Hollywood braced itself when President Trump took power in January, fearing his America-first stance might upset its increasingly vital relationship with China.
A second’s pause might have quelled the anxiety – the mutual benefits confirmed when Trump met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in an April summit. Their agreement to relax China’s “great wall” quota for foreign film imports – set at 34 in 2012 – both satisfied Trump’s business impulses and furthered the in-roads into the country’s box office made by the studios in the last decade.
But what was in it for China? The unstoppable flow of Fast & Furious, Transformers and Marvel mayhem squirting down the blockbuster pipeline smacks outwardly of cultural imperialism. Greater Hollywood involvement, though, doesn’t necessarily have to be a destructive force for Chinese cinema. Here are five reasons why:
1. Box-office income
It’s not just Hollywood that benefits when its films clean up at the Chinese box office: local cinema exhibitors and, ultimately, the government get a financial boost, too. Under the current quota arrangement, China Film Group – the state body with the sole right to import films – walks away with around 22% of the takings; money that should be reinvested into local film production and infrastructure development. It was no accident that, faced with slowing box office last year, the Chinese authorities turned to the Hollywood workhorse to make up the ground, relaxing the quota to 38. The pulling power of the US blockbuster remains unparalleled.
2. Acquiring skills
Co-productions – collaborations between the Hollywood studios and Chinese companies – have been big in recent years. Mainly because the likes of Iron Man 3, Kung Fu Panda 3, Looper and The Great Wall, carefully working in Chinese stars and settings, are a way of circumventing the quota. But beyond superficial brand partnerships, co-productions are a key opportunity for Chinese film personnel to work alongside Hollywood and pick up skills that will eventually allow homegrown blockbusters to compete on the global film market.
That means everything from the ruthless focus on story editing that allows Hollywood product to cross borders frictionlessly to marketing knowhow to cutting-edge special FX. Monster Hunt, the 2015 local fantasy smash hit that nearly beat Furious 7 to China’s highest grossing film that year, clearly benefitted from director Raman Hui’s pat SFX work in America. The co-production model is still a work in progress – last year’s The Great Wall, with Matt Damon anchoring the biggest such collaboration yet, got caught between satisfying the Chinese and global audiences, and was a financial disappointment. But co-productions are prototypes for how future mainstream entertainment could become more China-centric and start to win fans further afield.
3. Reciprocal investment
This is the part Trump might not like: giving Hollywood greater access to the Chinese market means allowing Chinese money to go the other way. It’s already happening: Paramount Studios recently agreed $1bn worth of production investment from Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media, who had previously contributed to Jack Reacher: Never Goes Back and Transformers: Age of Extinction respectively. Paramount also has existing deal with Hangzhou’s AliBaba pictures, and other studios have similar arrangements.
This kind of thing muddies the waters for who those who fear US blockbusters “taking over” in China. When the likes of (partially Chinese-financed) Jurassic World packs the punters in at (Chinese-owned) AMC and Odeon cinemas around the world, is that still a Hollywood triumph?
4. Financial probity
If China wants to mix it up with the blockbuster big boys, it must address its dubious box-office auditing standards. When a major local film like Monster Hunt cooks the books – as its distributor was alleged to have done by handing out free tickets in the final fortnight of its run – it makes the industry look unprofessional to say the least. Far from an isolated incident, it’s the kind of thing that reduces confidence of foreign investors. Greater Hollywood activity in China will increase the pressure to stamp out such malpractice – an aim the Chinese government have said they share.
The quota has been undeniably important in protecting the fledgling Chinese industry. But maybe the time has come to question whether this shield, in combination with several other protectionist measures, is actually stunting its development. Last year saw a huge slowdown in Chinese box-office growth – 3.7% to a total of CNY 45.7 billion, compared to a staggering 48% in 2015 – that exposed a lack of depth in local film production. The quota, plus blackouts on Hollywood releases during critical holiday periods, plus tax rebates for cinemas who show Chinese films, haven’t so far stimulated a truly robust and confident Chinese film culture; maybe, in fact, they’ve prevented local film-makers from realising how far they have to come to compete properly, or even the most effective way of going about that.
Chinese blockbusters often fall into two camps: state-compliant historical spectaculars like Wolf Totem or The Taking of Tiger Mountain, or CGI-laden Hollywood knockoffs like Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe. Perhaps these only survive because of artificial help. It’s striking that the one outstanding big-budget Chinese success story of last year – Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, which is by far the country’s highest grossing film – is a truly idiosyncratic and Chinese-feeling work that, in its ecological themes, also engages fully with the modern world. Local audiences are obviously hungry for original works they feel belong fully to them. Maybe direct exposure to Hollywood competition – while still carefully nurturing and liberating the local film industry – might breed such originals faster.