Cinematic Dragons – The Growing Influence of China in Hollywood

For the longest time, the entire cinematic world made it’s way through Hollywood.  That dream factory in the American southland was where all the money came from as well as being the focal point from which all pop culture stemmed from.  And the main reason why Hollywood grew to have this special place in our cultural development is because for the longest time, America was the undisputed leading market for all things in the world.  Because of America’s unique connection to the birth and development as film as an art-form, it’s no surprise that Hollywood’s output was specifically geared to appeal to a broad but specific American demographic.  Sure, there were budding film markets that grew up internationally during this same time, some with influential filmmakers of their own who would leave their own valuable mark on the industry as well, but to be a big deal of the world of film, you still had to play by Hollywood’s rules, and those were dictated by the demands of the American market.  But, in the last few decades, there has been a shift that has dramatically altered the way Hollywood does business.  As more and more nations have pulled themselves into developing and even prosperous economies, their film industries have grown alongside them, and Hollywood has taken notice.  Right now, film studios are thinking less about how a movie will perform domestically, and are instead focusing more on the international grosses.  And that is having an effect on what kinds of movies are getting made today.  The money is now no longer going towards movies that will play well just for the American market, but for the entire world.  And that includes your easy to translate fare, like the Transformers movie, the Fast and the Furious movies, and most anything that animated.  But. what is interesting right now is the ever increasing influence of one nation in particular, that not only is rising as a film market but is even challenging the American market as the largest in the world, which is greatly changing not only is changing Hollywood’s focus but is even shifting the way it does business as well; the ancient country of China.

China, for the longest time, was an almost zero factor market for Hollywood.  From the rise of Communism through the Cultural Revolution, China was a closed off nation that accepted nothing from the outside world; including movies.  Until Nixon opened up diplomatic relations in the 1970’s, China was a country that probably knew nothing about Hollywood, nor had seen all the advances that cinema had made in all that time.  But, in the years since, they’ve made great progress in establishing their own mark on the film industry.  For the longest time, the center-point for Chinese film-making was in Hong Kong, the one time British colony that was untouched by Communism.  From Hong Kong, the world was introduced to a whole new genre that was distinctively grown out of Chinese culture; the martial arts film.  And from these movies, we were introduced to the first Chinese movie star in Bruce Lee, who managed to achieve international fame even before China began to open itself to the rest of the world.  Martial Arts cinema did help to put Hong Kong on the map as a hub for film-making, and that in turn helped to develop a new class of Chinese filmmakers.  Names like John Woo and Zhang Yimou began to make an impact not only in their homeland, but worldwide as well.  And it wasn’t just Hong Kong that took notice of their talents, but Hollywood as well.  Woo eventually made his way stateside where he took his distinctive style that he honed on films like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992) and helped to redefine the American action thriller with Face/Off (1996) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000).  And though he began outside of China in the small but important Taiwan film industry, Ang Lee quickly became known for his mastery of multiple franchises, which became a skill that managed to make him the first Asian filmmaker to win an Oscar for direction.  And he too also brought a uniquely Chinese flavor to his films, best illustrated in his sumptuous martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

To put it in short terms, China not only made up for many missed years separated from the world of cinema due to their isolation, but they did so in a spectacular fashion, quickly leaving their mark.  But now, they are having an impact on cinema in a different way.  After opening up special capitalist districts within the traditionally Communist nation, the nation quickly became a booming trade market, which has seen their national wealth balloon to unprecedented levels.  Because of this, more than 2/3 of the over 1 billion people in China have moved out of poverty and into the middle class.  As a result, more Chinese citizens have the income available now to do a variety of activities, including going to the movies on a regular basis.  And this been where business has really boomed for the Chinese film industry.  Over a thousand new movie theaters have opened up across China in just the last couple years alone.  Though they still haven’t caught up to the total number of screens here in North America. they are closing that gap fast, because there are far more Chinese out there than Americans, and the demand for more screens is high.  For a long time, imported American films were the top draw for Chinese theaters, and still are (except Star Wars for some reason), but China’s own film industry has seen a boom in their box office returns as well.  When you look at each year’s top grossing worldwide releases, you’ll see a growing number of Chinese productions like Wolf Warrior (2015) or Operation Red Sea (2018) appearing on the list, grossing in the range of $500 million each.  And these films don’t even reach American cinemas at all, which shows you just how much money right now can be made in China alone at the box office.  And because of this, American studios are taking notice and rethinking their strategy for which films to make.  The regular American film-goer no longer has the maximum influence over the market; now it is shared with the Chinese, and an amalgam of all other film markets worldwide.

