China Takes Aim at Hollywood

The communist nation's movie industry plans to invade the global entertainment market

by Lawrence Meyers | 21 Apr 2016 at 5:19 AM

There was an alarming story on 60 Minutes recently about how the Chinese movie industry is ramping up production, and that one day all these Chinese films would invade America!

“It’s expected to become the biggest movie market in the world as early as next year,” said correspondent Holly Williams, calling it a “new Hollywood rising in the east.” But is there cause for alarm?

It’s unlikely there will ever be a massive influx of Chinese cinema into U.S. theaters. “PBS Newshour” reported last year that 73 percent of people on movie screens are white; 63 percent of the U.S. population is white. Likewise, 12% of the U.S. population is black, and that’s the same percentage PBS reports as being on screen. Go to Mexico, and you’ll find that it is mostly Hispanic faces on screen. Go to India, and you’ll see the same thing. Bollywood is big business there.

Cultures want to see themselves reflected in their popular culture. Except for the occasional outlier like the highly acclaimed “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which is now 16 years old, films with Chinese actors filling the screen simply don’t find an audience here.

In addition, as fantastic as Chinese cinema is, it cannot compete with the cultural roots that most Hollywood blockbusters will be mining for the next hundred years: Marvel and DC superheroes, Pixar animation, “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” and other properties that already have consumer awareness.

Yet there are multiple other issues, some of which were touched on in a Forbes article explaining what we "didn't see" on the "60 Minutes" segment.

For one thing, storytelling in China is vastly different from how it is in America. As moviegoers, we have learned a particular language of cinematic arcs. It has to do with the three-act structure, the thematics that are particular to American culture, the aesthetic styles of directors that have been subconsciously introduced into our minds over decades of watching films, and the traditional character journey that we have become accustomed to. This doesn’t even mention the type of comedy that Americans enjoy.

Chinese filmmakers approach storytelling in a completely different way. Just look at the hit "Crouching Tiger." It’s structure, characters, narrative methods – they are all vastly different from how Americans experience films.

The Forbes article takes these notions one step deeper. Most American films – or at least the very best of them – often champion the ability of an individual to conquer his flaws and accomplish a greater task in the process.

That simply doesn’t work in China. That’s not the message the government wants being sent out to the people. Creative freedom of expression is squelched.

It’s one thing in a film to have a bunch of mercenary warriors take on a robber baron because it’s a clear moral choice and the right thing to do. Yet the notion of these characters doing so out of a sense of individual responsibility or personal freedom would never fly. That’s why you are more likely to see a film about a disgraced warrior, who betrayed the king that he served. He is seeking redemption, but to make up for his failure in service. In America, it is about the disgraced cop who is seeking to become a better man.

However, all of that is not to say that China isn't ramping up its movie industry, as numerous recent articles have said in the wake of the "60 Minutes" segment.

With a population four times the size of the U.S., China is being called the "golden goose" of the film business as it moves beyond propaganda into entertainment. "China’s audience will one day be bigger than the U.S.," predicts Qiaowei Shen, Wharton marketing professor in, the school's online business journal. Some figures put the growth at 5,000 to 7,000 screens per year in China for the next 10 years.

That audience is alluring to Hollywood, just as our audiences are of interest to Chinese filmmakers. "The Great Wall," a movie starring Matt Damon and described as the story of "an elite force making  last stand for humanity on the world's most iconic structure," is slated to hit theaters here early next year.

"The Great Wall" is the first movie to emerge from Legendary Entertainment’s Legendary East operation, notes Variety. It’s the first English-language film for director Zhang Yimou, with a healthy budget of  $135 million.

And it's just one example of China's move into the global entertainment market. "Aside from being good business," says Z. John Zhang, Wharton marketing professor, "it is a way to protect China’s influence in the world."

Joe Russo, the director of Marvel’s "Captain America" franchise, said in an interview with China Real Time in Beijing that a growing number of Hollywood producers are heading to China for both "economic and artistic reasons."

Russo said, "China is an explosive market, so (it’s) absolutely another option for filmmakers," he said, adding that he and his brother, Anthony Russo, are becoming frequent visitors to Beijing in search of "new voices and new experiences."

Veteran independent film producer James Schamus "rattled and delighted" the crowd on the first day of 2016 Beijing International Film Festival, according to The Hollywood Reporter, when he declared, "China is becoming the new Hollywood."

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