In 2019, China made movie history. For the first time, the three highest-grossing movies in China were Chinese films. However, prior to this, Chinese box offices were largely dominated by films produced in Hollywood. What was the state of the Chinese movie industry prior to this shift?
Prior to 2017, the top grossing films were Hollywood studio films. The majority of films in the top 10 were also Hollywood studio films. What is really interesting is that, in the past year, in addition to having the top three films in the Chinese market, the top eight of the top 10 films were also Chinese. There were only two Hollywood studio films in the top 10, which is a really significant shift from the past.
What changed in the Chinese film industry to allow for its 2019 success?
There are two factors. First, the regulatory landscape in China is becoming more difficult for Hollywood studios to navigate. In the 12th Five-Year Plan from 2011 to 2015 and in many of his speeches, Xi Jinping has articulated a desire to tell Chinese stories and to advance Chinese narratives through film. Additionally, Chinese regulators have asserted a vision for China to become a “strong film power” （电影强国）by 2030. So, there is a lot of national pressure to build up the Chinese domestic film industry, as well as a more challenging regulatory environment for Hollywood studios trying to access the market. For example, DreamWorks Animation pulled out of their coproduction studio with what was then Oriental DreamWorks and is now Pearl Studio due to regulatory and financial uncertainty in the Chinese market. Other Hollywood studios have also had more difficulty securing film release dates in China than in the past.
Second, the Chinese film industry has been developing Chinese films that are accessible and appealing to large Chinese audiences. There have been fantastic films made in China since the 1980s with China’s Fifth Generation. However, those films were more appealing to art house audiences and were not as exciting for the regular theatergoer. Now we are seeing big budget movie spectacles, romantic comedies, genre comedy films, slapstick films, science fiction, and more. These are Chinese genre films that are well made and dynamic, with exciting narratives that appeal to many people. It is important for people to see themselves on screen. Thus, on the more optimistic side of things, there is positive growth in the Chinese market.
In 2020, it is difficult to predict what will happen with the Chinese film market due to the rise of the coronavirus in January. Chinese box offices were shut down during the Chinese New Year, one of the most important periods of the year for box office revenue. Major global film releases in China (like Disney’s Mulan) are being postponed or canceled in the wake of the COVID-19. Only time will tell how serious of a concern this is for the Chinese box office in the long term.
How have these changes in the Chinese film industry altered China’s relationship with Hollywood?
Historically, we have seen US firms and experts in various industries going to China to share their expertise in order to enhance individual products. In the film industry, we have seen Chinese firms hire American editors, animators, and scriptwriters, among other film experts. We see this in adjacent entertainment industries, as with Shanghai Disney and Hong Kong Disney hiring American theme park designers.
Now with the emergence of Chinese domestic expertise, this importation of foreign expertise becomes less necessary. As a result, Hollywood studios have less they can leverage to build partnerships in China. In the early 2000s, Chinese studios did not have as much money to make films, so Hollywood studios provided some funding. From 2007 to 2009, Disney was buying up local Chinese films, branding and marketing them, then distributing them around the world. There is no need for that kind of investment anymore because Chinese media companies have become wealthy. Companies like Alibaba Pictures and Tencent Pictures are able to draw upon on their global technology business units for capital. As such, there is very little need or incentive to get foreign capital, apart from being able to potentially expand a market out of China, or to influence content to represent China more favorably in a global landscape.
In your book Hollywood Made in China, as well as your recent Washington Post article, you detail the ways in which the Chinese government is becoming more and more involved in the movie writing and production processes. What does this involvement look like, and why is it happening?
We have seen an elevation of the level of oversight moving from the Chinese Film Bureau to the State Council level. This results in a much higher profile for oversight of the film industry. This is a very important change. Previously, we saw that localities like Shanghai municipality were allowing much more liberal content to be produced in their localities. With more centralized oversight, the kind of content that can be produced domestically becomes more limited.
