HOLLYWOOD AND DISNEY IN CHINA

HOLLYWOOD IN CHINA

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Pride Deadly Fury
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.

The American film industry looks upon the potential market of 1.25 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. Even so $67 million is chump change for Hollywood. It earns more in Switzerland or Peru. Plus, Hollywood loses millions if not billions to piracy. See Piracy, Economics.

Hollywood is also unhappy about the cut it gets 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.”

Popular Hollywood Movies in China

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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.

“ 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 positive light for once. More than anything this seemed to show that Hollywood is thinking of the Chinese market, and also knows that China's content sells “and will sell even better in the near future in America and around the world.

“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 seeit 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” to enjoy wide release in the country. Other American movies that did well in China have included “The Lion King, Twister, Speed” and “True Lies”. “Forest Gump” did go over well, apparently because audiences had couldn't relate to a hero as unlikely as Gump. “Pulp Fiction” was too violent for many Chinese film goers, many of who 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 Studios in China

American film studios plan to invest $150 million a year in China’s film industry over the next few years. 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.

Warner Brothers has 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.

Mirimax is also planning to make films in China; Time Warner is building multiplex theaters; and . Murdoch’s News Corp started out with great enthusiasm about China but has since grown 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.”

Kevin Chan of AP wrote: 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 plans one or two big budget movies a year starting in 2013 for global audiences that are also commercially viable in China. The films will be mainly in English and feature themes based on Chinese history, mythology or culture. Another studio, Relativity Media, said last year it would make movies with two Chinese partners for global audiences and distribute movies in China. [Source: Kelvin Chan, Associated Press, March 20, 2012]

Americans interested in making movies in China include Fay Dunaway who wants to do film on Pearl S. Buck's life, and Oliver Stone who want to make a movie about Mao Zedong.

Some wonder if a Chinese company might buy a major Hollywood studio as Sony did when it bought Columbia Pictures in 1989 for $3.4 billion.

Hollywood’s Pursuit of Film Deals in China

Hollywood filmmakers are joining forces with Chinese companies to gain a foothold in the Asian nation's huge movie market - but obstacles remain in the form of commercial restrictions and censorship. China is by far the world's fastest-growing cinema market and, despite official barriers to entry and limits on artistic freedom, the world's second-largest economy is proving a huge draw for foreign filmmakers. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2011]

Two of Hollywood's biggest names, Relativity Media - producer of "The Social Network" - and Legendary Pictures, maker of "Inception", have announced deals to make films for the Chinese market. Both hope to produce movies that will appeal to both Chinese and wider international audiences - a potentially lucrative plan but one that industry insiders said should nonetheless be approached with caution. Relativity said it would co-produce what it called "cross cultural" films with Beijing-based Huaxia Film Distribution and SkyLand Film-Television Culture Development.

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. Legendary and its Chinese partner, Huayi Brothers Media, have announced plans to make a movie titled "The Great Wall" about the origins of the Chinese icon, and have signed Edward Zwick of "Last Samurai" fame to direct.

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".

Peter Shiao, who chairs the US-China Film Summit annual industry gathering, said: "This is a transformative moment because the economics are right to make movies that appeal to both markets." But added: "Despite the 60-plus-percent growth, making films here is not as easy as it might seem." There are also concerns that while co-productions in Chinese might sell well in China, exporting them could be tough."The new partnerships are going to benefit Chinese companies in the short-term but many of them are not up to their Hollywood partners' level," Bai Qiang, chief executive of production company 3-D China, told AFP. "Their ability to write scripts that will appeal outside China is very limited."

Disney in China

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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 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. “The Lion King” grossed about $4 million at Chinese movie theaters.

Disney has announced plans to build a huge them park near Shanghai in additio to the new one it opened 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.

Hollywood Films About China

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.

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 most recent addition to the crop of Shanghai movies the Merchant & Ivory film, “The White Countess”, shot in Shanghai with Ralph Fiennes and three members of the Redgrave family. It was the last Merchant and Ivory collaboration (Merchant died during post-production).

“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 Eye” with Jessica Alba was released in 2008. The story had a few changes and was not as good as the original.

See Tibet

Chinese-Hollywood Film Collaborations

Increasingly Chinese firms are looking to Hollywood to push their products. 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. [Source: Keith Richburg, Washington Post , September 11, 2010]

Chinese production companies are also looking to make films with Hollywood companies and manage China’s growing number of theaters while Hollywood producers are 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.

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.

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]

“A new cultural space has opened up,” Michael Berry of the University of California Santa Barbara told the Los Angeles Times. “China's film industry is entering a new phase. Now it's both ideologically and financially possible for filmmakers to purchase the rights to remake British or American films.”

“Shanghai” is a second world war-era thriller, starring Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat and John Cusack.

