Superheroes over superstitious narratives, a celebration of socialist core values, and more strong female leads: Predicting the future of cinema now that the Chinese market is growing in influence.
By James McWilliams
The Great Wall. (Photo: Universal Pictures)
From Transformers 4 to Kung Fu Panda 3 to The Great Wall, Chinese actors and producers have found a place in big-budget Hollywood films. As Aynne Kokas explains in her new book, Hollywood Made in China, the reason for this presence, at least from Hollywood’s perspective, is primarily economic. Most of a blockbuster movie’s budget goes to marketing. The imperative of brand building, she writes, makes “film studios more marketing companies than production companies.” With a billion potential consumers, China will shape the future of film. How it will do so is worth considering.
When it comes to building the brand, ticket sales are one thing. But theme parks and merchandise are the gifts that keep on giving. The rise of Hollywood-themed entertainment centers throughout China — notably Disney’s Shanghai Disney Resort, which, with its $5.5 billion price tag — is a case in point. Yes, the Chinese attend movies. But when China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, Hollywood chose to tap a billion potential wearers of T-shirts and hats. They have done so not only through theme parks, but even through Disney-founded and -sponsored schools, where the English language and giant screen televisions prevail.
With the red carpet rolled out, the Chinese have every intention of profiting from Hollywood’s foreign investment in domestic creative enterprises. Indeed, the film connection is part of a larger process of diversifying the Chinese economy from manufacturing to creative and high-tech endeavors. It is for this reason that, with ample governmental support, Chinese media ventures such as the China Film Group Corporation, Hengdian World Studios, and the Shanghai Media Group are, according to Kokas, “partnering with Hollywood players to expand their capacity.”
But if Hollywood is building the brand, the Chinese are chasing the dream. In addition to clearing a profit, they want to construct the “Chinese Dream” much in the way Hollywood helped construct the American Dream. When I asked Kokas, who is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, what the Chinese Dream would look like, she confessed, “there are multiple interpretations but no one really knows for certain.” But she also added that it was, on the most basic level, linked to “an aspirational state of national influence around the world.” The Chinese, at the least, see Hollywood as a means of attaining and extending a global-reach of “soft power.”
Kung Fu Panda 3. (Photo: 20th Century Fox)
There’s a common tendency to characterize Chinawood in exclusively cutthroat terms. Nationalist critics interpret the relationship as another example of China’s unchecked power grab. In 2016, China did $225 billion in business with foreign companies — a record. It makes some industry observers nervous when, say, the Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate, buys the United States-based AMC Theaters. From another perspective, critics see Chinawood as the latest example of American cultural imperialism, the kind of corporate overreach that homogenized the rest of the world in the late 20th century with McDonalds and Starbucks. But Kokas, who acknowledges both perspectives, tends to portray the emerging relationship between China and Hollywood as more symbiotic than unilateral — if not, in some ways, a match made in heaven.
She also thinks the relationship will have an impact on “the way we see the world” — or at least the way we see it on screen. Genres will be affected. Chinese film producers, who must follow tighter content regulations than Hollywood, favor superhero over superstitious narratives. Transformers 4, which dethroned James Cameron’s Avatar as China’s highest-grossing film ever, featured heroic Chinese-made robots kicking ass in Hong Kong, while the Ghostbuster films were never released in China.
And then there’s all the internal messaging. At one point in Transformers 4 a policeman in Hong Kong responds to an especially hectic situation by (not ironically) suggesting a call to “the central government for help.” It’s a suggestion one might expect from a film industry in which all Chinese workers must vow to honor their “socialist core values.” And then what was with that scene in Texas with a man withdrawing cash from a Chinese-branded ATM machine?
Casting choices could also shift as the Chinawood relationship evolves. Traditionally, the inclusion of Chinese people in Hollywood films was so rare the actors were called “flower vases.” But, with the evolution of Chinawood, the steady rise of Chinese actors has reached a point where, as Kokas half-joked, a movie such as The Great Wall included a flower vase otherwise known as Matt Damon.
Relatedly, the attention currently paid to strong female leads may also intensify with Chinese participation in film production. Kokas says that strong women characters are more common in Chinese cinema, and that Chinese cinema-goers might welcome the portrayal of more powerful women. Less optimistically, she also speculates that, by including more Chinese actors, producers might pat themselves on the back while failing to foster greater inclusion of African Americans and other diverse communities.
However it all shakes out, one thing we can say for certain is that Chinawood is an ultimately dispiriting way to think about the evolution of culture — even pop culture. It might be uninspiring to think that the cultural productions we consume (and the future of the blockbuster film) is directly linked to the foreign sales of T-shirts and hats. But such is the business of culture, and the culture of business, and we can at least be thankful that books such as Hollywood Made in China are mapping that territory for us.