China’s Influence on Hollywood

The film industry is changing. One could of course say that it has always been changing, ever since the early days with the Lumiere brothers and other such pioneers. The traditional distribution models are evolving (sometimes even kicking and screaming) to keep up with the technological and cultural developments happening in in society. One of such development is the special, and sometimes strained, relationship between the American and Chinese film industries.

People sometimes ask me why I think the mainstream film industry is so thoroughly dominated by sequels, remakes and prequels, or that every film that comes out seems to be based on some kind of book or other medium like computer games and even board games (yes… there is a Monopoly film in the works). These days, we rarely see films based on original scripts on the top 10 or even top 20 of the box office. One explanation for this is that making mainstream movies is, with few exceptions, very expensive. For studios it is often far safer to put money on brands and franchises that already have some degree of proven success. The average audience goes to the cinema for easy entertainment. In the deluge of yearly of titles, choosing can be tiresome, and the titles you already know is often the easier choice, be it a sequel, prequel or adaptation.

The Chinese film market has begun to open up for American productions, and in the increasingly fierce competition for ticket sales, it is only natural that the studios want to get in on this massive market. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has strict control on what to show to the Chinese public. Movies with a certain propaganda value gets a broader release in China, and many American studios have begun “flirting” with the cultural departments of this government to get the most out of their product. A way to do this is to include China-friendly content, products, actors or otherwise put China in a good light.

For a film to reach the Chinese market, it is also crucial that the Chinese public will want to buy the tickets. Chinese audiences don’t have the same affection for big Hollywood stars name stars like the the American and European audiences, and the names of American actors on the movie posters doesn’t hold the same appeal to the average Chinese movie goer. The language barriers and culture differences are a major causes here. This, therefore, means that a film that has big Hollywood stars as the main draw on the domestic market, like the so-called “star vehicles” with the Brad Pitts, Will Smiths and Adam Sandlers of the American film industry, will probably not reach the Chinese market on that merit alone, and therefore no longer prioritized by the studios. Also, the Chinese government uses a strict quota for how many American films that are shown in China each year, causing even more competition among the distributors.

If a Hollywood studio wants to make a film that is successful on the Chinese market, the language barrier must be overcome. Relying on plots driven by heavy dialogue makes this difficult. Visual action, Chinese actors audience know and can relate to, product placement of Chinese brands and praising of Chinese values are all common ways to approach this this market. This can result in some not-so-subtle Hollywood-China co-productions, like The Great Wall and major franchises like Transformers (which includes some strange product placements of Chinese brands), but a side effect is that producers and stars who, for various reasons, won’t or can’t approach this market, are moving to alternatives. Streaming on platforms like Netflix and Disney+ can be seen as an affordable way to bypass the more traditional distribution model, but at the same time it might be weakening film industry as a whole, as it presents a serious competition to the cinemas.

So how will the relationship between the film industries in the US and China develop in the future? With the competition over the enormous box office sales that can be won on the Chinese market, it is no wonder that American studios and producers will want to play nice with Beijing. Or will the Chinese film industry gradually try to hold back the influx of American, China friendly movies. There are hints to the latter, and that China is increasing their international co-productions to reach foreign markets, strengthening their own identity worldwide as a film nation. One recent example of an attempt at this type of export is the massive science fiction/disaster movie titled Wandering Earth, with a plot so over-the-top it would make even Ronald Emmerich blush.

Wandering Earth poster (2019)

I have the feeling we will see a growing polarization between big budget blockbusters produced to sell on the Chinese market, and smaller, more experimental films with lower budgets and lower risks, but with more artistic freedom. And the big Hollywood names, well, they might head towards the streaming services, and they are going to draw a lot of us with them.

Interesting times ahead for sure!