20080301-Pearl Buck film.gif
film version of The Good Earth
“ American film companies want to invest millions of dollars in China in films, studios and multiplex theaters. The Chinese government is resistant to such moves because it is worried about "spiritual pollution" caused by sex and violence in foreign films and it wants to protects its domestic film industry. As it stands foreign companies can build new movie theaters in China but they can’t manage them. Some think that rule will be relaxed soon.

In 2012, China overtook Japan to become the biggest foreign market for Hollywood films. Americans interested in making movies in China include Faye Dunaway who wants to do film on Pearl S. Buck's life, and Oliver Stone who want to make a movie about Mao Zedong. The American film industry looks upon the potential market of 1.4 billion viewers in China with both greed and apprehension. As with other industries in China, the general strategy for foreign companies seems to be to establish a presence in China and be well positioned when the boom comes. As evidence that Hollywood is serious about China there is now a Chinese-language version of Variety. The Hollywood Reporter has set up a bureau in Beijing. "I know studio executives and even chairmen of studios who've never been to China, who are now saying: I need to go, I need to meet people," Hollywood producer Tracey Trench told AP. Glenn Berger, the screenwriter of the "Kung Fu Panda" movies, said that China is a trendy theme now. "Hollywood needs to tell the same story in new and unusual ways and right now China is hot, it's interesting and most people in the West don't know very much about it," Berger said. [Source: Kelvin Chan, Associated Press, March 20, 2012]

Hollywood earned $67 million in China 2005, up from $24 million in 2004. $67 million was considered chump change for Hollywood. It earned more in Switzerland and Peru at that time. Plus, Hollywood lost millions if not billions to piracy. Hollywood was also unhappy about the cut it got from films shown in China. After the theaters and distributors in China take their share and fees and taxes are levied the American film companies generally receive around 13 percent of the box office receipts, compared to 50 percent in other countries.

The blockbuster “The Dark Night” — which features Batman traveling to Hong Kong to capture a Chinese bad guy — did not get an official release in China because Warner Brothers was worried about “pre-release conditions” and “cultural sensitivities to some elements of the film.” Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Hollywood has learned the hard way that besmirching China's image on-screen can have long-running implications for the many arms of a modern media conglomerate. In the late 1990s, Walt Disney Studios, Sony Pictures and MGM all faced a temporary halt in their business dealings in the country after releasing the movies "Kundun," "Seven Years in Tibet" and "Red Corner," respectively, which were critical of the communist government.” [Source: Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2011]

Websites: Senses of Cinema sensesofcinema.com; dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema dgeneratefilms.com; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film imdb.com ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site chinesecinemas.org ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List mclc.osu.edu ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) china.org.cn ; Directory of Interent Sources newton.uor.edu ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia yesasia.com and Zoom Movie zoommovie.com

Popular Hollywood Movies in China

In 1994, “The Fugitive”, with Harrison Ford, became the first American feature film to be shown legally in cinemas in China. It played to packed movie houses but was closed down the Propaganda Department and condemned as “decadent” presumably because its success was perceived as a threat.

The "Transformer", "Mission Impossible" and "Fast and Furious“ series have done very well at the Chinese box office. Avatar, Transformers 2" and Roland Emmerich's “2012" all broke the country's box office records. “Avatar”, James Cameron’s 3-D epic, pulled in $204 million in China in 2010, a record. The apocalyptic “2012" represented Tibet and Chinese soldiers in a pro-Beijing light. The latter film seemed to show that Hollywood was more than willing to kiss China's ass to make money from the Chinese market.

“Titanic” was still the biggest box office hit ever in China until the late 2000s. It earned $40 million in China, the largest sum ever for a foreign film and 10 times more than the most successful Chinese films that came out around the same time. Chinese flocked to see “Titanic” at theaters even though the film was available months before on crudely-made videos and DVDs. Urging his comrades to see it Chinese President Jiang Zemin said, "You should not imagine that there is ideological education in capitalist countries." He also challenged Chinese to emulate the film and come up with something better.

The second highest grossing film in China for a long time was “Pearl Harbor”. Danny Boyle's Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” enjoyed wide release in China. Other American movies that did well in China have included “The Lion King, Twister, Speed” and “True Lies”. “Forest Gump” did not go over well, apparently because audiences couldn't relate to a hero as unlikely as Gump. “Pulp Fiction” was too violent for many Chinese film goers, many of whom walked out before the movie was over. “Saving Private Ryan” was not a big success.

Hollywood films shown in 1999 included “Dr. Doolittle, The X-Files Movie, A Bug's Life” and “The Truman Show”. Popular films in 2005 were “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire; Star Wars; Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”. Among the popular American films among Chinese in their 20s in the mid 2000s in Shanghai were James Bond films, “Pretty Woman, Titanic, Sleepless in Seattle, Finding Nemo” and “Matrix Revolutions”.

In 2006, “Miami Vice” was approved by Chinese sensors with a steamy love scene with Colin Farrell and Gong Li largely intact while “Memoirs of a Geisha” was banned. Geisha had initially been approved but was banned at the last minute, many speculate because of the sight of a Chinese actress playing a Japanese. “The Da Vinci Code” was pulled suddenly a few days after its debut when it was predicted to be one of the highest grossing films ever in China. “Casino Royal” was shown uncut and uncensored at theaters in China. It was the first James Bond film to be officially shown in China. During a promotional visit for the film’s premier, David Craig, the actor who played James Bond, said someone tried to sell him a pirated DVD copy of the film on the streets of Beijing for $1. In July 2009, “Transformers 2" became China’s biggest box office hit ever after earning $59 million its first weekend, more than “Titanic” earned in 1998.

Hollywood Losing Ground to Chinese Blockbusters

In January 2020, Bloomberg reported: China’s biggest week of the year for movie-goers is packed with at least 12 new releases — all in the local language — a sign that Hollywood studios are headed for another challenging year in their No. 1 overseas market. “Detective Chinatown 3" and “Lost in Russia”, installments of two of China’s most commercially successful comedies, are among the films forecast to do well over the holiday. [Source: Bloomberg, January 20, 2020]

“The lineup of potential Lunar New Year blockbusters from January 24 to January 30 is drawing even more attention than usual because China is set to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest movie market. The milestone is important as well for U.S. filmmakers that have come to rely on revenue from China to backstop big-budget “tentpoles,” films made to be big earners to offset the financial riskiness of a studio’s other titles. “Chinese and American audiences are tired of these tentpole movies,” said Beijing-born Jean Su, a producer and co-founder of Broadvision Pictures, a Los Angeles-based independent film and TV studio that focuses on movies for global audiences including North America and China. She said some recent tentpoles haven’t done well in the US and may not get the box office they expected in China, either.

