State-run companies still control the importing and distribution of foreign films in China, despite a 2009 World Trade Organisation ruling that overseas firms should be allowed greater participation. China also protects its domestic industry by only allowing a certain number of foreign movies to be screened a year, making it difficult for overseas studios to capitalise on growing demand from the country's emerging middle class. The number used to be 20 now its 34. The government imposes a multitude of rules and regulations on foreign films shown in China and foreign film companies operating in China. Chinese censors can be demanding. Foreign ownership of film distribution and movie theater ownership is limited to 49 percent. Foreign films are often blocked from being shown during peak viewing times such as major holidays or when school is in session. The rules can often be changed suddenly and arbitrarily. There have been cases of films premiering and then being pulled because they were too successful.

Hollywood is hoping for further increases in openness. The limit of foreign films to 20 was increased to 34 in 2012. Hollywood has called on the Chinese government to end the restrictions on foreign films, which is also being challenged by the World Trade Organization. In the 2009 World Trade Organisation ruled that overseas firms should be allowed greater participation in China’s film industry. "China lost the WTO case and is supposed to let foreign companies into distribution," commercial lawyer Steve Dickinson, who has practised in China since 1991 and whose firm has clients in the industry, told AFP. "But the law hasn't changed - it's just in flux and the bottom line is that everything is still subject to Beijing's approval."

Some Chinese names for popular foreign films include: “Full Monty, Six Naked Pig Warriors” and “Babe, the Happy Dumpling to Be, Which Solves Agricultural Problems”. Oliver Stone’s Nixon was called “Nixon Becomes the Big Liar”. Famed Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni made a trip to China in 1972 at the height of the Cultural Revolution to make the film “Chung Kuo — Cina” . The Chinese government expressed “disappointment” and displeasure with Antonioni’s depiction of China — even though he had been invited by the Chinese government and the film was generally pro-China. Premier Zhou Enlai specifically invited him to make the documentary. Chung Kuo was shown for the first time in China only in 2004. [Source: Ken Kwan Ming Hao, China Beat, October 20, 2010]

Websites: Senses of Cinema; dGenerate Films is a New York-based distribution company that collects post-Sixth Generation independent Chinese cinema; Internet Movie Database (IMDb) on Chinese Film ; Wikipedia List of Chinese Filmmakers Wikipedia ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie

Top Foreign Films in China

In 2010, 2011 and 2012, foreign — mostly Hollywood — films dominated the Chinese box office.Box-office receipts in China in 2010 totaled $1.57 billion, up 64 percent from 2009. Even with their comparatively small numbers, foreign films drew 44 percent of all receipts and made up four of the Top 10 draws. Since the mid 2010s the share of foreign film in the top films in China has dramatically declined. For a list of top films, Chinese and foreign See Separate Article CHINESE-MADE BLOCKBUSTERS AND POPULAR COMMERCIAL MOVIES

In 2011, six of the top grossing films in China were foreign: 1) Avatar; 2) Transformers: Dark of the Moon; 5) Kung Fu Panda 2; 6) Inception; 8) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; 10) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Avatar grossed $195 million in China, the most of any market outside the US, and according to the 20th Century Fox film studio, the April re-release of his "Titanic" in 3D grossed $67 million in China in its first six days.

2012 — rank among all films— title — box office — total gross — release date — distributor 1) Titanic, 2012 3D Release — $145 million — $145 million — April 10 2) Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol — $101,232,739 — $101,232,739 — January 28 3) Life of Pi — $90,806,000 — $90,806,000 — November 23 4) The Avengers — $86.3 million — $86.3 million — May 4 5) Men in Black 3 — $77,246,700 — $77,246,700 — May 25 — Sony Pictures Releasing 6) Ice Age: Continental Drift — $67,891,012 — $67,891,012 — July 27— 20th Century Fox International 7) The Dark Knight Rises — $52,785,334 — $52,785,334 — August 27 8) The Amazing Spider-Man — $48,818,164 — $48,818,164 — August 27 9) Battleship (Japanese film) — $48,328,711 — $48,328,711 — April 18 10)Journey 2: The Mysterious Island — $48 million — $48 million — February 11 11) Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted — $31,513,925 — $31,513,925 — July 22 12) The Hunger Games — $27,049,819 — $27,049,819 — June 15 [Source: by IMDbPro]

2013: — rank among all films — title — box office — total gross — release date — distributor 2) Iron Man 3 — $121.2 million — $121.2 million — May 1 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) 10) Gravity — $70.68 million — $70.68 million — November 19 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) 11) Fast & Furious 6 — $66.49 million — $66.49 million — July 26 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC)

