Back in 1986, China was but a picturesque background for big Western films, not a market. The producers of blockbusters such as The Last Emperor and Empire of the Sun had no illusions about theatrical distribution in China apart from a few “friendship” showings at low cost or no cost.
The real ancillary market in those days was Japan, and both of these “China” films were tailored in little ways to please what was then the world’s second largest market. Bertolucci’s Emperor starred recognizable Japanese talent and had a superb score written by Sakamoto Ryuichi, who also acted in the film. Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was so faithful to its source material — JG Ballard’s recollection of life in Shanghai under Japanese occupation as seen through eyes of an airplane-addled boy – that it gave an oddly endearing gloss to a brutal takeover. When it came to screening in Japan, the localized marketing campaigns emphasized the Japan elements; the glamour of the cast in the first instance, and the obsession with the Mitsubishi Zero and Rising Sun insignia in the second. Even so, the Japan distributor of “Emperor” pressured producer Jeremy Thomas into cutting scenes containing actual wartime newsreel footage that reflected poorly on Japan.
Three decades later, big co-productions still venture ashore in China, but they have to submit to being tied up like Gulliver on the beach, freedom of movement denied until they are tamed to pass muster with prickly cultural commissars. It is hard to imagine either Emperor or Empire getting made in China today, not just because of the economics of fielding a cast of thousands, but due to onerous regulations and censorship.
China, not Japan, is the most coveted ancillary market for Hollywood today, and doing things right by Beijing is the price that must be paid to partake in the multibillion dollar theatrical stakes.
Hollywood has always been politicized, at least as Marxists see it, and even-non Marxists would acknowledge that Tinseltown tends to reflect the zeitgeist of the times, be it the material exuberance of the 1920’s, the prudish strictures of the Hayes Commission in the 1930’s or the patriotic production of war propaganda in the 1940’s.
The “guidance” in co-productions these days is to insert China content and hire Chinese talent, but there are other ways to thread the box office needle. Happily for directors such as James Cameron, epic special effects films such as Titanic (1997) and 3D action pix such as Avatar (2009) are among the most remunerative films ever, the latter still China’s box office leader.
The sky is still the perceived limit in China’s dynamic film market, but the distribution game is not for the faint of heart as protectionist sentiment in China is on the rise.
While China has wowed the world with its economic prowess in manufacturing and trade, it is still playing catch-up in creative and innovative endeavors such as film. As such, China’s reception of Western imports betrays a mix of humility and arrogance, admiration and covetousness, –a desire to learn from Hollywood in order to one day beat Americans at their own game. When the quota for foreign films was increased from 20 to 34, the expansion made room for 3-D films only, a dazzling new technology that China is keen to copy, co-opt and master. Sometimes this eager impatience manifests itself in negative ways, such as the IMAX dispute involving claims of stolen technology, or, more agreeably, in the announced purchase of 20% of Imax’s Chinese business by China Media Capital and FountainVest Partners.
Former Shanghai actress Luo Yan, whose Silver Dream Productions has advised Relativity Media and other US clients on the China market says, “Hollywood has never faced such a challenge in its history.” She says the Chinese audience is developing its own tastes related to a national culture that is hard for foreigners to understand.
Not that getting a grip on what people will pay to see in the theatre is easy for Chinese either. The box-office success of the locally produced Tiny Times (2013) illustrates the difficulty of knowing what works and why. The lightweight tale about four young women enjoying the hedonism of modern-day Shanghai, (Sex and the City being an obvious influence) disappointed foreign film pros and party hacks alike. What kind of cultural garbage is this? Why does something so obviously superficial and derivative continue to pack them in?
At the same time, serious works, even those in tune with reigning political currents, sometimes go to comical lengths to compete with popular pabulum. When The Sino-Japanese War at Sea 1894 (《一八九四•甲午大海战》 (2012)) hit the screens, the publicity campaign featured unrelated buzzwords ripped straight from contentious headlines of 2012: “Diaoyu Islands, Nansha Islands, Shisha Islands.” For some inexplicable reason, Iwo Jima, which had recently been renamed “Iwoto” by revisionist Japanese authorities, was also included in the eye-catching but anachronistic poster.
The delayed release of Lu Chuan’s Nanjing, Nanjing (2009) shows how even China’s most powerful production entity, the China Film Corporation, can be stymied by political shifts. This sober film was held up for a year due to ostensible censorship concerns, but not so coincidentally, its initial release date was pegged at one of those rare junctures where it looked like Sino-Japanese relations might improve due to a spate of Sino-Japanese summitry leading to a possible off-shore gas deal, with the result that one hand of the state promoted the anti-Japan fare while the other hand sought to squelch it. The film’s unsparing depiction of Japanese military atrocities against Chinese citizens was an unexpected box office success when it was finally cleared for release after the collapse of the gas deal.
Beijing authorities issued guidelines this past summer calling for more “patriotic” and “anti-fascist” fare starting in September, but China’s mid-autumn holiday filmgoers opted for middlebrow American art, as an ape costume drama vied for ticket sales against a mercenary action film packed with an ensemble of bankable stars.
As Hollywood Reporter put it:
“Planet of the Apes Narrowly Tops Expendables 3.”
Moviegoers vote with their feet. Despite the imposition of quotas, guidelines, government subsidies, script meddling, the manipulation of release dates and holding up payment of earned revenue, the China box office has a mind of its own.