“The rising dominance of Chinese blockbusters is in line with a broader shift toward local goods as a trade war with the U.S. stokes nationalism. Older American franchise films like Fast & Furious and Transformers, that used to offset mediocre box-office sales in the US with big China receipts, have seen their share of China’s estimated US$29 billion movie market dwindle. While China’s filmgoers are becoming choosier, especially when it comes to Hollywood movies, there’s still a big Chinese audience for great work from the U.S., said Gary Michael Walters, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Bold Films, which produced films such as Whiplash and Nightcrawler.

“Overall box-office sales increased by 4.1 percent in China in 2019, while the slice accounted for by Hollywood titles fell to about 36 percent, the lowest since at least 2011, according to data from Maoyan Entertainment. Even if Hollywood’s market share in China drops for another year, U.S. films will probably show a net gain in revenue from the country, given broader growth in the market, predicts Walters. “There were some successes in 2019 among US films in China. “Disney’s Marvel franchise Avengers: End Game had US$614 million in gross box-office last year in China, enough to make it the year’s third-biggest film there, according to IMDb.

“On the schedule for the Lunar New Year: The Rescue, a maritime disaster thriller directed by one of China’s most successful action movie directors Dante Lam and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau . Such action themes have been popular in China, with the Lam-directed Operation Red Sea, as the top-grossing film in 2018 and Wolf Warrior 2, reaching the all-time No. 1 box-office ranking.

Hollywood Films About China

left Among the films that were set in China but were not actually shot there are “Fifty Five Days at Peking”, shot in Spain; “Seven Years in Tibet”, shot in Patagonia; and “The World of Suzie Wong” shot in Burbank with Chinese-American actress Nancy Kwon. The famous novel “The Good Earth” by Nobel-Prize- winning author Pearl S. Buck was made into a 1937 film that won two Academy Awards in 1938: Best Actress (Luise Rainer) and Best Cinematography (Karl Freund). It was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editiing. “The Pavilion of Women”, another Buck novel, was made into a film in the early 2000s with Willem Dafaoe and Chinese actress Luo Yan.

Shanghai has been the subject of a number of films. Charlie Chaplin was Shanghaied there in 1915. “Shanghai Express” (1932) featured Marlene Dietrich playing a high class prostitute, Shanghai Lil, who worked the train between Beijing and Shanghai. “The Lady From Shanghai” boasted Rita Hayworth and Orsen Welles in the leading roles. And, Joseph von Sternberg’s excellent “The Shanghai Gesture” (1941) was about middle class girl who ends up on the wrong side of the tracks. In the 1980s, George Harrison, Madonna and Sean Penn collaborated on the ill-fated “Shanghai Express”. The Merchant & Ivory film, “The White Countess”, shot in Shanghai with Ralph Fiennes and three members of the Redgrave family, was the last Merchant and Ivory collaboration (Merchant died during post-production).

“China” (1943) stareed Alan Ladd, Loretta Young, William Bendix, Philip Ahn, Victor Sen Yung, Marianne Quon and Richard Loo. According to VideoHound: In the film, directed by John Farrow, David Jones (Ladd) is an unfeeling profiteer who's making money off the Japanese invading China (it's 1941). But he and buddy Johnny Sparrow (Bendix) have their truck hijacked by a group of Chinese guerrillas, lead by China-born American teacher Carolyn Grant (Young), who need a group of schoolgirls driven to safety through enemy lines. Naturally, Jones has a change of heart (and sides) and battles the Japanese troops. Typically fervent propaganda film. Based on the play by Archibald Forbes. [Source: VideoHound's Golden Movie Retriever, Gale, 2008]

“Red Corner” is film starring Richard Gere as an American lawyer who visits China and is framed for murder and finds himself trapped in a Kafkaesque legal system is defended by a beautiful Chinese lawyer The third edition of the mummy series “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” features Jet Li as a mainly wordless evil Emperor Han leading a army of Xian-style terra cotta soldiers that have come to life. A Hollywood version of the Hong-Kong horror classic “The Eye” with Jessica Alba was released in 2008. The story had a few changes and was not as good as the original.

Christopher Harding wrote in The Telegraph: Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) became part of the picture across the 1960s, thanks in part to a well-publicised speech in which Mao appeared blasé about the prospect of nuclear war: it would, in essence, be a numbers game, with enough Chinese surviving to put together a post-apocalyptic socialist paradise. The furor at the time in the Western media may have contributed to Roald Dahl’s decision, while writing the screenplay for the Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967), to exchange the original novel’s negative characterisation of the Japanese (replete with World War Two-era stereotypes) for a friendly, hi-tech Japan set in contrast to a dangerous People’s Republic of China (PRC) — backers, the film implied, of arch-villain Blofeld’s attempts to foment war between the US and the USSR. [Source: Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, October 27, 2021]

The door was duly opened to Hollywood, in hopes of sharing revenues and expertise. Censorship was introduced as a precaution, with Brad Pitt’s Seven Years in Tibet (1997) and Disney’s Dalai Lama biopic Kundun (1997) becoming two of the earliest high-profile offenders. Pitt was banned from China, notionally for life — though he would return in 2014 — while Disney went as far as hiring Henry Kissinger to help get them back into China’s good books.

Hollywood Films Shot in China

China is expected to be a major base for shooting Hollywood films in the future. An executive at Tristar films told the New York Times, “China is going to grow, so a lot of companies want to come in here and produce films.” Universal's “Pavilion of Women” (2000), based on a 1946 Pearl S. Buck novel, was one of the first Hollywood films about China to be shot in China mostly for Chinese audiences. “Big Shot's Funeral” (2001), a comedy shot in Beijing, was directed by Feng Xiaogang and starred Donald Sutherland and Tony Leung. The “Great Raid”, directed by John Dahl. was shot largely in China. Parts of “Mission Impossible III” were filmed in Shanghai and nearby Xitang. “The Kite Runner”, a Hollywood film based on a popular novel set Afghanistan, was filmed in Kashgar in western China.

They main attraction of shooting in China is low cost and the willingness of Chinese crew members to put in long hours. Political stability is also a plus and these day the Beijing government is surprisingly cooperative. China has very strict rules about films shot in China that are intended to be shown in China but these rules don’t necessarily apply for films primarily intended to be shown outside of China.