2014: 1) Transformers: Age of Extinction — $301 million — $301 million — June 27 — Huaxia Film Distribution 4)Interstellar — $121.99 million — $121.99 million — November 12 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) 5) X-Men: Days of Future Past — $116.49 million — $116.49 million — May 23 — Huaxia Film Distribution 6) Captain America: The Winter Soldier — $115.62 million — $115.62 million — April 4 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) 8) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — $107,355,317 — $107,355,317 — August 29 — Huaxia Film Distribution

2015: 1) Furious 7 — $390.91 million — $390.91 million — April 12 — China Film Group Corporation (CFGC) 4) Avengers: Age of Ultron — $240.11 million — $240.11 million — May 11 5) Jurassic World — $228.74 million — $228.74 million — June 10 9) From Vegas to Macau II — $154.13 million — $154.13 million — February 19 10) Monkey King: Hero Is Back — $153.02 million — $153.02 million — July 2 13)Dragon Blade — $116.79 million — $116.79 million — February 19

2016: 2) Zootopia — $236,086,416 — $236,086,416 — March 4 4) Captain America: Civil War — $190,429,000 — $180,794,517 — May 6 — Walt Disney Pictures 8) Kung Fu Panda 3 — $154,304,371 — $154,304,371 — January 29 10) The Jungle Book — $150,431,684 — $150,431,684 — April 15 — Walt Disney Pictures

2017: 2) The Fate of the Furious — $392,807,017 7,205 — $392,807,017 — April 14 — Universal Pictures International (UPI) 6) Transformers: The Last Knight — $228,842,508 — $228,842,508 — June 23 Paramount Pictures International 9) Coco — $177,065,578 — $189,226,296 — November 24 — Walt Disney Pictures 10) Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales — $172,277,290 — $172,277,290 — May 26 — Walt Disney Pictures

2018: 5) Avengers: Infinity War — $359,543,153 — $359,543,153 — May 11 — Walt Disney Pictures 7) Venom — $271,745,279 — $269,196,633 — November 9 — Sony Pictures Releasing 9) Aquaman — $261,246,391 — $291.8 million — December 7 — Warner Bros. 10) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom — $261,224,207 — $261,224,207 — June 15

2019: 3) Avengers: Endgame — $614,316,021 — $629,100,298 — April 24 10) Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw — $201,000,988 — $201,000,988 — August 11) Spider-Man: Far from Home — $198,999,549 — $198,999,549 — June 28

2020: 5) Tenet — $66.6 million 22.180 — $66.6 million — September 4 — Warner Bros. 10) The Croods: A New Age — $51,585,000 — $53,691,000 — November 26 — Universal Pictures International (UPI)

2021: 5) F9: The Fast Saga — $216.935.282 11.211 — $216.935.282 — May 21 — Universal Pictures 9) Godzilla vs. Kong — $188.7 million 38.437 — $188.7 million — March 26 — Warner Bros.

Different Storytelling Traditions in China and the West

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Hollywood and China are separated by more than 6,000 miles, but the more significant gulf can't be charted on any map. There are vast, historical differences in storytelling tradition that owe as much to Confucianism as modern political sensitivities, and bridging that narrative chasm has become a burning challenge given that within the next few years China will become the world's biggest movie market. [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2012]

“American movie heroes typically choose greatness, but their path to glory is often sidetracked by failings or doubts as the idol struggles with physical and emotional setbacks. Chinese movie paragons, on the other hand, normally have greatness thrust upon them, are physically and emotionally stable and rarely change over the course of a tale. "American heroes go out of their way to search for trouble," said Hsia, whose movie has played several festivals in China and the U.S.. A Chinese protagonist, conversely, "does what he does because it's his duty, it's his job — not because he wants to do it." Incorporating that fundamental difference, Hsia said, led to "another huge rewrite," and the project was subsequently approved.

“Anna’s Chi's proposed co-production "Women Warriors of the Yang Family" ran into problems over the depiction of its protagonist in her script. The story follows the life of the well-loved Northern Song Dynasty general Yang Zongbao, considered a hero in Chinese history books. To make his character more nuanced and a bit more Western, Chi provided him with a foible. To save his loved ones, he must first do something they abhor: When captured by the enemy he becomes a traitor. In reality, he is secretly fighting for his family.

Restrictions on Foreign Films in China

The February lunar new year period, July and August and the autumn holiday season are typically been largely off-limits to big foreign movies, and thus Hollywood is forced to release its movies at off-peak times.