That worldwide gross number is now a bigger chunk of the pie than the domestic grosses, and that has greatly influenced which films are given the bigger percentage of attention in Hollywood.  We’ve seen in particular a steady decrease in things like romantic comedies, westerns, and period epics being made by Hollywood, because these movies tend to be expensive and don’t translate very well over in places like China.  But the things that do translate well overseas are big, loud action films, which rely less on witty dialogue and intricate plots.  Disney has excelled with Marvel films, as well as their many animated properties, and one only has to look at the fact that the country is now home to two Disney theme parks to see how well their brand has connected with the Chinese.  Other studios are finding their footing in different ways.  Paramount has connected with their Transformers films, with many of the recent chapters in the series intentionally setting their stories in China.  Warner Brothers has even gone further by investing in movies that really are motivated solely by the international market.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) was disappointing at the domestic box office, despite critical praise, but it did extremely well in Asia, with China accounting for nearly $100 million extra in grosses alone, and that sole reason is why it received a sequel earlier this spring.  Another surprise was the film Warcraft (2016), based on the popular online multiplayer game.  By all accounts, the movie would’ve been considered a costly flop based on the domestic gross alone, and yet, it made a profit because of how well it did oversees, especially in China.  Despite what critics may think of these movies, the rising influence of a new class of paying customers out of China and elsewhere are dictating the projects getting greenlit by the choices they make at the box office.

What’s even more interesting, however, about Chinese rising influence on Hollywood is not just their increased profile as a film market, but also the fact that they are having an even more prominent presence right in the heart of Hollywood itself.  Many emerging billionaires coming out of China right now are not only investing more heavily in film-making, but they’re going as far as to purchase several little studios in Hollywood itself, making movies for American audiences in addition to their own.  This has recently manifested in the arrival of cross-cultural movies targeted to appeal to both countries.  One of the clearest examples of this is the recent release of The Meg (2018), a big budget monster movie where a team of scientists from all over the world cross paths with the giant prehistoric shark, Megalodon.  Though there’s nothing remarkable about the premise, it is interesting to note how much of the casting of the movie is reflective of the studio’s interest in appealing to both American and Chinese audiences alike, having British action icon Jason Statham and Chinese actress Li Bingbing sharing top billing, and with near equal amounts of the movie’s dialogue spoken in English and Mandarin.  What this shows is that China is looking not just for their own homegrown filmmakers and actors to do well over seas, but they’re even seeking out American talent to participate in their own distinctly Chinese films.  This has led to some confusion here in America, especially when it was revealed that all-American actor Matt Damon was going to appear in a movie called The Great Wall (2017).  Some cried foul and said that it was an egregious example of white-washing a Chinese movie, but in reality Damon’s role was specifically tailored by Chinese director Zhang Yimou to be filled by someone of European decent, as part of a larger ensemble that was dominated by native Chinese actors.  Unbeknownst to many, this was not white-washing, but a sea change in who was starting to call the shots in Hollywood, and the fact that A-listers from Hollywood like Damon and Statham were not just linked to domestic productions anymore really showed how much that change has already affected the business.

