China a Rising Big Market for Big U.S. Films; Threat of Creeping Censorship Remains a Major Hurdle
Byline: James Frazier, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Here's a tale of two nations. Both have histories of communism. Both wield great economic and military power. Both have been and remain rivals of the U.S. for influence and prestige on the world stage. And both have emerged as lucrative markets for the American film industry.
But one market, China's, is more lucrative - by far - than the other, Russia's.
With its population of approximately 1.3 billion, China has Hollywood salivating at the prospect of its vast potential as a market for American movies.
It's probably no accident that China has been getting perceptibly friendlier treatment in American movies lately than its smaller neighbor to the north.
In the worldwide hit 2009 disaster film 2012, the Chinese are depicted as the ingenious saviors of humanity. This is a far cry from the days of such films as 1997's Red Corner, a Richard Gere thriller that painted a remarkably negative portrait of the state of the justice system and human rights in China. But in 1997, the Chinese market for Hollywood films was still minuscule, so tightly controlled that it did not look as if it would ever be open.In telling contrast with China, Russia remains a plentiful source of Hollywood villains. In this summer's box-office smash The Avengers, for example, a corrupt Russian general and some thugs are seen interrogating a tied-up heroine (Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow) before she breaks loose and beats them all up. Likewise, the Angelina Jolie 2010 thriller Salt heavily featured Russian characters, virtually all insidious spies bent on destroying the U.S. and resurrecting the Soviet Union.
China and Russia have gone from backwaters as far as distribution goes to major markets now, says marketing consulting Robert Cain of Pacific Bridge Pictures, who has done work in both countries. But China is and will continue to be a much bigger factor for filmmakers.
Currently, the Chinese have a quota system that allows for the domestic release of 34 foreign films per year, with at least 14 of those having to be in Imax or 3-D. American-Chinese Hollywood co-productions are increasingly common. Iron Man 3, for example, will tap both Chinese shooting locations and funding sources.
As Chinese market clout and direct involvement in production continue to grow, American films hoping to play in China have much to lose by offending the sensibilities of the nation's rulers. The Dark Knight, for example, did not play in China because of a sequence where Batman kidnaps a Chinese businessman out of Hong Kong in defiance of international laws.
Perhaps the most startling example of a de facto Chinese veto power over Hollywood content is the upcoming Red Dawn. A remake of the 1984 film about teenage partisans resisting a Soviet invasion of the U.S., the new film was shot with Chinese soldiers conquering America. Financial problems caused MGM to shelve the movie for years, and then came the news: The studio had ordered the filmmakers to replace the Chinese invaders in post-production. Red Dawn would now revolve instead around a North Korean conquest of the United States.
Mr. Cain, who covers Hollywood's involvement in China on his ChinaFilmBiz blog, expects to see Hollywood grow increasingly deferential to the concerns of Chinese officials.
Around two-thirds of the global box office comes from overseas, Mr. Cain said. This year, about 10 percent of Hollywood's grosses will come from China. Because of the import regulations, American producers only get about half as much of the take as anywhere else, so it's roughly about 5 percent of their revenue. …