Foreign films shown in China undergo the same scrutiny by censors as Chinese-produced ones. A kissing scene in the 2010 film “Color Me Love”, for example, had to be shortened because censors deemed it was too long. Many foreign films never make it to China. The guidelines on content are very strict: No sex, no religion. Nothing to do with the occult Nothing that could threaten public morality or portray criminal behavior — in other words the basic ingredients for many successful films. Those that are allowed to be shown often have key scenes deleted.

Christopher Harding wrote in The Telegraph: Companies or actors whose work or opinions upset the authorities can find themselves blacklisted. A case in point, says Robert Mitchell, director of Theatrical Insights at Gower Street Analytics, may be the new Marvel film Eternals: its director, Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, became persona non grata in China when critical comments of hers, made eight years ago, were unearthed. A more general chilling factor is at work, as state control of social media tightens. “Netizens” once tempted to criticise clichés or historical inaccuracy in films are now on their guard — the film-review site DeepFocus had its account with the messaging app WeChat suspended after it offered unflattering comments about Lake Changjin. [Source: Christopher Harding, The Telegraph, October 27, 2021]

Film Quota on Foreign Films in China

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Scene from Shanghai Express
with Marlene Dietrich

Only 34 foreign features are allowed to be shown in Chinese cinemas each year. Co-productions, however, are exempt from this strict quota system, giving them a huge advantage in the world's most populous nation. For a long time the Chinese government allowed only 20 foreign films a year to be shown. Twenty titles a year was s roughly equal to the number of monthly domestic releases. There were worries that if 30 films or more were shown the Chinese film industry would collapse. In 1980, there were no foreign films in China. Until 2001 only 10 foreign films, including Hong Kong films, were allowed. Special dispensations are granted for “joint ventures” between Chinese and Hollywood studios. The remake of of Karate Kid, starring Jaden Smith as an American boy living in Beijing, is an example of such a joint venture.China is not alone in imposing limits on non-domestic films, but its quota regime is among the world's tightest.

The 20 foreign films allowed in each year had to compete against more than 500 domestic movies. Even so, they accounted for around 45 percent of Chinese box-office revenues. Avatar alone grossed $190 million, totally dwarfing the $95 million made by China's highest-grossing domestic film ever, "Let the Bullets Fly". Albert Lee, CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures, which co-produced "Let the Bullets Fly", said: "Imagine if you had 30 Avatars a year. They'd completely take over the market. The quota system helps local producers better survive against the inevitable Hollywood invasion."

Teng Jimeng, professor of film at the Beijing Language and Culture University, told The Guardian the import quota was not just intended to protect Chinese films economically — it also has cultural ramifications, preserving a national film identity. Zhao Huili, the producer behind the 2007 low-budget hit “Invisible Wings”, told The Guardian, "It's about safeguarding local stories, not just local production companies." Many in China look to the contrasting examples of Taiwan and South Korea. In 2001, Taiwan dropped its film-import restrictions as it joined the WTO. Today foreign movies take 97 percent of box office revenues. South Korea, by contrast, kept a quota — 73 days a year are reserved for the screening of Korean-only films’ and has fostered a flourishing domestic industry; now Korean films regularly outsell Hollywood on home soil. [Source: Gabrielle Jaffe, The Guardian, March 24, 2011]

For Teng, the Korean comparison is apt because of the way Korea uses the cinemas themselves as the last line of defense. "The Chinese government might have to allow 100 foreign films a year, but it can still create barriers by placing films in bad time slots — for example, at 9am. Even if movie theaters want to make money out of foreign hits, there's still the possibility of a political directive coming down from the film bureau." Certainly, this was the case last year, when Avatar was pulled to make way for the state-backed biopic Confucius, starring Chow Yun-Fat. But, as the disappointing box-office run of Confucius shows, the power to decide the future of Chinese film ultimately lies with Chinese consumers. And they are increasingly being courted by Hollywood.

Number of Foreign Films Allowed in China Increased from 20 to 34

In late February 2012, the Chinese government announced it will allow in an additional 14 foreign films if they are made in 3-D or for the big-screen Imax format. It raised the foreign share of ticket sales to 25 percent. For the past decade, China's state-run film distributors have allowed in only 20 foreign films per year for national distribution. The foreign share of ticket sales was limited to a range of 13.5 to 17.5 percent. March 19, 2011 was the deadline given by the World Trade Organization when it demanded China end its 20-foreign-films-a-year quota, and open its cinemas to outside product. The deadline passed without China's State Film Bureau announcing what changes it would make.