“The Painted Veil” (2006) is about a British medical doctor fights a cholera outbreak in a small Chinese village, while also being trapped at home in a loveless marriage to an unfaithful wife. Filmed in China and directed by John Curran, it stars Naomi Watts, Edward Norton and Liev Schreiber. During the shooting of the film Norton broke three vertebrae in his back when a galloping horse threw up before filming a scene.

Sometimes Beijing goes to great lengths to be cooperative. It rebuilt part of the Great Wall of China and took down power lines, depriving a village of electricity for six weeks, so that producer Megan Gathercole could make a film called “Testudo”. In 1981, an Italian film crew making a movie about Marco Polo rented the courtyard of the Forbidden City for US$4,000 a day (the government reportedly had asked for $10,000 a day) and recruited People's Liberation Army soldiers to play Mongol warriors.

Other times the Chinese government creates huge problems. “Shanghai” (2010) is a '40s period piece which revolves around an American expat who returns to Shanghai in the months before Pearl Harbor due to the death of his friend. Directed by Mikael Håfström and written by Hossein Amini, it stars John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat Chow, Ken Watanabe and Franka Potente. The film was supposed to be made in China but the shoot was blocked just weeks before production was scheduled to begin. Sets had to be abandoned and shooting was relocated to Thailand and London. While it was a Hollywood production, the cast was predominantly Asian, and included some of the largest names in the region. [Source: IMDb]

Quentin Tarratino and Steven Spielberg Shoot Films in China

Spielberg's 1987 hit "Empire of the Sun" was one of the first Hollywood films to be shot in China. Shooting took place in Beijing as well as at Elstree Studios in the United Kingdom, and in Spain. After a year of negotiations with China Film Co-Production Corporation, permission was granted for a three-week shoot at Shanghai Film Studios. It was the first American film shot in Shanghai since the 1940s. Chinese authorities allowed the crew to alter signs to traditional Chinese characters, as well as closing down city blocks for filming. Over 5,000 local extras were used. Some were old enough to remember the Japanese occupation of Shanghai 40 years earlier. Members of the People's Liberation Army played Japanese soldiers. [Source: Wikipedia]

"Empire of the Sun" is about a young boy struggling to survive in Japanese-occupied China during World War II. The actor that played the boy was a young Christian Bale. In 2011, Bale returned to China as an actor in 2011 to make "The Flowers of War" a Zhang Yimou film about the Rape of Nanking. Bale said he was "completely oblivious" to the connection between the two films when he committed to it. "It's a different lifetime for me," Bale said of "Empire of the Sun." "I barely remember that experience." In 2013, Spielberg said he wanted to return to China to make a film in China in collaboration with Zhang Yimou. In an interview with the China Daily Spielberg said ""I made 'Empire of the Sun' in Shanghai in the 1980s and want to come back one day to make a movie in China." He called Zhang his "dear friend" and said: "We would work together on an international film that could take place in China." [Source: Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times, December 11, 2011; The Guardian, August 15, 2013]

Quentin Tarratino was the first big-name Hollywood director to use China as a low-cost production base for a film whose setting was somewhere else. Much of “Kill Bill”was shot in Beijing and elsewhere China with a largely Chinese crew. Even though much of the film is set in Japan only a week of filming was done there while 2½ months was done in China along with three weeks in Mexico and two months in the United States.

For “Kill Bill”, an American production company supplied the script, investments and hired its own crew. Their Chinese partner built the sets, hired a Chinese crew and took a small cut. The script had to be approved by a government agency but this was viewed as a formality. During filming, all directions were shouted in both English and Chinese for the benefit of both the American and Chinese crew members.

Restrictions on the Release of Hollywood Films in China

Hollywood film releases are generally blocked or delayed during the peak summer and holiday movie-goin seasons. In June 2013, the China Daily reported, the release of “Jurassic Park 3D” and “Fast and Furious 6" were postponed while domestic blockbuster "Switch" did hit screens. The popular Dreamworks animation "Croods" was also suddenly called off due to "contractual reasons" while domestic animations "Kuiba" and "The Adventures of Sinbad" WERE released. It's an open secret that the month for domestic film protection is here. “Raymond Zhou said, "The government agency that is doing that is playing the role of God that can not actually give you the rationale or the reason why it’s feasible and necessary. So it's quite random. I think that a more healthy and sound system of protection should be ironed out and all domestic movies should in a way be benefited from that." [Source: China Daily, June 20, 2013]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “It has been something of cruel summer for Chinese movie audiences. The latest installments of Hollywood blockbusters like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" have been delayed, and it is doubtful that American-made crowd pleasers like “Horrible Bosses” and “The Hangover Part II” will ever arrive in theaters. In the meantime countless moviegoers have been driven into cinemas as part of a government campaign to promote a sprawling epic about the Chinese Communist Party, “Beginning of the Great Revival.” [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times July 17, 2011]

Despite adamant denials by a co-director, Huang Jianxin, many audiences seem to believe one prevailing rumor: that foreign blockbusters will be delayed until “Great Revival” receipts surpass $120 million. Such suspicions are reinforced by a couple of undeniable truths: “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” will not reach China until Thursday, three weeks behind the United States premiere, while “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2" is not scheduled to land here until Aug. 4.

"Spiderman" and "Dark Knight", two of the biggest hits in 2012, were forced to open and face off against each other on the same day in China Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times. onths after Chinese and American leaders reached a new agreement allowing more foreign movies into China, Chinese officials are trying to torpedo the box office returns of some of Hollywood's biggest summer films. In August 2012, the superhero movies "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man," the Nos. 2 and 4 films of the year at the global box office in 2012, opened simultaneously in China. A similar case of "double dating" occurred in July with the release of the animated movies "Ice Age: Continental Drift" and "The Lorax" in China. In September, the thrillers "The Bourne Legacy" and "Total Recall" were set to open opposite each other as well. M American studios carefully schedule their pictures' launch dates — often declaring them a year or more in advance — to avoid colliding with similar movies going after similar audiences. But the state-owned China Film Group, which oversees the release of imported movies, has been scheduling U.S. films from the same genres on the same dates, aiming to limit their total grosses and boost the percentage of box office generated by Chinese-made pictures. China, insists upon monthlong "blackout periods," during which only locally produced movies can premiere. This summer, the blackouts have lasted longer, according to American movie executives familiar with the China market. [Source: Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2012]

It appears Hollywood is being punished for doing too well, the result of relaxed limits on foreign movies and Chinese consumers' surging appetite for Hollywood blockbusters. Thanks to the robust performances of movies such as "Titanic 3D" and "The Avengers," that came after China agreed to increase from the number of foreign movies allowed in from 20 to 34 to February 2012, imported films accounted for 65 percent of China's $1.3 billion of box office receipts through the end of June — a possible embarrassment to the Chinese government.

