Chi­nese com­pa­nies get roles in Hol­ly­wood

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

An­a­lysts pre­dict that Star Wars: The Force Awak­ens will take in about $277 mil­lion when it opens in China. The sev­enth movie in a near 40-year-old fran­chise passed Juras­sic World to set a global open­ing week­end record of $529 mil­lion, but was not able to se­cure a release date in China un­til Jan 9.

Dis­ney has made a ma­jor mar­ket­ing push for the movie, in­clud­ing a pre­miere with the film’s stars in Beijing, stag­ing 500 model Stormtroop­ers on the Great Wall, Star Wars ex­hi­bi­tions at malls across the coun­try and ads fea­tur­ing Chi­nese pop star Lu Han as an hon­orary Jedi “am­bas­sador” for the movie.

Even though Hol­ly­wood had four of the top-10 films in China this year, box of­fice re­ceipts were lower than ex­pected. Through Novem­ber, to­tal Chi­nese box-of­fice rev­enue in­creased 48 per­cent over 2014, with Hol­ly­wood films tak­ing 41 per­cent and do­mes­tic films 59 per­cent.

But be­cause De­cem­ber is a black-out pe­riod for new for­eign films and only Chi­nese films are re­leased, that 41 per­cent could be pushed be­low 2008’s 39 per­cent, which was the low­est in Chi­nese box-of­fice history.

The re­al­ity in China that the world of make-be­lieve in Hol­ly­wood is fac­ing is that the Chi­nese mar­ket is no longer a guar­an­tee of suc­cess for ei­ther new re­leases or un­der­per­form­ers in the US mar­ket. And US stu­dios are in a scram­ble to stop shrink­ing box­of­fice rev­enue. They have been part­ner­ing with Chi­nese stu­dios to tap into the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of Chi­nese-lan­guage movies, seek­ing Chi­nese in­vestors, us­ing Chi­nese stars and chang­ing story lines.

‘Same old stuff’

“There cer­tainly is [some wan­ing in­ter­est in Hol­ly­wood movies] be­cause if you get the same old stuff over and over again, it’s go­ing to wear you down,” said Stan­ley Rosen, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at the Univer­sity of Southern Cal­i­for­nia and an ex­pert on the Chi­nese film in­dus­try.

Rosen said that what’s hap­pen­ing with Chi­nese au­di­ences and Hol­ly­wood films is not un­like what Amer­i­can film­go­ers ex­pe­ri­enced with Chi­nese films af­ter the suc­cess of Ang Lee’s Crouch­ing Tiger, Hid­den Dragon. Af­ter win­ning sev­eral awards, sev­eral other high­pro­file mar­tial-arts films made their way to Amer­ica: Hero, House of Fly­ing Dag­gers, Fear­less.

“Af­ter a while peo­ple be­gan to say, ‘ Well don’t you have any other sto­ries to tell? It’s the same stuff over and over again.’ So there is some of that go­ing on in terms of the Hol­ly­wood films in China as well,” Rosen said.

An Amer­i­can stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive work­ing with both US and Chi­nese stu­dios, who asked not to be iden­ti­fied by name, said that Hol­ly­wood’s per­for­mance in 2015 has been “very con­cern­ing.”

US films that were re­leased dur­ing the first-half of the year showed tremen­dous po­ten­tial: the top-gross­ing Hol­ly­wood movie was Fu­ri­ous 7, tak­ing in $390 mil­lion. Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ul­tron, Fu­ri­ous 7, and Juras­sic World all drew huge au­di­ences and each earned more than $200 mil­lion at the box of­fice.

But movies that were re­leased in the fall that “really should have done well” — like the lat­est James Bond film Spec­tre and Matt Da­mon’s The Mar­tian — have yet to earn more than $100 mil­lion, the ex­ec­u­tive said.