Tian Jin, party secretary of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. said at the 18th party Congress in November 2012 that from January to October 2012, box office revenues amounted to $2.1 billion. Chinese films, however, lost their dominance in their home market, accounting for 41.4 percent of this gross. But Mr. Tian refused to blame the influx of foreign films, saying Chinese films needed to improve. [Source: Ian Johnson, New York Times, November 11, 2012]

“The immediate reason is the strong attack by the imported movies,” Tian Jin said. “But the basic reason is that our competitiveness needs to increase.” Mr. Tian also said that foreign films were not banned from Chinese theaters during national holidays when the theaters are often crowded, a claim often made by importers. He said that foreign distributors “voluntarily” decided not to show their products during this time “out of consideration” for local sensibilities. Chinese films, Mr. Tian said, have done less well abroad. In 2011, 55 Chinese films were distributed in 22 countries, grossing about $318 million.

The New York Times reported: “The deal to raise the number of foreign-produced films in China came soon after Xi Jinping (now leader of China) visited politicians in Washington and movie executives in Hollywood. The discussions leading to the deal were conducted at a high level, as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. joined Mr. Xi in personal negotiations. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the DreamWorks Animation chief executive, and Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive, also helped forge the agreement.

Restrictions Increase with the Number of Foreign Films Allowed in China

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Chinese actor made to look like
a Westerner in the Chinese film Death Ray
"The American studios are getting more movies into China ... but on the other hand there are these new constraints occurring," Steven Saltzman, a Loeb & Loeb partner with extensive experience in China, told the Los Angeles Times. "One shouldn't be surprised, however, because this is a market where noncommercial considerations, including political ones, matter greatly." [Source: Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, August 28, 2012]

Ben Fritz, John Horn and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “In Hollywood, China's decision-making process on whether and when to release an imported movie has long been mystifying. Companies that desire to have their movies distributed in China submit them to SARFT several months before their U.S. launch date in hopes of getting permission to open there and an optimum release date.

In 2012, "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Lorax" and "Ice Age" were cleared by government censors and given a coveted quota slot relatively quickly. The studios then waited — half a year in the case of "The Lorax" — until officials from the China Film Group, part of SARFT, informed them they would be opening against competitive Hollywood pictures. China Film refused to provide an explanation to the studios for its decision. Hollywood executives with China experience were shocked. None could recall two quota films ever opening against each other, let alone similar ones.

There is no official appeals process, and unofficial lobbying efforts by studio representatives in Beijing were unsuccessful. The Motion Picture Assn. of America, Hollywood's trade organization, has been similarly unable to persuade Chinese authorities to change their policies. The studios' only recourse would appear to be withholding future releases from China, cutting off a growing revenue stream in an increasingly important foreign movie market. Spokespeople for the MPAA and several Hollywood studios declined to comment. People familiar with the thinking of studio executives said they were fearful that speaking publicly on the matter would antagonize Chinese authorities and lead to further punitive measures.

"While there has been change in the way China handles American movies, it has been and will remain incremental for the foreseeable future," said Saltzman. "To expect otherwise is an unsophisticated approach in this market." Dan Mintz, chief executive of Chinese/American media company DMG Entertainment, said "Back home, you're really only concerned with one group of people — the consumer. In China you have to be good at handling the government and the consumer." Mintz is an American who has been operating in China for many years.

Obstacles for Hollywood and Foreign Filmmakers in China

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Chinese film Pride Deadly Fury
Many Hollywood executives and filmmakers still have reservations about working in China. Peter Chernin, the chief executive of the Chernin Group, a media company that joined in producing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” for Fox, told the New York Times he was more inclined to deploy his own company’s next investments in India or Indonesia. The chase for media investments in China had become “overheated,” he said, and heavy regulation has made China less attractive to him than other Asian markets. [Source: Edward Wyatt, Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, New York Times, April 24, 2012]

Cathy Yang of Reuters wrote: “The Chinese market is far from an easy one to crack, industry experts said, citing a range of obstacles that include quotas on foreign imports and strict censorship. The share of box office revenue that goes to the studio also is limited to 25 percent. In the US, the standard is a 50:50 split between theaters and studios. [Source: Cathy Yang, Reuters, July 10, 2012]

Piracy looms as an even larger problem. The DVD market in China is primarily based on pirated copies, and piracy often means producers cut movie budgets to make up for lost revenue. "Piracy threatens the film industry's bottom line," said Jennifer Thym, the Hong-Kong based director of award-winning short film "Bloodtraffick." "Piracy affects the audience's decision to see movies in the cinema or to rent or buy movies on other platforms, and that will eventually throttle film investment," she said.

In the past, relief from piracy has been a difficult issue to control, and it may prove impossible to fix completely. Yet, some industry watchers think that if more movies were released to theaters, piracy would abate because people would see the films in theaters, first. "I believe if studios were allowed to sell their content in a broad fashion across the market, they could curb some of the piracy and at least retain a portion of the economics of their content," Monica Dicenso, vice president covering media sector JP Morgan, told Reuters in an e-mail.

