By Loujing Pan |
Chinaâ€™s film industry has attracted intense interest from Hollywood, with industry specialists such asÂ Ernst and YoungÂ predicting that will surpass even the American marketâ€”currently valued by IBIS atÂ USD$31 billionâ€”in 2020. Aided by relaxed foreign film quotasâ€”fromÂ 20 to 34 in 2012â€”and increased state efforts to crack down onÂ piracy, Hollywood has sought to increase its presence in the Chinese film market. Currently, Hollywood productions such asÂ Avatar,Â Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, andÂ TitanicÂ rank as some of Chinaâ€™s all-time highest grossing films. Hollywood has been increasingly enticed by Chinaâ€™s film industry and its audiences, particularly as movie revenues in the U.S. fall and production costs rise â€”but at what cost?
Political Appeasement or Self-Censorship?
Hollywood directors and studios looking to gain a foothold into Chinaâ€™s film industry face several barriers, particularly censorship laws. Already there appears to be a trend of Hollywood directors practicing if not self-censorship, at least political appeasement to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) byÂ 1) casting Chinese film stars, 2) removing certain scenes, or 3) adding China-only scenes. Given Hollywoodâ€™s towering presence in the global film industry, is this trend of political appeasement indicative of not only Chinaâ€™s rise, but also its future dominance? If so, what are the implications for future Sino-American relations?
Superficially it may appear that Hollywoodâ€™s willingness to abide by, even arguably pander to Chinaâ€™s censorship laws, signals Chinaâ€™s rise and perhaps future dominance. For example, in the past, Hollywood filmmakers have produced movies that were 1) critical of the CCPâ€™s policies and 2) banned in China such asÂ KundunÂ (1997) andÂ Red CornerÂ (1997).Â More recently however, Hollywood filmmakers appear to have turned away from making politically sensitive films and are now focusing on gaining access to the Chinese market by appeasing the CCPâ€™s censors. For many Hollywood filmmakers, the most efficient way toÂ bypass Chinaâ€™s foreign film quota systemÂ is to register its films as a co-production and access Chinese funding.Â On paper, co-productions seem ideal as they allow Hollywood to achieve its primary interests in the Chinese marketâ€”funding and market access. However, any films produced as co-productions require theÂ State Administration of Radio, Film, & Television (SARFT) and the China Co-Production Corporation (CFCC)â€™s approval at every step, from licensing a co-production to distribution. Most notably, under a co-production, the script must be submitted in Chinese and reviewed byÂ SARFTÂ to ensure that it is in compliance with censorship laws, and after the film is completed, it is reviewed once more to ensure compliance.Â Under such laws, blockbusters such asÂ Iron Man 3, a U.S.-China co-production, have been released in China to includeÂ additional scenesÂ featuring Chinese actresses. Even Hollywood productions that have not been released as co-productions have had to edit their content for the Chinese audience. The 2012 thrillerÂ Red Dawn, for example, changed the antagonists fromÂ Chinese to North KoreansÂ while scenes such as a Chinese security guardâ€™s death were cut fromÂ Bond: SkyfallÂ (2013) Given the SARFTâ€™s tight control over film production and distribution in China, it may appear to be the case that Hollywood has had to bow down to Chinese interests.
Yet such a viewpoint does not convey the entirety of the situation. While Hollywood has certainly had to take steps to appease SARFT, the CCP still has a strong interest in promoting Hollywood blockbusters.Â Since the 1980s with the breakdown of the centralized, state-controlled and subsidized studio system, Chinaâ€™s film industry is highly dependent on commercial revenues. As such, while some Chinese political elites may object to Hollywoodâ€™s dominance as a form of cultural and economic hegemony, Hollywood productions have played a crucial role in revitalizing Chinaâ€™s film industry post-1980.Â For example, since Chinaâ€™s 2002Â ascension to the WTO, it has increased its foreign film quota, its investment in the U.S. entertainment industry overallâ€”according to the Rhodium Group, in 2014 alone, Chinese firms madeÂ 10 deals worth USD$275 million. Thus, just as Hollywood is incentivized to engage in a degree of political appeasement, if not censorship, the CCP has demonstrated its current need for Hollywood and willingness to compromise.Â Rather, what the current state of Hollywoodâ€™s relations with Chinaâ€™s film industry seems to indicate is a cooperativeâ€”albeit uneasyâ€”mutually dependent relationship.
What may be more telling regarding the future state of China-U.S. media and film relations,Â is Chinaâ€™s ability to step into Hollywood by either acquiring existing firms or creating independent subsidiaries. For example, in March 2014, Huayi Brothers, one of Chinaâ€™s largest film studios, announced its plans to invest betweenÂ $120 and $150 million in Studio 8, a firm to be launched by former Warner Bros. film studio chief Jeff Robinov.Â Huayi Brothers ultimately lose out on this bidâ€”toÂ Fosun International, another Chinese conglomerate that has emerged as the dominant shareholder of Studio 8. Furthermore, despite Huayi Brothersâ€™ failed attempt to bid for Studio 8, it announced in September 2014 that it would investÂ USD$130 million to establish a U.S. subsidiaryÂ to produce and distribute movies and TV shows. As illustrated by the case of Huayi Brothers and Fosun International, it appears clear that Chinese conglomerates are seeking to increase their foothold in Hollywood, portending an increasingly influential and assertive China.