Feng Xiaogang Criticizes Harvey Weinstein

In June 2010, Chinese director Feng Xiaogang accused the U.S. producer and Miramax found Harvey Weinstein of f being “a cheater” at the Shanghai film festival. “Harvey is a cheater in the eyes of many Chinese moviemakers,” said Feng, who said Hollywood executives were interested in buying Chinese films only as a symbol of friendship, but without the intention of selling them and thus helping China's film industry grow. He dismissed two Weinstein-backed films, Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, two of the highest-grossing Chinese language films of all time, as “Hollywood movies”. “They're not Chinese movies,” he added. [Source: Ben Child, The Guardian, June 16, 2010]

According to The Guardian: “Feng's attack was all the more remarkable because Weinstein himself had only just left the stage at the Shanghai event... He had been on hand to discuss his forthcoming second world war-era thriller, Shanghai, starring Gong Li and John Cusack, which screened at the festival on Sunday night, and had spoken positively about Chinese film and The Weinstein Company's interests in the region. “It seems to me that in the last five years Asia and China in particular are on the cutting edge of things,” he said. “We intend to buy and make more movies in the area.”

Kung Fu Panda Go Home

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There is a lot resentment in Chinese cyberspace and the cultural 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 !

Haiyan Lee wrote on The China Beat that Chinese generally like 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.

“Kung Fu Panda 2" by Dreamworks with the main voice by Jack Black opened in May 2011.

China Curtails Run of Avatar

"Avatar" grossed more in China---in excess of $200 million---than in any other territory outside of North America.

“Avatar” 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. [Source: Sharon Lafraniere, New York Times, January 19, 2010]

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. According to 20th Century Fox, the movie’s distributor, the film has earned $76 million in ticket sales in China, making it the most successful movie so far in China. The film had been showing at an estimated 2,500 theaters, two-thirds of them are showing it in standard format, and one-third in 3-D, according to news media reports. Avatar continued to play on the scarcer but more popular 3-D screens after decision to pull it other theaters was made.

Hollywood Summer Blockbusters of 2011 Barred from China

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 Face Off on the Same Day in China

“China is rolling up the red carpet for Hollywood,” Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Just six months after Chinese and American leaders reached a new agreement allowing more foreign movies into the world's most populous nation, officials there are trying to torpedo the box office returns of some of Hollywood's biggest summer films. 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. [Source: Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2012]

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.

China, now the world's second-largest movie market, also 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. A China Film spokesman previously told The Times that the overlapping dates were a result of a crowded calendar. But in a subsequent interview in local media, officials gave a different explanation. "We hope those protective measures will be able to create a space for domestic movies to survive and grow," Zhang Hongsen, deputy head of the film bureau controlled by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television, said to the state-owned People's Daily newspaper.

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. In late February, China agreed to increase from 20 to 34 the number of foreign movies allowed in under a revenue sharing program. Thanks to the robust performances of movies such as "Titanic 3D" and "The Avengers," 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. "China can't be seen as being dominated by Hollywood---that's not the message they want," said Dan Mintz, chief executive of Chinese/American media company DMG Entertainment."And you have to assume this is going to continue."

China's new restrictions are having the desired effects. All of the top five movies in China from January through June were American. But in the week ended Aug. 19, only one was. The double-dating is killing some movies. "The Lorax" has grossed more than $120 million at the foreign box office but only $2.2 million in China---compared with $67 million for "Ice Age."

Local exhibitors and moviegoers are not happy with the situation. Pan Xiaming, the manager of a multiplex in Shengzhou, a city of about 800,000 in eastern Zhejiang province, said the "Spider-Man" and "Dark Knight" sequels should never have gone head to head. "I was so anxious in July and August because there were no interesting big blockbusters and now suddenly we have two very good films together with good reputations," said Pan, who runs an eight-screen theater next to a shopping center. "I wonder why China Film Group doesn't just separate them by one week or half a month. Things would be much better."The face-off between "The Dark Knight" and "Spider-Man" was the No. 2-trending topic on Sina Weibo, China's wildly popular Twitter alternative, drawing nearly 13 million comments by the early evening. "Spiderman and Batman are exhibited the same day, if I can only choose one, which one should I choose?" wrote one micro-blogger.

Difficulty in Making a Film That Appeals to Both Chinese and American Audiences

Michelle Kung wrote in the Wall Street Journal, Many of the new U.S.-China partnerships aim to create films that appeal to audiences inside and outside China. But that is a tricky balancing act. Films with Chinese themes and allusions often fizzle with Western audiences. Strong governmental oversight makes the challenge even more complex. [Source: Michelle Kung, Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2012]

Take "The Flowers of War," The Zhang Yimou film starring Christian Bale. The film grossed more than $95 million in China in 2011 and 2012. That made it the country's highest-grossing Chinese film released in 2011. In the U.S. however, no top distributor wanted the film. American distributors were concerned about the film's intense, often nationalistic violence, historical focus, and that much of it was in Chinese, according to people familiar with the distributors' decisions. Some worried that the movie would be grabbed and distributed by film pirates, still a big problem in China, before it reached U.S. theaters.

