Entertainment·China's Power

China is becoming the biggest movie market in the world — and changing what you watch

As China eclipses North America as the biggest movie marketplace in the world, it's forcing films to change in order to access its lucrative marketplace. 

The growing cinematic superpower is forcing blockbusters to change before accessing its audiences

A scene from the Dreamworks film Abominable. The Chinese-American co-production featured a controversial map, which led to the film being banned in other parts of Asia. (Dreamworks Studios)

Canadian producer Raymond Massey spends so much time travelling to China that he's earned a Chinese nickname: Old Horse.

The name, he says, comes from an expression about an old horse finding its way home. The TV and film veteran jokes that in Canada, he'd already be put out to pasture.

The respect he receives in the East is part of what keeps Massey coming back.

Or at least it had, until the arrest of Meng Wanzhou.

Since Canada detained the Huawei executive, all of the Vancouver-based producer's projects have ground to a halt.

One of producer Raymond Massey's first Chinese-Canadian collaborations was the CBC-TV series Iron Road. (Mark Bochsler)

It's perhaps just the latest sign of the strength of the new cinematic superpower.

Whether it's James Bond on a mission in Shanghai or Chinese doctors saving Tony Stark's life, you may have noticed an increased level of Chinese content in blockbusters.

Take the recently released Midway. The Chinese-backed production featured a subplot where Chinese villagers sheltered American pilot James Doolittle.

Speaking with CBC News, Midway director Roland Emmerich put it bluntly: "Without China, Midway wouldn't have happened. They're such a huge market, you can easily make back your money."

Building 25 screens a day

With a population of 1.4 billion and a booming middle class, theatre chains in China have been building as many as 25 movie screens a day, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.

In the last 10 years, while North American ticket sales have been stagnant, China's movie market is exploding. Its box office is set to become the world's biggest by next year.

But China's central government closely controls which movies can be seen, limiting foreign films to a quota of about 34 a year. Government-sanctioned co-productions, however, are exempt from the quota.

Every film released in China is vetted by government censors; some of the restricted elements include attacks on state authority, supernatural elements and homosexuality.

Last year, Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, secured a Chinese release date only after removing scenes involving LGBTQ content.

Censors also restrict any reference to what journalist Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian calls the Three Ts: Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibet or Taiwan.

And while foreign films only receive 25 per cent of the box office revenue, the potential payoff is high. When Avengers: Endgame opened in China, it earned $143 million its first weekend.

Watch: How Hollywood changed the new Top Gun and other films to suit China

How Hollywood Changes for China

4 years ago
Duration 0:44
CBC's Eli Glasner shows how Hollywood is changing content for Chinese approval.

Allen-Ebrahimian, who was the lead reporter for the ICIJ's China Cables project, lived in the country for four years. There is growing pressure on film companies to portray China in a more positive light, she says.

This can be seen in B-movies, such as Wolf Warrior 2, where a Chinese commando saves Africans from bloodthirsty American thugs, or The Meg, the shark movie which depicts China as on the cutting edge of oceanic research.

Allen-Ebrahimian says efforts to amplify Chinese propaganda are often seen in co-productions, such as the recent animated movie Abominable. The film featured a map depicting the so-called "Nine-Dash Line," which China uses to extend its domain into the international waters of the South China Sea. Although the map was only featured briefly, the inclusion led to the movie being banned in Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

This scene from Abominable shows the contentious nine-dash line on a map of the South China Sea. (Dreamworks Studios )

Canadians caught as China flexes its might

As China flexes its movie muscles, smaller producers, such as Massey, are getting caught in the middle.

Soon after Meng's arrest, he says, a seven-city celebration of Canadian films was also cancelled. Massey was arranging for Meditation Park star Sandra Oh to walk the red carpet when he learned theatres were told not to sponsor the event.

Still, Massey remains fascinated and horrified by China. When he's standing on a street corner, he says he feels that he's witnessing history. "There is a huge amount of hubris growing in China; they feel entitled and that they will become the most powerful economy on the planet," he said.

Canadian filmmaker Jordan Paterson is also feeling the effects of that hubris first-hand. With a budget of $30 million, he hopes to bring the story of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune to Chinese audiences with his film Phoenix. The pioneer in blood transfusions worked in China in the late 1930s and met with revered Communist leader Mao Zedong.

Director and producer Jordan Paterson holds up copies of the book Phoenix, which tells the story of Canadian doctor Norman Bethune. Paterson bought the rights to the book and is in the process of bringing a $30-million version of Bethune's story to the big screen for Chinese audiences. (Dillon Hodgin )

But the process has become difficult, Paterson says, since the regulation of films was brought under direct Communist Party control. The project is currently stalled, waiting for approval in the department responsible for works of historical significance. A process that was supposed to take six months has stretched to a year-and-a-half so far.

The censors have tripled-checked everything, Paterson says, and scrutinized the scenes between Bethune and Mao Zedong. He's made minor changes to the script. Now all he can do is wait.

Like many, Paterson hopes influence from the market and demands from the audience could lead China to loosen restrictions. But Allen-Ebrahimian says a recent incident with the NBA, in which a team official voiced support for the Hong Kong protests, suggests the opposite.

"Once China grants you market access, they own you — unless you're willing to sacrifice profit for principle," she said.

WATCH: Beijing film fan talks about Hollywood's attempts to win over audiences

China movie fan talks about Hollywood

4 years ago
Duration 0:36
Ren Hui, a moviegoer in Beijing talks about how Hollywood is trying to appeal to Chinese audiences.

Why Hollywood's attempts 'feel fake'

And how do Chinese audiences feels about all the attention?

Over the weekend in Beijing, the theatres were full for the opening of the American murder-mystery Knives Out. But some of the moviegoers who spoke to CBC News were unimpressed by Hollywood's efforts.

A ticket-buyer identified only as Mr. Gee says Hollywood productions are too commercialized and their treatment of Chinese culture is superficial.

Another moviegoer, Ren Hui, agrees. She's noticed how Hollywood films incorporate Chinese elements, but says the lack of authenticity feels fake. Good movies will naturally get recognized by the audience, she says.

"If you add Chinese elements just for the sake of having Chinese presence to appease us, the audience will know."

Read the stories in this series:


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.