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 around 20 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 government imposes a multitude of rules and regulations on foreign films shown in China and foreign film companies operating in China. 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 deemed to be too successful.

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 4 of the Top 10 draws last year.

Top grossing films in China in 2011 (in US$): 1) Avatar; 2) Transformers: Dark of the Moon; 3) Let the Bullets Fly (local); 4) Aftershock (local); 5) Kung Fu Panda 2; 6) Inception; 7) Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf 2 (local); 8) Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides; 9) If You Are the One 2 (local); 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.

Hollywood will be hoping for further increases in openness. Some think the rule limiting the showing of foreign films to 20 a year to be relaxed soon. 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 "China lost the WTO case and is supposed to let foreign companies into distribution," said commercial lawyer Steve Dickinson, who has practised in China since 1991 and whose firm has clients in the industry. "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," he told AFP.

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.

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]

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Scene from Shanghai Express
with Marlene Dietrich

Shanghai now has its own film festival. Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival was held in Beijing in 1995.

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”.

Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s 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, Premier Zhou Enlai specifically, 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]

Helen Pidd wrote in The Guardian: With a potential 1.34 billion cinemagoers, China this year overtook Japan to become the biggest foreign market for Hollywood films. Twenty-five thousand screens are set to be installed in the country over the next five years, many with the latest 4k digital technology. China has also become the fastest growing IMAX market in the world, already home to 78 IMAX cinemas, six times as many as the number in the early 2010. And the country is launching its own version of IMAX technology, called DMAX. [Source: Helen Pidd, The Guardian, October 1, 2012]

Good Websites and Sources on Chinese Film: Chinese Movie Database ; Internet Movie Database / ; Shelly Kraicer’s Chinese Cinema site ; Modern Chinese Literature and Culture (MCLC) Resource List ; iFilm Connections---Asia and Pacific ; Love Asia Film ; Journal of Chinese Cinemas ; Wikipedia article on Chinese Cinema Wikipedia ; Senses of Cinema ; Film in China (Chinese Government site) ; Directory of Interent Sources ; Chinese, Japanese, and Korean CDs and DVDs at Yes Asia and Zoom Movie ; Expert on Chinese film: Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California.


Film Quota on Foreign Films in China

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Chinese actor made to look like
a Westerner in the Chinese film Death Ray

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 allows only 20 foreign films a year to be shown. Twenty titles a year is 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.

Even though only 20 foreign titles have been allowed in each year would compete with more than 500 domestic movies. Even so, they have accounted for around 45 percent of Chinese box-office revenues. Last year, 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, says: "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

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Chinese film Pride Deadly Fury
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

"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

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]

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.

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.

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.

Chinese Film Companies Invest in Hollywood

Legendary East---a Hong Kong-based venture between Hollywood production house Legendary Entertainment and China's Huayi Brothers Media Corp.” announced in June 2011 plans to make one or two big budget movies a year starting in 2013 for global audiences that are also commercially viable in China. The movies will be mainly in English and feature themes based on Chinese history, mythology or culture. [Source: AP, January 5, 2012]

Legendary Entertainment has produced global blockbusters including; Inception; and the two Hangover movies. Huayi releases include 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 January 2012, AP reported: “A Hong Kong construction company said Friday that a plan to invest $220.5 million in a Hollywood-China movie production venture is on hold because of rocky financial markets. Paul Y. Engineering Ltd. said it couldn't raise enough money from selling new shares to investors before a year-end deadline for the proposed---and unlikely; investment in Legendary East Ltd.

The construction company has said previously that the deal for a 50 percent stake in Legendary East Ltd., which aims to make big budget films for worldwide audiences, was aimed at diversifying its business. Executives believe China's increasingly lucrative film market has great potential. Chairman James Chiu said although the share sale had a; positive and substantial response; from investors, it was not enough to complete the share placement."We anticipate that under the current difficult environment of the capital markets the placing will not be able to close before; the deadline of Dec. 31, 2011", Chiu said. The company said it will try again in 2012 by working with the partners to modify the structure of the deal.

Under the originally proposed deal, Hollywood production house Legendary Entertainment would have been left with a 40 percent stake in Legendary East while China's Huayi Brothers Media Corp. would have the remaining 10 percent. In February 2012 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.