Kung Fu Panda Go Home; Zootopia, a Propaganda Tool

There is a lot resentment in the Chinese Internet community against Hollywood. A performance artist named Zhao Bandi wrote in his blog: “Hollywood is morally corrupt for churning outloathsome personalities like Sharon Stone (who betrayed schadenfreude over the Sichuan earthquake as “karmic retribution” for Tibet) and Steven Spielberg (who quit his role as artistic advisor to the Olympics over Sudan). Therefore it should not be allowed to profit, in China, and so soon after the earthquake, from China’s most iconic “national treasure” “the panda. And for Chinese to help line the pockets of the Hollywood reprobates would be tantamount to stripping valuables off the bodies of the quake victims.” Zhao then went on to hang a banner outside the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, telling Kung Fu Panda to go home. The banner was taken down within 20 minutes by plainclothes police. [Source: Haiyan Lee, The China Beat, July 17, 2008]

Kung Fu Panda opened just weeks after the Sichuan earthquake and a link between the film and the disaster was made because is Sichuan the home of China;s most famous panda reserves and was the site of the earthquake. Not everyone was happy about the protest. One irate Sichuanese who gave called Zhao and gave him a bank account number and demanded that a suitable sum be deposited into it to compensate for the psychological loss he allegedly sustained for being prevented from enjoying the movie simultaneously with his dear compatriots throughout the rest of the country ! Otherwise, Haiyan Lee wrote on The China Beat, the Chinese generally liked the film: “It seems that Dreamworks has hit the right note in saying that the movie is intended to be a love letter to the Chinese and a tribute to Chinese culture. Audiences across China have indeed been duly pleased (and tickled) by the movie’s clever blend of made-in-Hong Kong kungfu lore, Chinatown chinoiserie, American teenage humor, and state-of-the-art animation technology.

Disney’s animated film ‘Zootopia’, the No. 2 box office earner in China in 2016, was called U.S. propaganda tool by a Chinese professor. Lilian Lin wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time: The military-backed People’s Liberation Army Daily ran a commentary titled, “How can a sheep be turned into a ‘crazy’ scapegoat?” The author, a professor at a PLA-backed academy in the eastern city of Nanjing, questioned the plot of Disney’s animated animal film “Zootopia” (known as “Crazy Animal City” in Chinese), which features a sheep as the story’s main antagonist. The animated film revolves around a rabbit police officer working to track down some disappeared predators with the help of a red fox. In the end — spoiler alert — the two discover that the sheep, who worked as assistant mayor of Zootopia, is the mastermind of the case. [Source: Lilian Lin, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2016]

“That role reversal smelled like conspiracy to the commentary’s author. “In the brutal real world, it is always wolves eating sheep instead of sheep eating wolves,” reads the commentary. “Such a principle, which even children understand, can be so easily turned on its head by Hollywood and even draws in so many viewers.” The author went on to criticize the film as having succeeded as “invisible propaganda” by “blurring the background and concealing its viewpoint.” “Hollywood has always been an effective American propaganda tool. … If we are at the mercy of Zootopia and other films, how can our cultural territory not become eroded?” reads the commentary.

“The film’s characters have generated buzz online in China. Images and short videos of Flash, one of the sloths working in the film’s Department of Mammal Vehicles, have become a favorite among users of China’s social messaging platforms. Nick, the red fox in the film, has dethroned some fresh-faced South Korean actors to win the title of “the boyfriend I want to have” for many Chinese fans. Online users bashed the commentary for politicizing an animated film in a fashion reminiscent of China’s Cultural Revolution. “This must be the result of persecution mania and self-abasement,” wrote one user of China’s Weibo microblogging service. ”Why don’t you make more of an effort to think about how to improve our own cultural exports?” wrote another. Some online users drew a comparison between the Disney film and “Pleasant Goat and the Big Big Wolf,” a renowned Chinese animated TV series and film, in which a pair of wolves somehow always fail in their efforts to eat the goats, despite their best efforts over the TV show’s decade-long run. “If you call (a sheep eating a wolf) ‘turning something on its head,’ how about a wolf that can never beat the pleasant goat?” wrote one online user.

"Avatar" was another victim of too much success. It grossed more in China — in excess of $200 million — than in any other territory outside of North America at the time it was shown and was pulled from the majority of Chinese theaters while it was still drawing large audiences to make way for a domestically produced biography of Confucius. In addition to limiting the number of foreign films permitted to be shown, the Chinese government also regulates the amount of time each of those films can be shown. Officials ban any foreign films deemed unfriendly to the Communist Party but also want to ensure that any foreign imports deemed acceptable do not dominate the market and smother local film producers. While many films have a shorter run in Chinese theaters than their foreign producers would like, it is rare for the authorities to cut short the showing of a runaway success like Avatar. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 19, 2010]

Hollywood and Chinese Censors

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Villain in Chinese film
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Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes wrote in the New York Times: The lure of access to China’s fast-growing film market is entangling studios and moviemakers with the state censors of a country in which American notions of free expression simply do not apply. Whether studios are seeking to distribute a completed film in China or join with a Chinese company for a co-production shot partly in that country, they have discovered that navigating the murky, often shifting terrain of censorship is part of the process. [Source: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, New York Times, January 14, 2013]

“Billions of dollars ride on whether they get it right. International box-office revenue is the driving force behind many of Hollywood’s biggest films, and often plays a deciding role in whether a movie is made. Studios rely on consultants and past experience — and increasingly on informal advance nods from foreign officials — to help gauge whether a film will pass censorship; if there are problems they can sometimes be addressed through appeal and subsequent negotiations.

“But Paramount Pictures just learned the hard way that some things won’t pass muster — like American fighter pilots in dogfights with MIGs. The studio months ago submitted a new 3-D version of “Top Gun” to Chinese censors. The ensuing silence was finally recognized as rejection. Problems more often affect films that touch the Chinese directly. “Any movie about China made by outsiders is going to be very sensitive,” said Rob Cohen, who directed “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” among the first in a wave of co-productions between American studios — in this case, Universal Pictures — and Chinese companies.

