas. Other movies again drum up great success, as TWOC covered in February, but fail to appeal to Chinese.

All this doesn’t change the fact that the Chinese movie industry is indeed growing rapidly, and so are Chinese investments in the sector.

Far from destroying the Chinese or the American industries, recent developments are increasing co-operation between the two (but not every one is happy about that). American producers are happy to walk over hot coals to get a foothold in the lucrative Chinese market, and it’s not that hard, as Iron Man 3 showed us all. Partnerships increased visibly in the past few years. DreamWorks has finalized its creation Oriental Dreamworks, a joint venture with three Chinese firms including Shanghai Media Group, a state-owned studio, aiming at developing animated films for the Chinese market. Sony has also started collaboration with Chinese companies; the result was its backing Jiang’s hit “Gone with the Bullets”.

As far as Wang’s statements go, the global movie market might be less polarized and more complicated than the tycoon first expected.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. By Alan Light (Premiere at Chinese Theater  Uploaded by SunOfErat) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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