The Bond film broke the record for big­gest open­ing-day release with $14 mil­lion, and earned the largest week­end to­tal at $48 mil­lion, but faded from the box of­fice af­ter its first week. The film’s star Daniel Craig had pro­moted the movie heav­ily in China lead­ing up to the release, making an ap­pear­ance on a Sin­gles Day cel­e­bra­tion with Alibaba’s Jack Ma that aired on TV and was viewed by an es­ti­mated 500 mil­lion peo­ple.

“As some­body who’s really try­ing to help the US get through proper col­lab­o­ra­tions — the kind of con­tent and con­tent po­ten­tial in re­gards to rev­enue — to China, to the best level pos­si­ble, it’s very con­cern­ing,” the ex­ec­u­tive said.

“I think you’re see­ing a real ap­a­thy to­wards US films in China right now. We’re not ex­actly sure what that rea­son is. Is it due to ma­nip­u­la­tion on box of­fice re­ceipts? Is it due to release date strate­gies by CFG [China Film Group] and SARFT [State Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Ra­dio, Film, and Tele­vi­sion]?” he said.

“Is it just due to just the fact that the movies are just not that good? Is it due to the fact that China is now more in­ter­ested in their own movies? They were all ex­cited with Western film. We got in there; we did great for a decade, and then they fig­ured out how to make the se­cret sauce that works for their own mar­ket, and now they’re just watch­ing their own films? We don’t really know the an­swer, but it’s really con­cern­ing,” he said.

Daniel Lo­ria, se­nior over­seas an­a­lyst for Box­Of­fice.com said that Chi­nese movie­go­ers are be­ing pick­ier about what they watch.

“I think there’s a sort of in­sult­ing ar­ro­gance by the way some writ­ers por­tray Chi­nese au­di­ences as this mono­lithic mass that’s in­ter­ested in big bud­get Hol­ly­wood fare,” he said. “The last three years have res­o­lutely proved oth­er­wise. Chi­nese au­di­ences are dis­cern­ing and di­verse, and I think we’ll con­tinue to see that in 2016.”

Now US stu­dios are seek­ing to tap into the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of lo­cal-lan­guage films by part­ner­ing with Chi­nese stu­dios to pro­duce con­tent for the do­mes­tic mar­ket.

Warner Broth­ers and China Me­dia Cap­i­tal an­nounced in Septem­ber that they signed a joint ven­ture to make and dis­trib­ute Chi­nese films, but did not spec­ify how many movies they will be re­leas­ing. Next year, DreamWorks An­i­ma­tion and Oriental DreamWorks’s co-pro­duced Kung Fu Panda 3 will be re­leased around Lu­nar New Year, with a Chi­nese version for au­di­ences in China and an English version for view­ers in the US and else­where.

Aynne Kokas, pro­fes­sor of me­dia stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, said that while there is not nec­es­sar­ily wan­ing in­ter­est in Amer­i­can movies, there is a “nar­row band of in­ter­est” on ma­jor global fran­chises and that it co­in­cides with in­ter­est in see­ing lo­cal sto­ries that more ac­cu­rately re­flect the con­cerns of the Chi­nese.

“If you see movies like Lost in Hong Kong, they tell sto­ries that en­gage the cul­tural in­ter­ests and back­ground of peo­ple in China, much more than just a com­edy or drama that was made in Hol­ly­wood and is be­ing ex­ported there. And that’s only rea­son­able — and that’s part of why the co-pro­duc­tion deals have been de­vel­op­ing, it’s to build up the lo­cal in­dus­try and to fa­cil­i­tate the growth of suc­cess­ful do­mes­tic movies,” said Kokas, who is fin­ish­ing a book on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Hol­ly­wood and China.

US stu­dios are also work­ing more with Chi­nese in­vestors on films, hop­ing that part­ner­ing with key play­ers in the Chi­nese film in­dus­try will give them more ac­cess to screens and dis­tri­bu­tion chan­nels. Fu­ri­ous 7 got an in­vest­ment from China Film Group, the coun­try’s largest im­porter and dis­trib­u­tor of films, which USC’s Rosen said helped the movie’s box of­fice per­for­mance.