“Hollywood as a whole is shifting toward China-friendly fantasies that will fit comfortably within a revised quota system, which allows more international films to be distributed in China, where 3-D and large-format Imax pictures are particularly favored. At the same time, it is avoiding subject matter and situations that are likely to cause conflict with the roughly three dozen members of a censorship board run by China’s powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or S.A.R.F.T. In addition, some studios are quietly asking Chinese officials for assurance that planned films, even when they do not have a Chinese theme, will have no major censorship problems.

“Studios are quickly discovering that a key to access in China is the inclusion of Chinese actors, story lines and locations. But the more closely a film examines China, the more likely it is to collide with shifting standards, unwritten rules and unfamiliar political powers who hold sway over what can be seen. Mr. Cohen’s “Mummy” film, which was shot throughout China in 2007, was a historical fantasy about an evil emperor who is magically resurrected by foreign adventurers in 1946. The script was preapproved by China’s censorship board with only token changes — the emperor’s name had to be fictionalized, for instance. The censors also cautioned that the ancient ruler should not resemble Mao Zedong. On reviewing the finished film, however, they found a deeper problem that “we didn’t have any way of seeing, or any way of fixing,” Mr. Cohen said: “White Westerners were saving China.” The picture was approved, he said, but its release was delayed until it had played elsewhere in the world, and pirated versions took a bite out of the Chinese box-office receipts.

“In a 2011 Web post, Robert Cain, a producer and consultant who guides filmmakers through China’s system, described having worked in Shanghai on a romantic comedy that went off script; the director included a take in which an extra, holding a camcorder, pretended to be a theater patron taping a movie on a screen. The next day, Mr. Cain and others involved with the film were summoned to the office of a Communist Party member who told them the film was being shut down for its “naïve” and “untruthful” portrayal of film piracy. Assuming they had been reported by a spy on their crew, the producers apologized and managed to keep the film on track.

“Co-productions like “Kung Fu Panda 3” draw close monitoring by the censors at every step. Scripts are submitted in advance. Representatives of S.A.R.F.T., according to Mr. Cohen and others, may be present on the set to guard against any deviation. And there is an unofficial expectation that the government’s approved version of the film will be seen both in China and elsewhere, though in practice it is not unusual for co-productions to slip through the system with differing versions, one for China, one for elsewhere in the world.

“But some who have dealt with S.A.R.F.T. say the censors are often pragmatic, and appear to walk a line between the demands of viewers, who want more global fare, and those of politicians, who are out to protect the status quo. In 2008, after an uproar over the release of Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution,” whose story of wartime love and collaboration caused unease even after sex scenes were deleted, written censorship guidelines were circulated in China, in what filmmakers there took to be a crackdown. Some of the prohibitions were broad, barring violations of the fundamental principles of the Constitution and the harming of social morality. Others were more pointed. Disparagement of the People’s Liberation Army and the police were banned, as were “murder, violence, horrors, ghosts, demons and supernaturalism.”

“In all, the standards would appear to clash with almost any American film, other than, perhaps, the PG-rated animated fare of a DreamWorks Animation. (Even “Kung Fu Panda” provoked objections by some Chinese, who saw the lead character as profaning a nationally revered animal.) For example, 20th Century Fox managed to get “Life of Pi” through with only the modification of the “religion is darkness” line, despite the movie’s spiritual themes — which tread close to a prohibition against the preaching of cult beliefs and superstitions — and the earlier trouble over “Lust, Caution.”

“For Americans, the hard part is knowing what might suddenly cause trouble — initial approvals notwithstanding. In 2009, Sony Pictures and its partner, the China Film Group, submitted their script for “The Karate Kid” to China’s censors, and dutifully changed parts of the story to suit them. But the finished film was rejected, according to people who were briefed on the process, essentially because film bureaucrats were unhappy that its villain was Chinese.

Django Unchained, Noah’s Ark and Minions All Blocked by Beijing

In 2013, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” was blocked from being shown just before it was scheduled to open after it had already been approved by Chinese censors and weeks had been spent heavily promoting it. Richard Brody wrote in The New Yorker: At first, the Chinese government demanded only a small array of changes — to the color and amplitude of spurting blood — and, when Tarantino complied, the movie was scheduled for an early-April release. Then, the day of its release, it was suddenly pulled from screens — rumor had it that full-frontal male nudity was the reason.” A few weeks later it “ finally opened in China, albeit on far fewer screens and shorn of far more than the red of its blood:” [Source: Richard Brody The New Yorker, May 24, 2013]

“According to a report published on the online portal of state-backed Xinhua News Agency, the new version released on Sunday is shorter than the original by three minutes. The deleted scenes include Django (Jamie Foxx) annihilating a racist plantation owner’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) clan in a massive shooting spree; King Schultz’s (Christoph Waltz) flashback about a man mauled by dogs; and scenes featuring Django and his wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), being tortured while in the nude.

In 2014, “Noah's Ark”, with Russell Crowe, was pulled about a week before it was supposed to open in China. Laurie Burkitt wrote in the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time: “It’s not entirely shocking that the film was pulled by Chinese regulators, even so late in the process. After all, Chinese authorities aren’t the most likely candidates to sign off on a religious movie that could rock the boat. Though China’s ranks of Christians are growing, the government remains wary that the pull of the religion may ultimately subvert faith in the Party or serve as platform for political organizing. What may be more surprising is why the film’s distributors in China thought it would pass muster in the first place. A person close to the matter said that the film had “family elements” and “addressed environmental topics” relevant an important to Chinese audiences. In the film, Noah builds an ark to save humanity against a flood that God has sent to wash away the human race, and brings his family on board to repopulate a future, better world. [Source: Laurie Burkitt, China Real Time, Wall Street Journal, May 9, 2014]

In 2103, “Despicable Me 2" was blocked by Chinese censors but Smurfs 2 was given a thumb’s up. The Guardian reported: Chinese authorities gave the green light to Sony Pictures's 3D comedy The Smurfs 2 for domestic distribution, while previously rejecting the Brad Pitt zombie thriller World War Z and the animated film Despicable Me 2, in which Steve Carell plays a former villain. The original Smurfs film was a hit with Chinese audiences, earning $40 million on its release in 2011. [Source: Xan Brooks The Guardian, July 24, 2013]