In China Movie Pact, More 3-D, Less Reality

Michael Cieply wrote in the New York Times, “A new agreement widening access in China to films from around the world, announced by negotiators for China and the United States in February 2012 brings with it a message about what the next wave of movie exports will look like: They will be large, in 3-D and mostly unrelated to the real world. Christopher J. Dodd, chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, said the focus on premium-format films reflected a bit of diplomacy that allowed the Chinese to add 14 films in a special category, without formally abandoning their existing quota of 20. [Source: Michael Cieply, New York Times, February 19, 2012]

“To use their words, it was too politically sensitive for them to break that 20-film quota,” said Mr. Dodd. The new system, he said, is subject to review in five years, and it is still possible that American studios and officials will press for more access in the interim. The agreement carries a proviso that the special-category films be available in premium 3-D or large-screen Imax formats, even if they are accompanied by conventional 2-D versions.

To some extent, the format requirement simply corresponds to realities in the Chinese market. Rapid growth in the number of screens---from about 6,200 last year to a projected 16,000 three years from now---has been accompanied by a major expansion in both 3-D and Imax theaters, with an audience response to match. “Mission: Impossible---Ghost Protocol,” which had an Imax version, and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” in both Imax and 3-D, were blockbusters in China. “Avatar,” another 3-D extravaganza, played 24 hours a day in some Chinese theaters.

But the agreement effectively guarantees, at least for the foreseeable future, that only Hollywood’s most fantastic enterprises will be admitted to China on a favored basis, since those dominate the premium formats specified in the trade deal. A “Titanic” re-issue in 3-D from Paramount Pictures, and a 3-D version of “The Great Gatsby,” from Warner Brothers, are among a handful of films that might be favored under the new rule, while bridging any cultural divide between West and East with reality-based stories. If Universal’s new version of “Les Misérables” appears next December in 3-D or Imax, it can presumably seek to take advantage of the expanded quota as well. Mr. Dodd speculated that the agreement might prod some studios to reformat existing films in 3-D versions, or to develop a broader range of 3-D and large-screen fare.

The agreement---struck partly through personal diplomacy between two vice presidents, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Xi Jinping---also increased a foreign studio’s permitted share of box-office receipts from a film released in China to 25 percent, from 13 percent. The deal promises a significant increase in revenue from a growing Chinese movie market that had $2.1 billion in ticket sales last year, and is expected to reach $5 billion by 2015.

The Independent Film and Television Alliance, which represents independent filmmakers, said the agreement included provisions that would help independent movies, with their often-grittier fare, get a share of the Chinese market. Mr. Dodd said he believed nonstudio films attracted nearly $100 million in China last year. While allowing new rights to audit film revenue and consult on marketing campaigns, the independent film alliance noted, the deal also bars any attempt by a Chinese partner to declare rejection by state censors a material breach of a distribution agreement. Instead, the alliance said, a film studio and Chinese state-owned enterprises will be required to “work together when these situations arise.”

History of Chinese Films in the West

Mainland Chinese cinema landed on the global stage in the 1980s and early 1990s as the country began to open up to the West. The movies of the so-called Fifth Generation sought to tell filmmaker-driven stories that were unimaginable during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Several of those pictures, such as Zhang's "Ju Dou" and Chen Kaige's "Farewell My Concubine," found a Western audience but were mainly restricted to the art house. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

The early 2000s brought the Western box-office success of so-called wuxia martial-arts films such as "Hero" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." (Hong Kong and Taiwanese cinema have followed separate arcs, thanks to the different political histories of those territories.)

But now the stakes and expectations have risen considerably. Production on the mainland has grown to more than 500 films per year, according to some estimates. The country is moving into 3-D films and budgets are swelling; with the lavish price tag on films like "Flowers of War," the movie almost certainly needs to make a splash overseas to turn a profit.

While English is usually the preferred language for Asian-themed movies aimed at international audiences, that could change in the next decade as America's grip on the title of world's biggest movie market weakens, Trench predicted. "There's a time right now that all of the studios, if they're going to do movies with Asian elements, they're going to be in English," she said. "But that's not going to be forever."

