Day 6

Hollywood, Made in China: How Chinese influence is reshaping the dream factory

'The Great Wall' is the most expensive movie ever made in China and a pioneering co-production with Hollywood. The movie market in China is exploding and according to Aynne Kokas, author of the new book "Hollywood: Made in China," China is reshaping the dream factory in ways that will have a profound effect on what movies get made.
Movie posters on display at the premiere of "The Great Wall" at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on February 15, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)
Listen10:17

At first glance, The Great Wall may seem like just another Hollywood action blockbuster. But it's an outlier in one important way: it was made in China.

The movie, which hit theatres across Canada on February 17th, was filmed at a state-of-the-art studio in the port city of Qingdao — complete with a roughly 5,000-metre-square outdoor stage and a permanent model of a New York City street.

The Great Wall is the biggest-budget movie ever produced in China. And while it hasn't exactly been a massive hit, it's part of a bigger trend.

China's movie market has exploded in recent years. For the past decade, box office growth has averaged 35 per cent annually.

Aynne Kokas' book, Hollywood Made in China, came out in January 2017. (University of California Press)

And although that growth slowed dramatically in 2016, industry watchers believe ticket sales in China could eventually overtake sales in United States.  

That has American film companies seeing dollar signs, and according to Aynne Kokas, it's dramatically changing the way the way Hollywood films get made.

Kokas is the author of the new book Hollywood Made in China. As she tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, global markets like China are a growing focal point for U.S. film companies.

"Ultimately, Hollywood is becoming less and less important as the domestic box office," Kokas says.

     

Tailoring Hollywood for Chinese audiences

In its opening weekend, The Great Wall bombed in the U.S., taking in just $21 millionBut internationally, the film earned an impressive $244.6 million, including $171 million at the Chinese box office, making it an overall financial success.

"The film actually recuperated its box office, and more, but outside the U.S. market," says Kokas.

An advertisement for the movie "The Great Wall" is displayed outside a cinema in Beijing on December 29, 2016. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

As a result, Hollywood studios are increasingly targeting global audiences as a way to boost profits. According to Kokas, that strategy is having a direct impact on the movies that are being made.

"Films are recouping their box office revenue from abroad, from other markets — like China, most notably. And if a film doesn't do well in the United States, it doesn't necessarily mean it won't be profitable overall."

Kokas points to Warcraft, which brought in over $200 million in China but didn't even break $50 million in the United States.

"The film was actually financially incredibly successful, and I think that we'll start to see this model," says Kokas

A scene from the film, Warcraft, based on the Blizzard Entertainment video game. (Universal Pictures/Associated Press)

As Hollywood studios increasingly tailor their movies to serve Chinese audiences, it can affect the content of the movies we watch here in North America.

The Chinese market does not have a film rating system. That means that all films shown in the country have to be approved for a general audience.

"Excessive sex or violence or drugs, anything that might be objectionable for children to watch can't be included in a film for a general release," Kokas says. "So that, by definition, changes the ... content for films that are going to be made."

The content in Hollywood films has also changed for political reasons — such as the decision to avoid including a Tibetan monk in Doctor Strange, instead casting Tilda Swinton in the role.

British actors Tilda Swinton and Benedict Cumberbatch pose during a promotion of film "Doctor Strange" in Hong Kong, China on Oct. 13, 2016. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

In Iron Man 3, an altered version of the super-villain, the Mandarin, was played by British actor Ben Kingsley.

In other cases, Asian characters are elevated and given more prominent storylines, Kokas says.

"In some ways it helps to mitigate this phenomenon of 'whitewashing'," says Kokas.

"I think it has potentially a very positive impact on representation and power dynamics within Hollywood."

Those representations aren't always realistic, however — as in films like The Martian, in which American and Chinese space agencies are improbably seen peacefully collaborating to solve global crises.

"Seeing films that are actually not targeted to this North American market … seems a bit strange, but I think we will see more of this in the future."

Matt Damon as Mark Watney a scene from the film The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott. (Aidan Monaghan/Twentieth Century Fox/AP)

        

"Hollywood: Made in China"

The Great Wall is the latest in a number of increasingly high-profile collaborations between U.S. and Chinese media companies.

"This is actually part of a long-term trend that's been developing over the past ten years of collaborative productions that have both Chinese and American partners," says Kokas.

Kokas points to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and The Forbidden Kingdom, which starred Jackie Chan, as examples of earlier films that were also co-productions.

The Revenant, which won 3 Oscars in 2016, was co-financed and co-distributed by a Chinese entertainment firm.

A billboard along Hollywood's famed Sunset Strip on August 29, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

And in January, Paramount Pictures inked a billion-dollar deal with two Chinese companies that are set to finance at least a quarter of the company's movies over the next three years.

As Hollywood continues to chase those lucrative Chinese audiences, co-productions have become a key strategy for getting around China's restrictive laws on foreign film distribution.

A Wanda Cinemas logo is displayed outside a cinema in Beijing on May 21, 2012. (Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, Chinese corporations like the Wanda Group have also been investing heavily in the U.S. film industry, buying up well-known American film companies like AMC Productions.

There are several reasons why those investments are advantageous to China, Kokas says.

Wang Jianlin, chairman of Wanda Group, whose wealth was estimated earlier this year at $32.1 billion, has continued to look to the American market for film-related media acquisitions. (Andy Wong/The Associated Press)

"The Chinese government … gets a really substantial increase in influence over the type of content that's distributed. But also, Chinese companies have been looking to diversify their investments."

Still, it remains to be seen whether China's influence over Hollywood will continue to expand, Kokas says.

"If the Chinese market doesn't grow as rapidly as planned — if the three-to-four-per cent growth of 2016  continues — this will be potentially less of a concern for Hollywood studios as they look to other growing markets, like Southeast Asia [and] India."

"That being said, if we see another substantial uptick in the Chinese box office, I think a lot of studios will be rethinking their strategies for how they deal with the Chinese government."