Hollywood-China Co-Productions

The film Shanghai
Michael Keene wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: “US-China co-productions, however they are defined, have existed for some time: Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” was a co-production with China; mostly shot in Shanghai. There are a number of Chinese stories that have had moderate success. “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” was produced by Columbia Asia, a subsidiary of Sony Tristar, as was Zhang Yimou’s “The Road Home”. In both cases the directors were Chinese. “Big Shots Funeral” directed by Feng Xiaogang was produced in the way with Huayi Bros. Other films with coproduction elements include “Mummy 3" and “The Karate Kid”: in these cases there was sharing of distribution rights. [Source: Michael Keene, Asian Creative Transformations (n.d.), June, 2014]

“Chinese investors have cash; some don’t come from a film background and are willing to put it into a Hollywood branded movie. Wanda is currently investing in The Southpaw which does not have an identifiable Chinese element. Having cash available means that a lot of the risk sharing that goes with film making is dispensed with; for instance pre-selling territories that establish the grounds for a lender to release funds or making distribution deals with major studios to offset investment. The institutional processes in China that underpin film financing, film making and film distribution have developed according to their own market logic and there is a view expressed within Hollywood that the Chinese industry needs to get its system in order, in other words to be more like Hollywood. Of course, many in the industry in China concur but this may take time and the industry will never be like Hollywood because the Chinese government will remain a key stake holder. Most of the profit in China, 90 percent in fact, comes from the box office rather than through ancillary markets, the extended value chain of merchandising and tie-ins.

According to AFP: Hollywood films are on average twice as profitable as China's local productions, but co-productions that bring foreign filmmaking expertise to bear are increasingly lucrative. Working with a Chinese partner to make movies with local investment and talent allows foreign filmmakers to get around the import cap. Foreign partners can also negotiate a larger share of the takings from co-productions, which in the first half of 2011 accounted for 32 percent of the box office for Chinese-language films in the country, than they can for imports. But experts warned that censorship could be a problem for foreign companies unused to China's sometimes unpredictable restrictions on artistic freedom. In 2007, Xinhua said censors halved actor Chow Yun-fat's screen time as a villain in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" because his scenes were "vilifying and defacing the Chinese". [Source: AFP, September 6, 2011]

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: In many cases, the East-West partnerships are relatively painless, as was the case with "Looper," a science fiction action story that opened in China in 2012. It was originally was set in France but rewritten to unfold partly in China. But in several other instances, American filmmakers have had to undergo crash courses in Chinese storytelling traditions, which can be as complex as a hero's journey and as seemingly trivial as how dragons are portrayed. "There is no clear definition of what you can do and what you cannot do — from both the culture aspect and the censorship aspect," said Chinese American director and screenwriter Anna Chi, the director of the HBO film "Dim Sum Funeral" and co-director of "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers." "Of course there are regulations, there are laws. Everybody knows you can't do [a movie about] Tibet, you can't talk about the Falun Gong," she said of the spiritual practice the China Communist Party has tried to eradicate. "But in terms of creativity there is no handbook. It's all project by project." [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2012]

Hollywood Studios in China

In the early 2010s, Hollywood filmmakers joined forces with Chinese companies to gain a foothold in the Asian nation's huge movie market - but obstacles remained in the form of commercial restrictions and censorship. Despite official barriers to entry and limits on artistic freedom, the world's second-largest economy is proving a huge draw for foreign filmmakers. Relativity Media — producer of "The Social Network" — announced a deal to make films for the Chinese market. Relativity said it would co-produce what it called "cross cultural" films with Beijing-based Huaxia Film Distribution and SkyLand Film-Television Culture Development. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2011]

In the 2000s, American film studios said they planned to invest $150 million a year in China’s film industry. Sony’s Columbia Tristrar Pictures is already producing and financing films in China. It helped finance “Kung Fu Hustle, The Road Home” and “Flying Daggers”. Sony has been an aggressive player on China. It had global hits with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Kung Fu Hustle” and is focusing on the Chinese television market, using a model to produce programming that worked well for them in Latin America.

In the 2000s, Warner Brothers set up a studio to make Chinese films for the Chinese audience and develop films for the market back home. It made “The Painted Veil”, with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts, based on a W. Somerset Maugham story about expatriate love in China in the 1920s and formed a joint venture with a Chinese film company to produce the last Merchant & Ivory film, The White Countess. At that time Mirimax was also planning to make films in China. Time Warner built some multiplex theaters and then sold their operation and left China. Murdoch’s News Corp started out with great enthusiasm about China but later became disillusioned. In 2004 Murdoch said “the potential for China to become a new global center for media and entertainment is slowly becoming more real.” But in September 2005 he admitted his company had hit a “brick wall” in China and complained the leadership was “quite paranoid about what gets through.”

Legendary Entertainment, producer of hits including "The Dark Knight," ''Inception" and the two "Hangover" installments, partnered with leading Chinese studio Huayi Brothers Media Corp. in June 2011 to form Legendary East. The venture planned one or two big budget movies a year starting in 2013 for global audiences that would also commercially viable in China. The films were to be mainly in English and feature themes based on Chinese history, mythology or culture. Hong-Kong-based Legendary East said it would make movies mainly in English and feature themes based on Chinese history, mythology or culture. Legendary Entertainment produced global blockbusters including "Inception" and the two Hangover movies. Huayi releases included the hit Feng Xiaogang disaster epic Aftershock, the kung fu drama Shaolin and the Tsui Hark fantasy epic Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. In the end Legendary was bought by Wanda Dalian and proceeded to make the widely panned "Great Wall" (See Below). See Separate Article WANG JIANLIN AND WANDA: THE BILLIONAIRE AND HIS THEATERS AND FILM PROJECTS factsanddetails.com

In February 2012 then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping attended the formal unveiling of plans by DreamWorks to build an animation studio in Shanghai in partnership with two Chinese state-owned media companies. Speaking in February 2012 about a new China-based film fund that expects to invest at least $800 million in both Chinese film distribution and in Western-led productions, Bruno Wu, one of its partners, pointed to “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” — a fanciful action thriller — as the kind of import that would have a future in China. “We’re primarily going to be working with the tent-pole side of the business,” Mr. Wu said in an interview.