“If China Film Group — which is in charge of im­port­ing and dis­tribut­ing films — is in­vest­ing, you can be sure that you’re go­ing to get some very good dates and good the­aters for your film to play out, be­cause they’re go­ing to make money out of that,” he said.

The lat­est in­stall­ment of Mis­sion Im­pos­si­ble star­ring Tom Cruise re­ceived in­vest­ment from Alibaba’s film sub­sidiary, and the movie went on to gross $136 mil­lion, the 10th-high­est-gross­ing film in China this year.

But even with th­ese part­ner­ships and in­vest­ment strate­gies, Hol­ly­wood stu­dios should re­al­ize that the Chi­nese mar­ket is no longer a sure-fire mar­ket for movies to suc­ceed in or even to help re­coup losses from un­der­per­for­mance in the North Amer­i­can mar­ket, said Box­Of­fice.com’s Lo­ria.

“China is a huge mar­ket for Hol­ly­wood, but it is by no means a guar­an­tee — and 2015 is a great ex­am­ple of that. I think it’s a facile ar­gu­ment to say the cin­ema of the fu­ture is one aimed at cash­ing in on China — that sim­ply isn’t pos­si­ble when lo­cal films are so com­pet­i­tive and with gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion in the mar­ket,” he said.

Lo­ria said he expects US-China stu­dio col­lab­o­ra­tions to con­tinue, whether in de­vel­op­ing Chi­ne­se­lan­guage or English films. “China is too im­por­tant of a mar­ket to make as­sump­tions of lo­cal tastes and cus­toms, why not work with an ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal part­ner?” he said.

‘White man’s ar­ro­gance’

In forming part­ner­ships with lo­cal stu­dios and oth­ers, Hol­ly­wood needs to be care­ful about pro­ject­ing a “white man’s ar­ro­gance” onto the Chi­nese mar­ket, said the stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive who asked not to be named.

“Like, ‘Hey we’re the big US stu­dio. We’re the best in the world. China needs us to make lo­cal-lan­guage movies for them be­cause they think we’re the best in the world, be­cause we’ll do it bet­ter than the lo­cal film­mak­ers.’ That’s sort of, to me, that’s what that says. I don’t think a Chi­nese moviegoer really wants a bunch of US peo­ple com­ing in and making a movie in their lan­guage,” he said.

With co-pro­duc­tions on projects that are not nec­es­sar­ily Chi­nese-lan­guage films, some part­ner­ships have hit snags, like the up­com­ing Zhang Yi­mou-di­rected film The Great Wall star­ring Matt Da­mon, which has re­port­edly gone over-bud­get.

“US- China co- pro­duc­tions still con­tinue to fal­ter and both sides have been un­able to find the recipe for a suc­cess­ful film that plays well in both China and Amer­ica,” said Jonathan Papish, film and box of­fice an­a­lyst for China Film In­sider. But he said that he expects more part­ner­ships next year in dis­tri­bu­tion, ex­hi­bi­tion and mer­chan­dis­ing, as well as in reg­u­lar in­vest­ment.

A new bi­lat­eral agree­ment be­tween the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica and the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment “eased some of the ten­sions Hol­ly­wood felt about the grow­ing re­la­tion­ship,” and while noth­ing was so­lid­ifi it was a good sign that China promised in­ter­na­tional par­ties to au­dit its box of­fice and to make sure the num­bers added up, Papish said. The agree­ment was signed dur­ing Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping’s state visit to the US at the end of Septem­ber.

As for num­bers adding up at the box of­fice in China, Hol­ly­wood is count­ing on the force be­ing with it next month. And an anal­y­sis by Reuters of posts on the pop­u­lar mi­croblog Sina Weibo showed Star Wars has been men­tioned around 700,000 times since the start of De­cem­ber, out­pac­ing other big hit Hol­ly­wood re­leases in China this year.

Con­tact the writer at amyhe@ chi­nadai­lyusa.com

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A small poster for the top-gross­ing Hol­ly­wood movie of 2015, Furious7,

which took in $390 mil­lion. Stan­ley Rosen, Univer­sity of Southern Cal­i­for­nia

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