The film was picked up by distributor Wrekin Hill Entertainment, released in the U.S. in January and grossed roughly $300,000 in American theaters. Wrekin Hill Chief Executive Chris Ball says the film sold out during its one-week Academy Award-qualifying run last December, but "fell flat" after opening in January. He attributes the falloff to piracy, mixed reviews and the film's powerful, but difficult story. "People are trying to design projects for success globally, but producers today really have to make a judgment call about if their films can really appeal to both the Chinese- and English-speaking markets," says Stephen Saltzman, a Hollywood lawyer who has handled several Chinese film deals.

Others have flopped. Fox Searchlight's "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan” only grossed $7.1 million in China and $1.3 million in the U.S. Fox Another worry: seeing popular Chinese movies like "Let the Bullets Fly," a 2010 action-comedy from China Film Group and Emperor Motion Pictures, only play in limited release in the U.S. "Bullets" is China's highest-grossing Chinese film of all time but has brought in roughly $61,000 from 15 locations in the U.S. since its release earlier this year. "The audience for this film is your geek, fan boy and cult film crowds," said Jason Pfardrescher of Well Go USA Entertainment, the studio distributing the film in America. "It's definitely not mainstream America."

The next two years will be a test. Several U.S.-China co-productions, including a science-fiction thriller from DMG starring Bruce Willis, are expected to hit theaters while top U.S. filmmakers are developing Chinese co-productions. Doug Liman, director of "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" in the U.S., is moving forward on a film about a British bodyguard to Sun Yat-sen, considered the father of modern China. A Sylvester Stallone action film called "The Expendables 2" recently had its application denied.

As of November 2011, the China Film Co-production Corp. had processed 87 applications from foreign filmmakers, including seven from the U.S. This was an increase from 2009, when the government entity processed 65 applications, with three from the U.S.

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. For an as yet unreleased remake of the 1984 Cold War drama "Red Dawn," MGM initially cast China as the villainous invader, since there was no longer a Soviet Union. But after negative editorials were published in China, the filmmakers switched the enemy, making it North Korea. Scenes already shot were digitally altered to remove Chinese flags and symbols. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

Tripp Vinson, one of the movie's producers, told Los Angeles Times last year, "We were initially very reluctant to make any changes. But after careful consideration we constructed a way to make a scarier, smarter and more dangerous 'Red Dawn' that we believe improves the movie."

Because China allows only 20 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.

Making the Bad Guys North Koreans

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 even uttering a critical word. 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.” [Source: Ben Fritz and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, March 16, 2011]

“But potential distributors are nervous about becoming associated with the finished film, concerned that doing so would harm their ability to do business with the rising Asian superpower, one of the fastest-growing and potentially most lucrative markets for American movies, not to mention other U.S. products. As a result, the filmmakers now are digitally erasing 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, an isolated country where American media companies have no dollars at stake.”

“Although it's common to reshape movies in the editing room, there's no known precedent for changing the nationality of an entire group of characters,” Fritz and Horn wrote. “People close to the picture said the changes will cost less than $1 million and involve changing an opening sequence summarizing the story's fictional backdrop, re-editing two scenes and using digital technology to transform many Chinese symbols to Korean. It's impossible to eliminate all references to China, the people said, though the changes will give North Korea a much larger role in the coalition that invades the U.S. “ "We were initially very reluctant to make any changes," said Tripp Vinson, one of the movie's producers. "But after careful consideration we constructed a way to make a scarier, smarter and more dangerous 'Red Dawn' that we believe improves the movie."

"Red Dawn" is not the only piece of entertainment to swap out Chinese villains for North Koreans recently. The video game "Homefront," which was released this week and features a script by John Milius, writer of the original "Red Dawn," was also originally intended to feature a Chinese invasion. For business reasons, publisher THQ changed the occupying forces to North Korea.”

SEC Investigates Hollywood Bribes in China

Edward Wyatt, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes wrote in the New York Times, “The Securities and Exchange Commission has begun an investigation into whether some of Hollywood’s biggest movie studios have made illegal payments to officials in China to gain the right to film and show movies there, according to a person with knowledge of the investigation. The inquiry creates a potential roadblock for the industry’s plans to expand in one of the world’s largest markets. [Source: Edward Wyatt, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, New York Times, April 24, 2012]

The S.E.C. investigation has so far focused on at least three studios, the person said, but all of the largest and some smaller studios have been contacted or made aware of the inquiry, according to the person, who has direct knowledge of the investigation but who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter could end up in court. In the last year, both the S.E.C. and the Justice Department have increased investigations under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, known as F.C.P.A., which forbids American companies from making illegal payments to government officials or others to ease the way for operations in foreign countries. Government investigators have been particularly interested recently in the practices of United States companies in China, one of the largest potential markets and one that Hollywood executives have been particularly keen to enter.

The investigation was first reported by Reuters, which said that five companies had been contacted by the S.E.C., including 20th Century Fox, which is owned by News Corporation, the Walt Disney Company and DreamWorks Animation. Government officials have contended that American companies might be cutting corners to enter the growing Chinese market. As part of a reorganization at the S.E.C. over the last two years, the commission created a specialized investigative unit devoted to violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

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 January 2013


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