Disney in China


Disney films and characters are popular in China. Mickey Mouse is well known and many Chinese have seen animated Disney television shows like “Winnie the Pooh, Goof Troop” and “Aladdin” as well as Disney blockbusters at the theaters. As of the early 2000s, there were 157 Mickey's Corner merchandise shops and 180,000 subscribers to Mickey Mouse magazine in China. Between 50,000 and 70,000 copies of each of Disney film classic had been sold on video, and 1.3 million copies of movies sound tracks had been sold. In 1996, Beijing allowed Disney to show three films — “The Lion King, The Rock” and “Toy Story” — more than other major studio at that time. “

Disney has built a huge theme park near Shanghai in addition to the one in Hong Kong and is setting up an operation to make Chinese films for Chinese audiences. Disney shot “The Secret of the Magic Gourd”, in Shanghai — and what was unusual about that is that the film is based on a Chinese story; it was made by a Chinese director and crew; and is aimed for Chinese audiences. Disney has considered remaking some of its classics oriented towards Chinese audience. One proposal was to make “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” as an action film shot in China with monks instead of dwarfs.

The Disney film “Mulan” is based on a 5th century Chinese poem about a young girl who disguises herself as a boy and takes her father's place to lead a Chinese army to victory against a force of invading Huns. Breaking female stereotypes, Mulan is determined, passionate and no shrinking violent when it comes to violence. Time magazine called the film a "total delight." The New York Times said Mulan was "the best animated heroine in Disney's history."

The relationship between Beijing and Disney soured over the release of “Kundun”, a film by Martin Scorsese about the Dalai Lama that featured Chinese soldiers stomping on a portrait of the Dalai Lama and generally showed China in a negative light. Disney hired Henry Kissinger's consulting group to help improve relations with China after the film’s release and fired its number two executive Micheal Orvitz, a Hollywood big wig who had taken several trips to China and approved the film Kundun, giving him a bailout package valued at around $200 million.

Chinese-Hollywood Film Collaborations

In the 2010s, Chinese firms increasingly looked to Hollywood for ways to improve their products while Hollywood was looking for better ways to make money in China. In “Ironman 2", Scarlett Johansson wore a form-fitting dress by Semir, a Chinese brand and sponsor of the film. In the 2009 blockbuster “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” billboards featured the Chinese sportswear company Metersbonwe. Ben Ji, head of Angel Wings entertainment, a premier marketer of Chinese brands, says that one of his goals is get a Chinese-made car in a James Bond film. A number Chinese movies have been marketed as Chinese versions of popular Hollywood films. These include a film that billed itself as “the Chinese 'Bridges of Madison County'’while a period drama set during the siege of Nanjing was marketed as “the Chinese ' Schindler's List.'” There are also Chinese-American co-productions, such as Chinese versions of American favorites such as “High School Musical: China” and an adaptation of “What Women Want”. [Source: Chris Lee, LA Times, August 29, 2010; Keith Richburg, Washington Post , September 11, 2010]

Chinese production companies were also looking to make films with Hollywood companies while Hollywood producers were flocking to China, looking for investors, talent and locations to shoot films. Among the high-profile collaborations in 2010 where “The Karate Kid” with Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith; “Shanghai” with John Cusack, Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat; and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” with Jet Li. One of the biggest collaborations in terms of money spent is “Double Lives”, a film with Pierce Brosnan about a hunt for two ancient swords. It is a 50-50 venture by Hollywood’s Movieworks and the Beijing entrepreneur Shen Boyu. The film’s budgets is around $100 million, with much of the money on the Chinese side originating from the Chinese government.

According to the Washington Post: Some have said that the driving force behind the Hollywood-China collaboration is a desire by Chinese filmmakers to expand and find new audiences and break away from the niche of martial arts films and for Hollywood — which has traditionally run on other people’s money — to find new funding sources. Media analyst Larry Gerbrant of Media Valuation Partners told the Washington Post, “Hollywood would figure out how to shoot in Greenland if they were offered the right financial incentives. Between the collapse of hedge-fund financing and the grinding U.S. recession, coupled with the capital crunch, it has been extremely difficult to fund new productions...To the extent that China offers lower production costs and local talent, that helps.” On top of that co-produced films to don’t count as “foreign films,” of which only 20 can be shown in China each year, which gives Hollywood a ticket to China.

Christopher Harding wrote in The Telegraph: In 2012, DreamWorks established a joint venture called Oriental DreamWorks (now Pearl Studio), whose first animated feature film was Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016). Thanks to heavy Chinese involvement, it was counted as a “local” rather than an “imported” film, thus circumventing the quota and substantially increasing the film’s profitability. Other productions to have pioneered close links to China include Iron Man 3 (2013), which was shot partly in China and involved Chinese censors visiting the set and offering notes on the script. Imported films, too, are subject to censorship, as Bond himself knows only too well. A crucial scene in Skyfall (2012) was cut, because it showed a Chinese security guard being killed. Elsewhere in the film, a conversation touching on prostitution was edited in the Chinese subtitles. [Source: Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, October 27, 2021]

The Great Wall: a Chinese-Hollywood Collaboration Catastrophe

Adam Minter of Bloomberg wrote:“For movie moguls, it probably seemed like an irresistible idea: Pair a Hollywood star with China's most famous director, add a preposterous story about monsters attacking the most recognizable Chinese landmark, and mix in $150 million to make the magic happen. The result was "The Great Wall," the most expensive Hollywood-Chinese collaboration ever — and a colossal cultural flop. [Source: Adam Minter, Bloomberg, December 22, 2016]

“Despite financial backing from China's largest cinema operator, possibly the biggest marketing campaign in the country's history, and a plum holiday-weekend slot, "The Great Wall" was only the third-biggest opening of the year, lagging a Chinese rom-com and a U.S video-game film. Its $67 million weekend box office didn't even top the $95 million made last Christmas by "Mojin: The Lost Legend." Reviews were terrible, social media scorn was widespread and prospects for future ticket sales are grim. Not even Matt Damon, the film's top star, could save the day. One online ticketing portal ranks actors by the number of tickets their self-identified fans have bought, and Damon so far ranks sixth, selling just one-fifth the tickets that Lu Han, a supporting actor in the film, is credited with.

“Yet even this obscures how big a disappointment "The Great Wall" is. Its producers, and those hoping to emulate them in future projects, had much bigger ambitions. They wanted the film to serve as a model for how cross-cultural collaboration could lead to box office glory in China, the world's second-biggest movie market. As Wang Jianlin, whose company owns one of the production studios behind "The Great Wall," baldly put it: "More Chinese elements means more profits." “The problem with that approach is that audiences are apt to view "Chinese elements" as tokenism and pandering. Increasingly, China's moviegoers and news media have taken to mocking Hollywood's over-the-top efforts to insert Chinese actors and products into films — such as "Transformers: Age of Extinction" and "Independence Day: Resurgence" — for no other reason than to expand market share.

