Film Fund-amentals: East is East…

Rudyard Kipling never worked in Hollywood. That’s why no one is paying much attention to his old advice. China is now the new market that everyone wants to own. Odd thing, the Chinese seem to view China as being their own turf, and the current move by American film companies toward the East may yet prove that Kipling — old fuss-budget that he was — had a point.

Rupert Murdoch has spent the past several years trying to dictate to the Chinese about opening their market to American films. OK, what Murdoch means is that they should just step to one side and let him run riot through the country. Since most senior Chinese officials have taken a gander at Fox News, I doubt if they are in any way fooled.

At about the same time, Chris Dodd also was in China making the same pitch on behalf of the membership of the MPAA. In each case, the Chinese have taken the stand that they are moving as fast as they can to open their market to American movies, but they also feel that they must move slowly due to problems caused by piracy in the film market. They have a very good point. I understand that it’s pretty easy to get DVDs of American movies in Hong Kong these days before the film opens in the States. On the other hand, China’s has just cut a VoD deal with Warner in spite of the so-called piracy concern.

OK, I suspect the piracy concern is really a diplomatic way to stall the process. For a variety of reasons, the Chinese may not be excited at the prospect of being converted into a multi-billion dollar market for Hollywood products (within the next few years the Chinese domestic box office will hit the $11 billion mark). After all, the experience tends to be a one-way street and doesn’t do much for the country being used. Besides, the Chinese are extremely interested in making their own moves in the other direction.

The road between the East and West is getting bumpier with every passing day. Since 1972 (when Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing), China and the US have gone from being distant enemies to now very distant “friends.” Economically, the two countries have become so intricately intertwined that they are virtually stuck with each other. Politically, the two countries are at a coolly polite loggerhead on a wide range of issues from the fate of Taiwan to problems of common courtesy. Many Americans privately view the Chinese as a repressive dictatorial regime that is ruthlessly blocking free enterprise and American business expansion. Not surprisingly, the Chinese view Americans as a pesky rude pack of jingoistic looters who simply want to move in and take everything. Each side is half right about the other. So Hollywood may not get far in these business maneuvers.

Especially not with some of the current trends going on here in the States. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, some Americans decided that they had to find a new adversary. Over the past decade, various conservative political outfits have been grooming China as the new opponent. Last year the organization Citizens Against Government Waste scored attention for themselves with a slick little ad that deftly combined elements of 1984 with The Manchurian Candidate to deliver a hysterical attack on Chinese/American economic policies. Sure, the ad is a collection of partial facts underlined by a subtle use of racist stereotypes, but it has influenced some of the current political thinking in the US (for example, the recent political ad used by Mark Amodei in the Nevada congressional race).

Granted, the present state of US “political thinking” is practically turning the phrase into an oxymoron. I don’t know about the average American voter, but the average American politician is so dumb that many of them couldn’t find China on a map even if you circled the dang spot for them. Likewise, much of the past 40 years of US and Chinese economic and political interaction has been pursued by a unique American mixture of fear, ignorance and casual indifference. While many major businesses are now trying to play a game of catch-up (beginning with a somewhat belated realization that in order to do business in China they just might want to hire some people who actually speak Chinese), both Washington and Hollywood are still way behind the learning curve.

Don’t believe me, just look at the redo of Red Dawn. Sorry, I mean just try to look at the movie. Originally produced by MGM (before the studio went bankrupt), the film is currently looking for a distributor. Its also looking for a villain. Seems that nobody involved in making this new version considered the notion that using the Chinese as the bad guys invading the US might mean that they were pretty much writing off most of the Asian market for distribution (since China’s position is the single biggest economic powerhouse in Asia). Likewise, the Asian market is extremely critical to the box office success of many American movies, and gee gosh golly, seems that the filmmakers just didn’t realize that the Chinese were so touchy about how they were presented, and well… guess they will have to find a new Asian bad guy. This is why they’re still looking for a distributor while working overtime with CGI in a desperate effort to change the movie’s evil army from Chinese to North Korean (heck, those Asian dudes all look alike anyway).

To be honest, most of the Red Dawn mess is attributable to a handful of people in the business. But a lot of the rest of Hollywood isn’t really any smarter. The Chinese will often take the long-term view; Hollywood has problems looking past opening day. The Chinese have a strong sense of maintaining their own vested interest in political and financial deals; the major American film companies have traditionally viewed the international market as free money from overseas, and largely resent the idea that the local-yokels (like say the French) should expect to get a fair cut of the deal.

So the current pitch to the Chinese market is bound to go far. Probably all the way to the dumpster.