Lights, camera, action, money.
The four words that fuel America’s media powerhouse Hollywood, are now expected to add a fifth term to the golden list — China. In 2015, “Mission Impossible 6” set a record-breaking start in China, where it raked in $18.5 million on day one, marking the biggest opening day of all time for a 2D Hollywood film.
The prospect of reaching 1.3 billion people with growing incomes has not escaped Hollywood, but the burgeoning China market has its limits — a strict quota system that allows only 34 foreign films per year, and the approval of the state-run censorship board.
So why does Hollywood love (and hate) China?
One could say that Hollywood is just following the trends. By the end of 2017, the Chinese box office will overtake the United States. In the last decade, the Chinese movie market grew by 350%, and in 2015, 22 new screens were built per day.
Hollywood blockbusters like Universal Pictures’ “Fast and Furious 7” made over $388 million on the mainland, and Chinese cinemas are now selling movie merchandise in house. In the eyes of Hollywood, the Chinese market is the future.
But back in China, local competitors are thinking the same, and big media enterprises like the Wanda Group, who purchased AMC Entertainment in 2012, want a piece of the global market. “Monster Hunt,” the 2015 Chinese-Hong Kong 3D animation hybrid, was the highest-grossing film in the China market, bringing in $392 million.
The multi-billion dollar industry is looking to replicate its success in the global market by taking talent straight from Hollywood — Tencent, a social media mogul, recently launched an animation studio in Hollywood’s backyard run by former DreamWorks Animation executives.
A little healthy competition is good for the industry; it’s government regulation that dampens Hollywood’s prospects for influence and wealth.
The China Film Group, a state-owned enterprise that controls the importing and distribution of foreign films, determines release dates for foreign cinema and makes sure that domestic movies don’t face too much competition; every summer, for instance, it enforces an annual blackout on foreign releases, lasting several weeks.
And to even make it to the China screen, foreign films need the approval of the Chinese censorship board, which safeguards Confucian morality, political stability, and social harmony.
Anything that doesn’t fit the bill must be edited to adhere to these principles. In order for the James Bond classic “Casino Royale” to make the cut, producers had to change the first scene so that actor Daniel Craig didn’t blow up a government building.
To work around this, American studios have started partnering with Chinese firms. “Kung Fu Panda 3” was the first co-production between DreamWorks Animation and its Shanghai-based venture, Oriental DreamWorks; the success of “Mission Impossible 6” was not entirely because of Tom Cruise’s acting ability — it was backed by Alibaba Pictures and had strong Chinese support.
On the one hand, transpacific media partnerships and acquisitions between Chinese and American firms enable more cross-cultural content, information exchange, and film collaboration. Given the state of U.S. — China relations at the moment, working together to create stories and generate wealth isn’t a bad thing.
But on the other hand, Hollywood is doing whatever it can to reach the Chinese market, even at the expense of altering footage to meet the censorship demands and risking the loss of intellectual property in joint ventures.
The consequence of a self-imposed censorship to appease a bureau adamant on not having their people influenced by ‘Western ideas’ seems almost counter-intuitive to the origins of storytelling — speaking truth to power.