Any film that hopes to play commercially in China must be approved by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. Committees from the group oversee all films shot in China at multiple steps of the production process and screen for content — typically political — that they consider harmful to the Chinese people."Strict rules limit the kinds of films that can be shown in China," said William Pfeiffer, chief executive at Dragongate Entertainment, a Hong Kong-based production company. "Also, censorship rules may require edits that negatively affect film quality when key scenes are required to be cut," he added. Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, All performances in China need government approval, but the rules are not clearly spelled out, adding an extra element of anxiety. “We have never been told explicitly, 'Don't do X, Y or Z,' by our Chinese partners,'" said Alison Friedman, head of Beijing-based Ping Pong Productions, which imports cultural events to China. "But you do want to make sure your performers know this is not the time to wear your 'Free Tibet' T-shirt." [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, February 16, 2012]

Janet Yang, an American film producer who has worked in China since the 1980s, recalls that when she assisted Spielberg on "Empire of the Sun," she was worried that somebody would spark an incident. "I felt the need to write a long memo to the cast and crew discussing what I thought were China-specific manners: courtesy, showing respect, what is acceptable and not," Yang recalls. For the film, "Shanghai Calling," about a Wall Street lawyer who moves to China, Yang said she felt no need to prep the cast except to advise an actress who is an active blogger to be careful about what she wrote. "There is so much more leeway nowadays about what is acceptable," Yang said. "But still, China is not for the faint of heart."

David Franzoni, the Academy Award-winning producer of "Gladiator” was hired in 2011 by a Chinese state-owned production company to write a script for a $30 million drama set in the Tang Dynasty. Franzoni’s idea on how to form the plot was viewed suspiciously by the Chinese authorities and needless to say the film never got made. Michelle Kung wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Franzoni proposed using a rebel general as a "window" into the ancient world. One problem: To Chinese censors, the general, rather than a hero, was a foreign interloper who betrayed an 8th-century emperor, according to Mr. Franzoni and his Chinese producers. The producers told Mr. Franzoni he should be less sympathetic toward the general and focus more on the emperor and his consort. So the story went into rewrite. [Source: Michelle Kung, Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2012]

Mr. Franzoni decided to use the outsider general, a familiar archetype to Western audiences, as a central character to help foreign audiences better grasp those distant times. "We have to make sure that if we fall down the rabbit hole, we have a rabbit we're familiar with," he says. QFTV officials read Mr. Franzoni's treatment this past summer and passed it to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television. The censors quickly raised concerns about Mr. Franzoni's approach, which they said risked presenting an unfaithful interpretation to historically aware audiences. QFTC told Mr. Franzoni that Chinese audiences would never accept Lushan in a heroic light.

Demand for American and Foreign Films in China

American movies are wildly popular in China; even though pirated DVDs and downloads of most Hollywood films are readily available in China, audiences still swarm multiplexes showing U.S. studio blockbusters.

It's easy to sum up what sort of film goes down well in China, said Cain. "Action, number one. Action, number two — and action, number three." Film critic Craig Skinner said Hollywood "spectacle" films with simple plots do best in China. "Films which are visually impressive and not too hard to digest perform well at the box office in China — plots which do not require the viewer to be familiar with certain cultural aspects," he said, citing Avatar as an example of a universally understood story which became the highest grossing movie in China in 2010, raking in 540 million yuan ($85.6 million) in only 15 days. One of the worst performing foreign films in China last year was The King's Speech, starring Colin Firth as the stuttering monarch George VI. [Source: Helen Pidd, The Guardian, October 1, 2012]

Andrew Jacobs wrote in the New York Times, “Audiences in increasingly sophisticated cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou criticize the selection and quality of films.” the Despite a World Trade Organization ruling that seeks to remove the quota, the Chinese State Administration of Radio, Film and Television continues to shield the domestic film industry from foreign competition. [Source: Andrew Jacobs New York Times July 17, 2011]

“You can control the system and all the incentives for people to watch movies, but at the end of the day they are going to watch what they want to watch,” said Kevin Lee, vice president for programming at dGenerate Films, a distributor of independent movies from China, most of which are never seen at mainland theaters.