Difficulty Chinese Films Have Finding a Western Audience

Few Chinese-language films - with the exception of Zhang Yimou's "Hero" and Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - have done well in big Western markets. Earthquake drama "Aftershock", from Legendary's partner Huayi, fizzled earlier this year in United States cinemas, where subtitled films rarely perform well. Patriotic hits such as “Founding of the Republic” do not travel well either. Foreign bottoms are less biddable.

Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “When the Chow Yun-fat action-comedy epic "Let the Bullets Fly" opened in China last year, it quickly became a phenomenon. Lured by its splashy fight scenes and whip-snap dialogue, filmgoers swarmed theaters. The movie wound up taking in more than $100 million at the box office in China, the most for a homegrown film. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

Yet despite its Hollywood-style violence and an actor with international name recognition, "Let the Bullets Fly" hasn't even managed to find a distributor in the United States. When it played the Tribeca Film Festival in April, there were walkouts. "It's not going to be for everyone," director and costar Jiang Wen said in an interview afterward. "I just make movies and hope people appreciate them."

Jiang isn't the only Chinese filmmaker who's making blockbusters at home and feeling unappreciated abroad. Feng Xiaogang's 2010 earthquake action drama "Aftershock," with nearly $100 million in receipts, received a token release in the U.S., where it took in only about $60,000. And John Woo's two-part war epic "Red Cliff" was a Hollywood-sized hit in China several years ago. But it didn't even crack the $1-million box-office mark when Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures released a condensed version stateside in 2009. Europe and the rest of Asia have been only slightly more receptive to these blockbusters.

The government and private companies are pouring significant resources into the film industry; officials are eager to boost their country's cultural exports in a way that matches the already booming business in factory goods.

"We often hear that the Chinese market will quickly approach the U.S. market," Zhang said. "But it will still take a long time for a Chinese film to create international influence."

Why Chinese Films Have Difficulty Finding a Western Audience

Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese movies have remained a largely local affair, experts say, for reasons that include a lack of international stars and differing storytelling styles. Moreover, China's censorship rules discourage racy scenes and push screenwriters toward politically safer period pieces (which Western audiences may find difficult to follow) and romantic comedies. Instead of a global-cinema powerhouse, some worry China is at risk of turning into another Bollywood: healthy on its home continent but limp abroad. [Source: Steven Zeitchik and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, July 03, 2011]

American parochialism is certainly an obstacle---foreign-language titles, after all, rarely find more than a niche audience in the U.S. But cinema experts say the problems speak as much to China's filmmaking conventions as they do to Western resistance.

"Hollywood often doesn't make American movies, it makes globally appealing movies," said David U. Lee, a Chinese movie expert who heads a co-production company and once ran an Asian film fund for Harvey Weinstein. "[But] Chinese filmmakers run on the assumption people already understand the story. It's laziness, and it makes it difficult to tell a story to a global audience."

Many of the current Chinese hits use historical reference points that elude Western audiences. "Let the Bullets Fly" is rife with allegorical meaning about standing up to corrupt leaders, while "Red Cliff" assumes a knowledge of Han dynasty politics. "It does present a little bit of a problem when a 3rd century potentate is presented casually in the way an American filmmaker would present George Washington," Magnolia Pictures President Eamonn Bowles said.

Hollywood producer Janet Yang ("Disney High School Musical: China," "The Joy Luck Club"), who is planning several China-U.S. co-productions, says that the issues go to fundamental differences in narrative. "In China, you have lots of long rambling stories in oral tradition. There is not a classic three-arc structure like the Greeks," she said. "Look at 'Let the Bullets Fly.' The actors look hot. There's lots of energy. But can someone tell me what the story was about?"

And even when Chinese filmmakers go out of their way to tell a Western story, they need to be mindful not to tilt too far away from the conventions of their own country."A successful co-production needs to be the right mix of attractiveness to both sides to actually get financed," said Christopher Chen, vice president of business development at Hollywood producer Endgame Entertainment, which has embarked on several such efforts, including the upcoming Joseph Gordon-Levitt thriller "Looper" and a dramatization of the life of Marco Polo.

For all the strategizing, though, director Zhang Yimou says that his country's cinema scene is facing a simple but bedeviling issue. "The most important thing is there are not many good films’ good stories that people all over the world can understand and be touched by," he said. "Our new film is trying to achieve this with our team, international cooperation and structure.... [But] people won't like the film if the story isn't told in a way to move people, no matter how big the investment and structure."

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 2012

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