We are also seeing an official alignment of standards for online content, television, movies, and radio. Historically, television was more conservatively regulated than the film industry was, as it had a broader audience. But now, all of the media officially have the same content standards, further limiting the type of content being made.
We are also seeing the emergence of Core Socialist Value laws which further limit productions. Now, filmmakers, actors, or anyone working on a film is supposed to exhibit these values. This gives regulators a very free hand to discriminate by determining who can be part of the film industry and who cannot, as the tenets of Socialist Core Values are relatively vague.
Is the Chinese government pushing for particular narratives to be told in recent movies?
There are very clear government priorities, and there still remains a state-run film industry. In 2017, the state-run August First Film Studio produced The Founding of an Army, which was produced in celebration of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army. Yet in the same year we saw a film like Wolf Warrior 2, which was also a story about the Chinese military, as it presents the Chinese navy rescuing Chinese civilians in Africa. It was a story that reflected a broader vision of China’s global ambitions but was not produced by a state-run film studio. The two films demonstrate the tension between commercial and state projects. With The Founding of an Army, the state had a stronger hand in content, but the box office returns were low. With the Wolf Warrior 2, the state had less control over the message, but the film had a much wider reach.
Interestingly, there is pushback against sequels now, following films like Wolf Warrior 2. Even though the overarching message of that film was very much in line with a broader vision of China’s global engagement, there was also parallel concern about the heightened commercialization of the Chinese film industry. These two tensions are always operating. On one hand, the government is interested in maintaining control of this major propaganda vehicle. On the other hand, there are equally powerful government and commercial interests in expanding both China’s global and domestic film industries. The challenge is that these two goals are frequently in conflict.
You also discuss Chinese President Xi Jinping’s foundational principle of the “Chinese Dream” in your book. What is the “Chinese Dream,” and how does it connect to the missions of the Chinese movie industry and government?
The film industry is a vehicle for selling a vision of global China, not only to the rest of the world but also to Chinese citizens. It is equally important, if not more important, to sell that vision to domestic audiences as it is to sell it globally.
This proliferation of Chinese language films means that the people of China are seeing their countrymen and women on the silver screen in numbers like never before. What is the significance for the Chinese people of having their own blockbusters?
For domestic Chinese audiences, it is an exciting transition to see narratives that speak to their life experiences, much more than any Hollywood studio films would be able to do. In many ways, that is one of the main weaknesses of Hollywood studio films. They are successful at producing content that is so general that anyone can enjoy the spectacle, but they prove less successful at producing stories that speak to people’s experiences directly.
What we are seeing now is the rise of Chinese directors that are actually able to talk about Chinese experiences of urbanization in large-scale commercial films, what it is like to have family in the countryside, what it means to have aging parents, or the impacts of technological changes in China. These narratives and many others are being told in animated films, science fiction films, romantic comedies, and other types of genre films. It is a really significant change and, in many ways, makes it difficult for Hollywood studio films to catch up in the Chinese market, particularly if this trend continues.
However, with the coronavirus right now, production in the Chinese film industry has dramatically decreased and will continue to do so, at least in 2020. Production levels will depend on the containment of the virus. The China Federation of Radio and TV Association has postponed all production into the foreseeable future. It makes sense, given that movie production brings large amounts of people from wide-ranging areas of the country into close quarters, but will significantly impact film slates for the industry in both 2020 and 2021.
What can Hollywood do now to compete with this emerging Chinese film market?
One exciting prospect is the possibility of Hollywood studios making content that is more engaging for Chinese audiences. One of the challenges that we have seen with Hollywood studio films is the rampant rise of sequels and the repetition of narratives and characters as a way to smooth out box office risk. One example is Fast and Furious 9, which is coming out this year and is slated to be released in China. It is reasonable for audiences to not be excited about the ninth iteration of the Fast and Furious series. So maybe Hollywood studios will up their game a bit not just for Chinese audiences, but for global ones as well.
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