China has significantly ramped up its investments in US Cinema and Media and Hollywood has done the same in the Chinese market. But both have totally different intentions and aims from the growing affinity.
China and Hollywood have set about a reciprocity-based win-win situation. Hollywood studios are building mutually beneficial relations with the key players of China’s cinema market. For Hollywood, this means ensuring their movies align with the views of the Chinese audience so that they are successful in the region.
Box-office revenues from the world’s second-largest cinema market are a significant economic factor in solidifying relations for China and Hollywood.
On the other hand, China has much bigger aspirations to fulfill through this newfound love for Hollywood. Apart from the domestic film market, China also wants to influence the narrative in these globally watched movies. Thus, China is slowly coaxing Hollywood to make cinema that aligns with its propaganda.
What attracts Hollywood to China?
- China’s box office is rapidly growing. It increased from USD 8.4 billion in 2016 to USD 10.38 billion in 2017 (US Market stood at USD 10.18 billion in 2017).
- Similarly, China has amplified domestic movie screens from 12,407 in 2012 (Barnes, 2017) to 50,776 by the end of 2017 (Frater, 2017a). By 2021, this number is expected to reach 80,377 (Barnes, 2017).
- Hollywood studios earn 25% from a revenue-sharing model for box-office revenue in China. However, the taxes and promotion costs are borne by Chinese distribution and exhibition partners,
- To expand influence in global cultural markets, Hollywood studios are developing transnational films, which reduce or eliminate cultural complexity.
Control at home
- Through specific protectionist measures, China has been able to limit and control Hollywood movies’ share of China’s annual total box office to around 40%.
- Furthermore, China’s protectionist policies include import quotas, blackout periods, short promotion windows, and stacked-up releases
- Furthermore, China allows only a quota of 34 revenue-sharing foreign movies, 14 of which are required to be in special 3D or IMAX formats (Kokas, 2017; Richeri, 2016).
- Two state-owned film distributors: China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution completely control the distribution of foreign movies in China.
- The Government ensures foreign films don’t negatively impact Chinese culture and society and instead promote a healthy culture (Gao, 2009) and positive ideas about Chinese society and government policy (Li, 2010).
- Moreover, China does not have a film rating or classification system and requires all movies to be appropriate universally (Lang & Frater, 2018).
How Hollywood is trying to manage China Market?
In hope that the revenue-sharing movies achieve box-office success in the Chinese Market, Hollywood uses certain approaches:
- Better Government Relations: The Chinese government’s film censorship regulatory department are the gatekeepers for imported films. It also holds the power of deciding whether a Hollywood blockbuster can be played in Chinese theaters. For example, Disney opened a theme park in Shanghai and gave up major share of control and merchandising rights to the Chinese government (Robinson, 2016), in return for a two week theatre time extension for its movie Zootopia.
- General audience relations: Chinese audiences prefer large-scale action/ science-fiction blockbusters and 3D-effect foreign films. Hollywood is trying to build confidence in its movies and also reintroduce the blockbuster consumerism culture in China. For example, DreamWorks Animation partnered with Chinese state-owned businesses to found Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai (“China’s Film Industry,” 2016; Kokas, 2017).
- Fan-based community relations: Hollywood hires Chinese celebrities to promote their franchises. This is a way to win the support of fans, even though celebrities are not in the movies. Disney recruited Lu Han, a well-known Chinese pop star, as an “honorary Jedi” to hype the Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie in China (Huddleston, 2015).
- Including Chinese Elements in movies: Hollywood includes such elements to attract Chinese audiences. For example: In Transformers: Age of Extinction, a number of Chinese components like the Chongqing scenic spot and highly recognizable sites in Beijing and Hong Kong (Coonan, 2014b) were used. Gravity also portrayed the Chinese space station and space program and grossed 10% of global revenue from China.
How China manipulates Hollywood?
China has an authoritarian regime which makes public perception one of its main agendas. So, Chinese Government decides what kind of movies the citizens watch, what they see, hear and talk about. In fact, China takes the concept even further:
- Therefore, China ensures that the citizens do not see and anti-communist messaging or anti-China narrative in foreign films by applying pressure on studios.
- Movies like ‘Seven Years in Tibet’ won’t be screened in China so that the citizens don’t see the nation in a negative light in any film.
- Similarly in World War Z, where a global zombie plague begins in China and an incompetent Politburo is nuked by a rogue officer, the movie had to change the scenes and show the plague beginning in Korea.
- In Red Dawn in 2012, the producers had to change the invading Chinese Army to a North Korean army. This came at the cost of at least USD 1 million extra.
- Likewise, in Sony’s Pixels, a minor apprehension saw the Great Wall of China replaced by India’s Taj Mahal among global monuments that were blown up.
- Finally, Disney’s Christopher Robin was banned because it had Winnie the Pooh. The teddy cartoon character is banned in China due to dissenters using it as an alias for President Xi Jinping, because of an uncanny resemblance.
How China asserts Soft-Power through movies?
During a US-China film summit in the LA in 2013, a top Chinese movie regulator Zhang Xun, then president of the state-owned China Film Co-Production Corporation told Hollywood executives, “We have a huge market, and we want to share it with you.” But then he put forward a condition wherein the films should by heavily invested in the Chinese culture with positive imagery rather than just one of two shots.
- 2016 flop The Great Wall starring Matt Damon was a USD 150 million attempt by Hollywood and China to make a successful crossover. The flop made China step away from the big-budget co-production model.
- China has also barred many actors, musicians, and other celebrities from entering the country. It does so over alleged inappropriate or critical behavior against the Chinese Communist Party.
- Recent release, the Abominable is a story about a Chinese girl who helps a yet find the way back home. However, it saw controversy in Vietnam and the Philippines after a scene with a map of the South China Sea. The map shows China’s fiercely contested nine-dash line which ignores several territorial claims from neighbours.
All starts from the top
Perhaps, the focal point of China’s propaganda push in Hollywood movies is President Xi Jinping.
- In 2014, Xi said that China should increase its soft power. He used the words “give a good Chinese narrative and better communicate China’s message to the world.”
- In 2017, Xi also said China was working on improving the capacity to engage in international communication. The aim is to better tell China’s stories and present a multi-dimensional and panoramic view.
- However, much before Xi’s propaganda push, China’s companies had already started influencing Hollywood.
- In fact, Chinese Real Estate Developer Dalian Wanda headed by billionaire Wang Jianlin is a major Hollywood player. It made a controversial acquisition of Legendary Entertainment which also makes the DC movies like Batman and Superman.
- Dalian Wanda also holds ownership of American theatre chains AMC and Carmike Cinemas. So, Wang is pushing for more Chinese films to be screened in the West.
- Dalian Wanda’s growing influence also led to a letter from 16 US Congress members. Consequently, they urged closer scrutiny of Chinese investment in the entertainment and media sectors.