Hollywood Kissing Beijing’s Ass

Some entertainment companies seeking a share of the lucrative Chinese market have been going to great lengths to avoid offending Beijing. Because China allows only 34 foreign films to be screened in its theaters each year, it is easy to pass over those with content deemed objectionable, including excess nudity and profanity, references to the Dalai Lama or the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, or actors who have criticized China. Hollywood filmmakers are forced to make many kinds of concessions. In the early 2010s, the bad guys from Men In Black 3 were removed from the China edition after the censors took offense at the fact they were all Chinese. Portraying any Chinese official in anything other than a glowing terms was a risk in China, said Robert Cain, a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. "Police officers are always honest people of integrity who always catch their man. There is no bloody crime in China, no homosexuality, no nudity and no 'excessively terrifying scenes'. Horror is very difficult in China. You can't have ghosts or gore, no demons or monsters."

Christopher Harding wrote in The Telegraph: The tokenistic inclusion in Hollywood films of Chinese actors in minor roles, ridiculed by some in China as mere “flower vases”, have not been universally well-received in China For Western audiences, meanwhile, the sight of Hollywood stars avoiding controversial topics or even parroting CCP talking points for the sake of box-office returns — think of the Fast & Furious actor John Cena’s grovelling apology in Mandarin for referring to Taiwan as a “country” — may make it even harder for films to weather the streaming wars. [Source: Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, October 27, 2021]

20111125-aisa obscura film pride1-300x210.jpg
Pride Deadly Fury
As a demonstration of the lengths that Hollywood is willing to go not to offend China MGM changed the villains in its $60 million 2010 remake of “Red Dawn” from Chinese to North Korean without Beijing saying anything. Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “When MGM decided a few years ago to remake "Red Dawn," a 1984 Cold War drama about a bunch of American farm kids repelling a Soviet invasion, the studio needed new villains, since the U.S.S.R. had collapsed in 1991. The producers substituted Chinese aggressors for the Soviets and filmed the movie in Michigan in 2009.” But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business in China. As a result, the filmmakers digitally erased Chinese flags and military symbols from "Red Dawn," substituting dialogue and altering the film to depict much of the invading force as being from North Korea. [Source: Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2011]

“Iron Man 3", partly shot in Beijing, is largely seen as a classic Hollywood example of how to kiss China’s ass. William Wan wrote in the Washington Post: Even the nerdiest comic-book fan would be surprised to learn one of the cutting-edge technologies that secretly fuels “Iron Man’s” action-packed heroics: is a milk-grain drink called Gu Li Duo from China’s Inner Mongolia. That’s according to the Chinese version of the new blockbuster, which contains footage inserted by producers to win the favor of Chinese officials. If aesthetically jarring, the gambit has paid off handsomely. “Iron Man 3” raked in more than $64 million in its first five days and broke Chinese records with its May 1 opening-day haul of $21 million. [Source: William Wan, Washington Post, May 6, 2013]

“This is how an invading swarm of Chinese soldiers in last year’s “Red Dawn” suddenly became North Koreans. And how Bruce Willis’s character mysteriously came to spend much more time in Shanghai than Paris in last year’s “Looper.” And why the outbreak sparking the zombie apocalypse in Brad Pitt’s “World War Z” this summer has been rewritten to originate from Moscow instead of China.

“From the beginning, the makers of “Iron Man 3” took no chances, setting what may be a new bar for accommodating Chinese officials. They made the movie a joint venture, teaming with Beijing-based DMG Entertainment. Government officials were invited on set to monitor filming. The name of Ben Kingsley’s villain, the Mandarin, was stripped of any Chinese association by transliterating his name as “Man Daren,” which has no meaning in Chinese. The most jarring changes, however, were a few minutes of footage added to the film, including the opening plug for the drink from an Inner Mongolia-based company — a sweet mixture of milk, grains and food additives — which viewers are told, via a commercial-like bit of bold text stripped across the screen, can revitalize Iron Man’s energy.

“Other added scenes — which make only slightly more sense — feature a Chinese doctor and his unnamed assistant, played by one of China’s most popular actresses, Fan Bingbing. Some of the film’s most over-the-top dialogue comes when the two discuss how the world’s expectations and the life of Marvel’s lucrative hero hinge on them and their unique Chinese medical abilities. While Chinese audiences have flocked to theaters, the extra footage has sparked much ridicule online and even within party-controlled media. Some called the Chinese actors’ token screen time insulting. Others mocked the filmmakers for apparently selling out to the government.One microblogger named Bumblebee Marz compared the new scenes to chicken ribs — a common expression denoting the most tasteless and undesirable cut of meat in Chinese cuisine. “Not essential at all,” the blogger said.

Looper: How Filming in China Pays Off at the Box Office

Helen Pidd wrote in The Guardian, “Artistes can be notoriously reluctant to compromise their creative vision at the behest of the Man. Not so director Rian Johnson. He agreed to transplant the plot of his latest sci-fi blockbuster to another continent — from Paris to Shanghai — in order to gain lucrative Chinese funding. The switch paid off: this weekend Looper became the first new Hollywood film to make more money in its opening weekend in China than the US, provisional figures suggest. [Source: Helen Pidd, The Guardian, October 1, 2012]

"I'm thrilled the movie did so well in China. I don't think any of us expected those kind of numbers. It's fascinating to watch that market emerge and crazy to suddenly be part of the story," Johnson said. He insisted shifting the action from France to China was not a creative sell-out, but "gave us production value we'd never dream of". He added: "In many ways Shanghai was a more natural setting for a sci-fi movie than my beloved Paris."

The film, which was shot for just $30 million and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis as two versions of a futuristic hitman, made an estimated million on debut in the US. But according to Deadline it is likely to return $23-$25 million in China. The change in location, along with a number of other concessions, allowed Johnson's tale of time-travelling hitmen to become a US-Chinese co-production, allowing it to bypass strict rules on the number of foreign films shown in Chinese cinemas.

Looper's stunning performance is sure to encourage other directors to tweak their work in order to appeal to the increasingly lucrative Sino audience, said Robert Cain, a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. "We will see far more of this in the future," he said. "Like everywhere else in the world, Chinese people like watching films set in places they know, starring people who look like them."

Image Sources: Wikipedia, Ohio State University: IMDB, Chinese B shots from Asia Obscura

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated December 2021

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