Film Co-Productions with China

Michael Keene wrote in Asian Creative Transformations: Co-productions are designed to share financial risk. A coproduction can be simply an equity stake; it can be investment in production in return for distribution rights; or it can be creative collaboration. It may be a combination of all three. In recent times people are talking a lot about creative collaboration in China, not just with the Hollywood majors but also smaller studios. Most co-productions are based on necessity rather than choice; in the case of Hollywood there is a necessity to engage with China for its market and also the fact that having a project classified as a co-production avoids the film quota imposed by the government and allows greater share of box office revenue: up to 43 percent. In addition to revenue sharing films (RSI), now expanded to 34, the government also permits 60 flat fee imported films (FFI), which are not subject to the same rigid accounting of the box office take. [Source: Michael Keene, Asian Creative Transformations (n.d.), June, 2014]

“Unlike many other countries the US does not have a co-production treaty with China. Yet the co-production arrangement is attractive in that it avoids the two quota categories; that is co-produced films are not counted as imports. In co-production agreements there are procedural requirements: they need to be jointly funded, have Chinese elements, and there needs to be one third Chinese cast. There is often a degree of mystification about films that claim to be co-productions. For instance, does the current wave of coproduction entail making Chinese stories or just adding Chinese elements, as we have seen in Iron Man, X-Men andWolverine franchises? Moreover, is the addition of Chinese elements original or just a marketing strategy? Certainly many movie goers are sceptical of cameos provided for Chinese actors as well as local versions of international blockbusters.

Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “To qualify for co-production financing, productions must include a Chinese story element and employ some Chinese production staff. China benefits from the expertise of foreign filmmakers, while Hollywood, in addition to avoiding the retaliatory distribution tactics, gets access to Chinese funding and a bigger cut of box office receipts than a purely American production. Email Share Backers of foreign films typically take home around 25 percent of cinema grosses, assuming they are among the handful of non-Chinese movies allowed into the country under an import quota. But the American makers of Chinese co-productions can collect nearly double that amount of ticket sales. Qualifying for a co-production, however, can be akin to untying a Gordian knot. [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2012]

Chinese Co-Production Headaches

Sometimes, Chinese governmental concerns that seem almost trivial can cause big problems for difficult filmmakers. Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Just before shooting commenced on 2011's "The Dragon Pearl," Australian writer-director Mario Andreacchio was forced to tear up his script, largely because of how he was depicting dragons. The family film, the first official treaty Australia-China co-production, revolves around two teenagers' discovery of a live dragon in China. Andreacchio had envisioned a Western-style dragon: a fearsome, fire-breathing creature with connotations of evil. In China, however, dragons traditionally symbolize prosperity and power. [Source: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore and John Horn, Los Angeles Times, September 22, 2012]

“"We had to rewrite the screenplay — we were six weeks out from shooting, and I had to go back to treatment stage, which is pretty scary for any producer," Andreacchio said. "The only way we could continue was to unstitch the story and stitch it up again with changes so we could get filming approval." The benevolent Chinese dragon won, and the film turned into a modest Chinese hit.

“Producer Pietro Ventani, who was a consultant on 2008's Chinese-American co-production "The Forbidden Kingdom" with Jet Li and Jackie Chan and is developing with director Rob Minkoff the proposed co-production adventure tale "Chinese Odyssey," said the screenwriting education is not a one-way street. If Chinese filmmakers want their films to travel beyond the country's borders, Ventani said, they also must reexamine narrative rules, and understand why movies such as "Avatar," which grossed more than $182 million in China, do so well in Chinese multiplexes. In many Chinese films, Ventani said, "the accomplishment is given as much emphasis as the individual, which can be a problem because we are drawn to people stories." But Chinese society is changing rapidly, Ventani said, and its homegrown movies will soon follow, embracing more Western structures. "The Chinese audience is ready to embrace those kind of stories."

“For all of the concessions and changes he had to make, Hsia said, "I absolutely would do it again." The movie opened in China to glowing notices and solid box-office returns, and Hsia said he expects the independently financed film to play in U.S. theaters. "I do feel I got to make the movie I wanted to make," he said. The Chinese producers and censors demanded that the twist must be scrapped. "[They said] he is a historical figure, so we cannot put any shameful things to his name. Because he's so beloved they say a Chinese audience wouldn't accept it," said Chi, who has since rewritten the script.

“It wasn't Chi's first brush with Chinese censors. In "Cicada's Summer," a fully Chinese-funded movie Chi directed and wrote, two scenes had to be removed after shooting was finished, one in which a schoolgirl has an abortion, the other where schoolchildren post photos on a social media site during class. Both were deemed detrimental to the image of the country's education system.

