What Hollywood Thinks about China

Hollywood’s obsession with China was a major theme of 2014. China represents the second largest film market in the world and has become a major market focus for numerous big budget American movies. It has also emerged as a bit of an enigma as Hollywood tries to second guess what the Chinese want.

To Hollywood, the model for dealing with China going forward is the massive success of Transformers: Age of Extinction in its Chinese release. In the Hollywood master plan, China simply becomes a major market and financial backer for all things Hollywood.

But like the old joke about two Hollywood moguls-Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?“-certain factors get in the way of Hollywood’s one-way-street strategic plans. Things like, China’s tight control over the release of foreign movies every year; the sometimes slow payment process; the social and political concerns of the Chinese government and their censorship powers;. as well as the very real differences in film sensibility between American and Chinese audiences.

For these reasons, and others, the Hollywood-China connection very likely will become a major two-way street.

To get a different perspective on how how the China question will take shape in 2015, I undertook a series of email chats at the end of last year with Dr. Kristof Van den Troost at The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)’s Centre for East Asian Studies. Dr. Van den Troost has written several articles on the Hong Kong cinema past and present, as well as works pertaining to modern Chinese pop culture. He was agreeable to letting me pick his brain, which immediately makes him a scholar and a gentleman in my book.

[NB: all the italics below are from Dr. Van den Troost.]

I suppose it’s best to start with some historical background.

Hong Kong, Taiwan and the PRC all developed their own very distinctive cinemas from the 1950s to the 1990s. Taiwan and Hong Kong had fairly close connections from the 1960s to the 1980s, with money and personnel shuttling between them. The Taiwanese New Cinema of the 1980s was more successful critically than commercially. Ultimately, Hong Kong’s cinema annihilated Taiwanese cinema. Ironically, soon after it crushed Taiwanese cinema, Hong Kong cinema suffered the same fate when it encountered Hollywood, though its own operational shortcomings like overproduction, piracy and loss of talent contributed, too.

The focus of filmmaking in mainland China began to move away from state control with the emergence of the Fifth Generation movement of filmmakers. China seriously began to open up its film industry in the 1990s, which led to a severe crisis and fewer films being released. The situation more or less righted itself with Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2002, and since then, PRC cinema has grown exponentially.

Meanwhile, the control of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

In the past two decades, while ‘old-style,’ purely Hong Kong cinema declined, PRC cinema became increasingly commercial and Hong Kong-like. Today, many older Hong Kong film talents remain active in the PRC film industry. Some have significantly contributed to the most commercially successful co-produced films of the past few years. But, I would say this older generation of Hong Kong filmmakers will slowly be replaced by younger PRC talent.”

Dr. Van den Troost estimates Hong Kong’s current output at around 50-80 films a year, down from 200-300 in the early 1990s, with 80-90% co-productions with Mainland China:

Occasionally a “pure” Hong Kong film comes out that often highlights its “Hongkongness” in a self-conscious way. Such films are often vulgar or violent, which makes them hard to release in the PRC. Hong Kong cinema as it used to be is considered mostly dead by observers, but the influence of Hong Kong practices and talents on PRC cinema is enormous.

China’s effort to expand its influence is focused first on the Chinese domestic market, says Dr. Van Den Troost:

Only in the last two years have Chinese films started to perform as well as, or slightly better than, Hollywood imports in the domestic market. That’s partly because the government limits foreign imports and tries its best to boost local cinema. But there is also a growing number of genuine hits. If a film industry has only limited appeal domestically, it’s unlikely to be successful internationally.

China’s long-range strategy is to open its market marginally more to Hollywood product and, in turn, buy its way into the American system. Through co-productions, China is learning more about modern film techniques.

As Dr. Van den Troost notes: Both Chinese businessmen and the government would like to see Chinese films succeed abroad, for financial reasons but also as a form of soft power. Some Chinese companies have been buying Hollywood studios and distribution companies. This could be one way to tap into Hollywood’s existing global network. The other is by encouraging co-productions so Hollywood can tap into the Chinese market and Chinese companies can learn and get access to overseas markets. The upcoming Jackie Chan movie (Dragon Blade) seems a very good example of this strategy. It is actually quite similar to how the Hong Kong film industry was absorbed by and merged into the PRC industry.

In short, when it comes to developing its domestic film industry, China has its own intentions and interests. Making money for Hollywood is not necessarily at the top of its list. In fact, it isn’t even on the list, except as a stepping stone toward other objectives.

Just as the Chinese market has emerged as extremely important to the American film industry, it will also be extremely important to China’s film industry. And it doesn’t matter what Hollywood thinks about that.

Hollywood will not be the final arbitrator of this strategy.