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A Tumultuous Love Story: Hollywood and China

A look at how Hollywood hopes to woo China's fast-growing movie market

04·01·2015

A Tumultuous Love Story: Hollywood and China

A look at how Hollywood hopes to woo China's fast-growing movie market

04·01·2015

Scene One: Hollywood Woos China 

In a hospital room somewhere in China, Robert Downey Jr. takes off his Iron Man armor for a Middle Kingdom style heart surgery, complete with acupuncture needles and Chinese actress Fan Bingbing as medical assistant.

Meanwhile, Johnny Depp completes a 48-hour publicity tour in China. Promoting his new sci-fi film, Transcendence. Depp shows off his I-Ching-inspired tattoo, answers questions about favorite Chinese foods, and tapes a special segment of the variety program Chinese Dream Show, where he draws calligraphy with a giant brush and plays electric guitar with Taiwanese musician David Tao.

Iron Man’s acupuncture and Johnny Depp’s China tour extraordinaire are just the beginning of Hollywood’s recent attempts to woo the Chinese consumer base, which just recently formed the second largest movie-going market in the world.

Scene Two: China Flirts Back

Expected to become number one by 2020, China’s film market has instated a “build first, demand will follow” policy, constructing 1, 015 cinemas and 5,397 screens in the nation’s urban centers just last year, according to the  LA Times.

The demand has definitely followed. With more and more men and women flowing into large cities and an increasing wage trend, the population can easily afford tickets that once seemed an indulgence. Indeed, while during the past decade urban incomes have almost tripled, the price of a movie ticket has held steady, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“Going to a movie used to be a luxury in China, but not anymore,” said Roy Lu, president of Starlive Inc., an entertainment events and talent-management company that is focused on U.S.-China deals told the WSJ. “It is a good family event, and you don’t feel crowded when you are inside the theater.”

Scene Three: The Relationship Gets Serious

Hollywood has benefited from this trend, its feature length films constantly ranking first or second at Mainland box offices–with some movies, like Transformers: Age of Extinction making more money in China than it did back in the United States.

Transformers’ overwhelming success in China came, in part, from its tremendous efforts to attract Chinese audiences. Paramount Pictures shot parts of the film in Hong Kong, cast Chinese star Li Bingbing in a lead role, and worked with local companies to promote the film.

“With some Hollywood films producing higher grosses at the China box office than in the US domestic market, major studios’ focus on creating awareness and ticket-buying excitement for its films has never been higher,” Artisan Gateway President Rance Pow explained to reporters.

Considering that Transformers made almost 84 billion RMB more during its first five days in China than it did in America, Hollywood’s attempts to break into the market don’t seem too hard to understand.

Perhaps following Transformers‘ lead,  Iron Man 3 not only conducted an intense media campaign in China, but also worked with China’s DMB Entertainment Group to co-produce the film. The movie also added four minutes specifically tailored for Chinese audiences and only played at Chinese theaters. Featuring the Chinese Doctor Wu (Wang Xueqi), who was only seen briefly in the opening sequence of the US version, the scenes show Dr. Wu having a telephone conversation in Mandarin and performing the now infamous acupuncture-aided surgery on a wounded Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).

“We make the movies we produce, and the stars in them, relevant to Chinese audiences,” said Dan Mintz, chief executive of DMG. “That means digging deeper to find real connections.”

Mintz’ efforts seemed  have paid off, with Iron Man 3 setting China’s record for biggest opening weekend by a foreign production, making over 402 million RMB in sales.

Scene Four: Trouble in Paradise

The recent success of movies like Iron Man and Transformers have not been without difficulty. Rumors ran rampant when authorities denied Iron Man 3 its bid for a late April release. Many speculated that China wanted to give So Young, a domestically produced drama, a clear run during the three-day holiday in China, which ran from April 29th through May 1st.

Rumors weren’t helped when state-run newspaper China Daily published an article titled Don’t be tricked by Hollywood. Mentioning  Iron Man, the article takes a pro protectionism stance, stating: “Some people mistake Hollywood’s strategy as a sign of growing recognition of Chinese culture, but it is actually a commercial tactic of Hollywood filmmakers. To ensure that Chinese culture becomes more influential, there is no option for the government but to take measures to promote professionalism and improve the quality of Chinese films.”

Indeed, 70 percent of China’s total box office revenue in the first three months of 2013 went towards domestic productions, with local audiences attracted by films ranging from special effects hit Journey to theWest: Conquering the Demons, to the mid-budget rom-com Finding Mr. Right, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The popularity of domestically produced movies can be seen as a result, in part, of the preferences of China’s new cinema consumer base: migrant workers and moviegoers in smaller cities. In an interview with the LA Post, Wu Renchu, who runs a popular movie blog on the Chinese website Mtime.com, explains that these consumers are less accepting of abstract or complicated foreign films. Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, for example, were widely criticized for their difficult to follow plot lines.

That being said, Chinese films have also been at the center of a debate over originality and whether censorship is making Chinese films and television shows dull, with an over-reliance on “safer” historical dramas. Obvious propaganda flicks have been accused of inflating takings by dastardly measures, while massive film investments such as Confucius led to bored audiences tired of the same unoriginal fare, despite attempts to boost it at the expense of successful foreign film options such as Avatar.

Scene Five: A Ride Off into the Sunset, Possibly 

In an attempt to avoid flak for the complicated plot of Transcendence, which tells the tale of an artificial intelligence researcher whose brain is uploaded to a computer after he’s attacked by anti-tech radicals, lead actor Johnny Depp went to great lengths to outline the movie’s narrative during his whirlwind publicity tour. Besides showing off his tattoo and strumming the guitar, Depp often paused to explain the film’s title and plot to Chinese audiences.

And while Depp’s explanations may have dropped a few spoilers, Transcendence has done relatively well in Chinese theaters, making 1 million RMB more in China than back in the US.

Not bad, considering ten years ago, the majority of the Chinese population had never even heard of movie style popcorn.

Photo provided courtesy of marvelousRoland