Creative Marketing Helps Foreign Films in China

Charley Lanyon wrote in the South China Morning Post: How did a film about America’s Jim Crow South gross US$71 million in China? Make it about the food. And Bohemian Rhapsody? Make screenings a mass karaoke. Alibaba Pictures president Zhang Wei said Alibaba Pictures’ biggest crossover success in 2019 had been not an action blockbuster with over-the-top special effects but Green Book, a film whose plot depends on an understanding of US history and race relations, which features no big international names, and whose running time is largely taken up by two men talking in a car. Green Book made US$85.1 million in North America, and to date has taken nearly US$71 million in China, making it the second biggest grossing Best Picture Oscar winner in China after Titanic.[Source: Charley Lanyon, South China Morning Post, November 26, 2019]

Zhang said that asking the question “what do Chinese audiences want?” is not only impossible to answer, but it is the wrong question to be asking in the first place. The trick, according to Zhang, is twofold and not really a trick at all: first, don’t underestimate your audience, and second, when it comes to marketing, don’t be afraid to get creative. To drum up interest in foreign films, Alibaba engaged in marketing gimmicks that seem more suited to the era of P.T. Barnum. “For example, Amblin’s 2017 film A Dog’s Purpose is a great example of how we come up with creative offline events to drive buzz online,” says Zhang. (Alibaba Pictures has a stake in Steven Spielberg-owned Amblin Partners.) “We held a screening for people to bring their dogs to walk the red carpet and watch the movie together with their dogs in the theatre. We partnered with a pet adoption organisation and held offline events in these adoption centres in cities around the country.” The movie was a great success, says Zhang, though it grossed only US$188 million worldwide. “To everyone’s great surprise the China market contributed US$88 million, or 47 per cent of global ticket sales.”

“The company pulled similar stunts while marketing Bohemian Rhapsody, turning cinema screenings into mass karaoke events by encouraging audience members to sing along with the film. While antics like those wouldn’t work with serious films such as Green Book or the independent Lebanese tragedy Capernaum, Alibaba Pictures still found great success thinking out of the box. “Green Book seems like a very atypical choice for Chinese audiences. It’s a film about the Jim Crow South, a context that is not familiar to most Chinese movie-goers,” says Zhang. “But underneath that historical backdrop is a very relatable, universal story of loneliness and unlikely friendship.”

“The company considered adding in text to explain the story’s historical context to Chinese audiences, or even editing the movie and changing some dialogue. But in the end, it left it unchanged, and dedicated its marketing of the film entirely to one line from the movie: “The world is full of lonely people afraid to make the first move.”

“We had a hunch this would resonate in China,” says Zhang. The company translated that one line into Chinese without context and plastered it on billboards throughout China. People were moved and mystified, and the buzz it built online was enormous. If the history was lost on Chinese audiences, they connected to something that American audiences likely took for granted: the Southern cuisine the characters were shown eating. “We noticed that a lot of the social media chatter was along the lines of — watching Green Book made me hungry!” says Zhang. “Food is such an important part of this movie — the pizza, the hot dogs, the fried chicken! One of the businesses in Alibaba’s ecosystem is, a food delivery platform. We partnered with merchants on, so anyone who had seen the movie got a 30 per cent discount off any of the food items featured in the movie.” “The film completely shattered expectations in China,” said Zhang. “We did US$70 million in box office sales, which was huge, nearly quadrupling that of The Shape of Water, which won [the] Best Picture [Oscar] in 2017.”

“Another film, Capernaum, which Alibaba took to China, also seemed an odd choice. A small, artful film about the brutality of existence in which a child tries to sue his parents for being born, it is emotionally unrelenting and depends deeply on the culture of Lebanon. In China, the colour of the posters was changed and warmed up, the featured image was taken from a single frame in the movie where the main character smiled, hinting that the film would be uplifting. Alibaba then mobilised its expansive online platform to make the hashtag #ICriedWatchingCapernaum the number one trending topic on the short-video platform Douyin. In the end, this sad, quiet, meticulous film went on to gross US$88 million in China, 47 per cent of its global ticket sales. “So what do Chinese audiences want? Something, Zhang explained, that this room of Hollywood’s biggest entertainment executives should have known already: “They want good stories that make you feel something.

Village Roadshow Succeeds with a Chinese-Language Film

In 2013 Village Roadshow Pictures scored a big commercial success in China with its first Chinese-language film — "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," a comedic take on a well-known 16th century Chinese fantasy novel. It earned $93.5 million during is February opening week — the biggest ever in China — and had earned $200.5 million by late March. According to the Los Angeles Times: “That's a strategic success for parent company Village Roadshow Ltd., an Australian media company whose Hollywood division, Village Roadshow Pictures, has made its share of blockbusters and Oscar winners — among them Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" trilogy and Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." [Source: Daniel Miller, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013]

“Unlike most major movie studios, whose China strategies typically have involved making both Chinese- and English-language co-productions with local partners, Village Roadshow's Beijing-based division makes movies in Mandarin and Cantonese for local audiences. "Journey" appears to have validated the company's strategy of "local language films for the local market." "It's a defining moment in terms of sticking to our guns," said Greg Basser, chief executive of Village Roadshow Entertainment Group, the holding company that contains the Asia unit.

