ZEITGUIDE TO MOVIES AND CHINA
The 14 Oscar nominations announced for “La La Land” remind us how nostalgic the Motion Picture Academy gets for old-fashioned movies about Hollywood. But working Hollywood isn’t so sentimental. Indeed, much of its focus is some 6,500 miles away—on China.
The massive population of moviegoers in China has been a gold mine for Hollywood in recent years, but it might not stay that way. American film exports earned $2.7 billion at the Chinese box office in 2016, up a only a smidge from 2015—not the result some were hoping for after years of explosive box-office growth. That seems to have peaked.
(Big 2016 winners for American studios in China ranged from family fare, including Disney’s “Zootopia,” to super-hero and action films such as Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War,” also a Disney property.)
This is no one-way exchange, however. Chinese firms are putting down greater roots in Hollywood. Shanghai Film Group and Huahua Media invested $1 billion in Viacom’s Paramount Pictures. Steven Spielberg’s production house, Amblin Partners, took on minority investment from Alibaba Pictures. Ice Cube’s film production house Cube Vision partnered with Kelvin Wu’s AID Partners.
Then there is Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, which now owns Legendary Entertainment (producer of “The Dark Knight” trilogy) and has agreed to pay $1 billion for Dick Clark productions. It already owns the American theater chain AMC, and with its forthcoming acquisition of Carmike Cinemas, it will have assembled the largest movie theater chain in the U.S. Dalian Wanda is also offering 40% rebates to lure production companies to its “Movie Metropolis” studio complex under construction in Qingdao.
Film production in China is booming. Only 43 Chinese-made films were distributed there in 2005; That number rose to 308 by 2014. Some industry analysts see Hollywood studios getting squeezed out if they aren’t smart about how to create entertainment that appeals to both countries.
Also looming over the Hollywood-China relationship: what impact might Trump’s presidency might have on trade relations.
Even before the election, a few U.S. politicians were pushing back against greater China-Hollywood ties, including talk of Congressional hearings. Their worries are that China has too much influence over U.S. media—or, conversely, that filmmakers will avoid topics and themes to get projects past Chinese censors.
Political pitfalls aside, the long game on both ends appears to be to produce films with bicultural (or global) appeal. Look for the most expensive such experiment in February, when “The Great Wall” (an epic headlined by Matt Damon and filmed in Qingdao) hits U.S. theaters. It’s grossed $203 million in China so far.