But dramatic shifts in the way that Hollywood conducts business is not without risks.  And considering the volatility of the Chinese economy, with it’s rapid growth beginning to show stresses and signs of potential collapses in some sectors, the ramifications for some chaotic downfalls spreading into Hollywood as well also increases, especially with more and more smaller studios being bought up by Chinese conglomerates and new billionaires.  In some cases, you have production companies either being started up or bought out by wealthy investors who know no one thing about how the film industry works, and yet are putting up a ton of money just to get their name into show business.  In these cases we see the most extreme cases of boom and bust from these Chinese investments.  This late August slate of new releases in particular represents the growing presence of Chinese money in Hollywood.  Would you have expected films like A-X-LKin, and The Happytime Murders to all have been Chinese productions.  Not a single one looks distinctively geared for an Asian audience, and yet each was co-financed by a Chinese production company.  Ironically, they are being beaten at the box office by a completely American production called Crazy Rich Asians (2018).  And it’s that lack of focus in knowing how to produce broader appealing movies that is the drawback to the increased investments coming from China.  One of the more troubling examples has been the case of Global Road Entertainment.  Once called Open Road Films (which produced the Oscar winner Spotlight), Global Road reformatted under the new management of Tang Media Partners, which is conglomerate run by Chinese-American billionaire Donald Tang.  Tang’s inexperience with running a film studio quickly became apparent as costly flops like Show DogsHotel Artemis, and the fore-mentioned A-X-L have all lost the company money in very quick succession and the short-lived company is now in financial straights.   It’s not the case with all Chinese investments in Hollywood, but it certainly marks a cautionary sign of how quickly things can go awry once a new influx of money floods into the business.

In a lot of cases, Hollywood is going to end up compromising a lot of things in order to work with the new Chinese economy.  In most ways, an improved alliance is a good thing.  Increased cultural exchange is going to help both China and America live in better harmony, as well as benefit each other financially.  But, there are aspects that Hollywood is going to have to come to terms with the more they of the global giant in their community.  One is the fact that a large part of their investment is coming from a nation with not the greatest human rights track record.  The Communist nation’s lack of freedoms for things that liberal Hollywood holds dear, like free expression and human rights, are going to make many future agreements a little tumultuous.  Some very anti-Chinese government pet causes of Hollywood celebrities in the past, like a “free Tibet”, may sadly have to be compromised as China becomes increasingly in charge of where the money goes in the business.  I think that’s why you see some avenues of Hollywood remaining cautious through all of these changes, and that’s leading to a whole new face in the industry itself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney and Fox’s merger was in some way motivated by some of this, as neither company wants to face a hostile takeover by an international conglomerate and feel that they are better suited pooling their resources together to stay independent as a distinctly Hollywood institution.  It’s hard to say, but the clear indication is that by becoming the fastest growing film market in the world as well as one of the wealthiest, China’s impact on Hollywood and Cinema in general will be felt for many years to come, and in many cases, will be a permanent change.  And to face this sea change, Hollywood has to adjust alongside it, otherwise China’s red wave of influence will leave much of it washed out and buried.

It’s hard to say if a greater Chinese influence on cinema is going to be a plus or a negative for the industry just yet.  On the one hand, Chinese filmmakers and actors are gaining much more notoriety than before, and more and more Chinese people are seeing the benefits of a vibrant film culture in their lives as many of them are increasingly going to the movies each week.  Hollywood is no longer undervaluing the Asian audiences either, and are far more willing to invest in movies that have a distinct Asian perspective to them.  The cross pollination between cultures is also a positive outcome, as the once isolated nation grows more comfortable with seeing America as a partner rather than a threat, and vice versa.   At the same time, China’s volatility also runs the risk of creating a more chaotic state in the film industry, as many start-ups from enthusiastic but inexperienced investors can’t sustain for very long in Hollywood, and that in turn creates a lot of uncertainty for the industry in general.  Despite the costs, it’s a trend that can’t be avoided.  We are going to be seeing a lot more co-productions with China in the years ahead, with multi-national movies like The Great Wall and The Meg becoming more and more common.  And Open Road Entertainment’s quick downfall is not an indication of all Chinese investments going sour.  There’s companies like the Huayi Brothers, who have found success with a diverse slate of releases both big and small, including movies just for Chinese audiences and American audiences, like Journey to the West and the Bad Moms series.  American companies are even looking to target China’s market specifically, with Horror film producer Jason Blum announcing a new slate of films through his Blumhouse Pictures specifically made for Chinese audiences.  And it’s not just China alone that Hollywood wants to focus on, but other emerging economies like India and Latin America as well, though their vibrant film industries have been around far longer than China’s.  It’s the fact that China’s growing industry is so fresh and unexplored and yet insanely wealthy at the moment that has made the whole film industry take notice all of a sudden.  China is a serious player in the game right now, one that may even eclipse that of Hollywood’s home base of America in the years to come, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of this industry down the road as a result.

 

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