“Village Roadshow said it has a 30 percent interest in "Journey" but declined to disclose its share of profits from the film, which cost less than $20 million to make. Two days after "Journey" unfurled, the company released the romance film "Say Yes!," an adaptation of a 1991 Chinese television drama that took in $7.5 million on Valentine's Day alone, en route to a total gross of $32 million. That one-two punch for Village Roadshow's Asia division, formed in 2011, has gotten notice in Hollywood. Some observers are openly cheering the company's success. "All of Hollywood is rooting for Roadshow to show us the way," said Resolution talent agent David Unger, who recently signed Michelle Yeoh, star of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the most successful Chinese-American co-production of all time. "They have certainly invested a lot of time and resources."

“Village Roadshow Ltd. has long done business in Asia. It distributed Bruce Lee movies in Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s — the beginning of a relationship with Hong Kong film mogul Raymond Chow's Golden Harvest production company. "Journey" and "Say Yes!" were both co-productions with Chinese companies. "Journey," written and directed by star Chinese filmmaker Stephen Chow, was financed and co-produced by the filmmaker's Bingo Movie Development, along with Chinavision Media Group and Edko Films. Huayi Bros. Media distributed the project in China. Village Roadshow co-produced "Say Yes!" with New Classics Media, Fuji Television Network and Asia Times Cultural Media.

Bollywood Hopes to Tap Into Chinese Market

In January 2012, AFP reported: “India's Bollywood film industry is eyeing its Asian rival China as a potential market, after a successful run of "3 Idiots", the coming-of-age comedy starring Aamir Khan.The 2009 film, about a group of struggling students at one of India's elite universities, opened in China in October and takings have so far topped 160 million rupees ($2.9 million), according to producers Vinod Chopra Films. [Source: Phil Hazlewood, AFP, January 5, 2011]

"The Chinese audience identified with the societal and parental pressures on today's generation of young students seeking success," said Vinod Chopra, who helped to adapt Chetan Bhagat's novel "Five Point Someone" for the big screen. The writer-producer-director said he was already receiving enquiries from China for his next film "Ferrari Ki Sawaari" (A Ride in a Ferrari), which is due for release at the end of April.He and other industry figures said he hoped the success of "3 Idiots" would see more Hindi-language films released in China, where only a handful of foreign movies are allowed to be shown each year."This has demonstrated that universal themes will cross cultural and linguistic boundaries," Chopra told AFP.

Indian films were popular in China in the 1940s and 1950s but ties between New Delhi and Beijing became frosty, not least because of India's granting of asylum to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The first Hindi-language film to be shot on location in China — "Chandni Chowk to China" — was released in India in 2009 and was hailed as a breakthrough, although panned by critics and audiences.

The action comedy about a lowly Indian chef in New Delhi who is mistaken for the reincarnation of a fabled Chinese warrior starred Akshay Kumar and "Kill Bill" actor Gordon Liu.Before "3 Idiots", only the 2010 Shah Rukh Khan-starrer "My Name Is Khan" has recently been shown in China.

Meenakshi Shedde, a Mumbai-based film critic and film festival consultant, said Bollywood had largely ignored the potential of China and other Asian countries in favour of courting the Indian diaspora in the West. But she said that Indian film-makers and studios were now looking east."I'm 100 percent sure of it. It's just a matter of time... We have a one-billion-strong population and the whole world is looking at us. But we've never looked at these markets in Asia." she added. "China, which also has a one-billion-plus population, is the biggest market. But we've never crossed-over consciously. The market is too big to be ignored."

Hollywood studios have been making inroads into Indian cinema in recent years, forging joint ventures with local partners for pre- and post-production work. Some Chinese film-makers have also started to realise the need to win new audiences and have adapted movies to draw in crowds from non-traditional markets like India. Jackie Chan's "The Myth", for example, was shot on location in India and co-starred Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat, while Peter Chan's musical drama romance "Perhaps Love" used Bollywood choreographer Farah Khan.Shedde noted that both "Chandni Chowk" and "My Name Is Khan" were produced or distributed by US studios (Warner Bros and Fox), which could provide the key to unlocking the Chinese market for Bollywood in the future. "It's Hollywood opening doors for Bollywood in China. We're riding on Hollywood's coattails," she added.

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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