The New Odd Couple? Hollywood and China: The Cinematic Interchange of Soft Power

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It is difficult these days to avoid headlines either extolling or decrying the growing ties between China and Hollywood.

The impetus for collaboration is clear. About a dozen new cinemas are built per day in China, according to Forbes. And, don’t forget, Chinese tycoon Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group for three years has owned, and revitalized, AMC Entertainment Holdings, the second-largest theater chain in the United States.

China’s box office is expected to reach some $5 billion this year, about half the size of the US market. And nearly 50% of these proceeds come from foreign movies, despite a government quota allowing only 34 foreign films per year and various other obstructions.

An impressive lineup from Hollywood and the Chinese film industry — and film financiers from both shores — showed up earlier this month in Los Angeles for the Asia Society’s 6th Annual US-China Film Summit. The organizers marked the occasion by announcing a new partnership between the Asia Society film summit and the Shanghai International Film Festival.

“Our positioning is ‘Based in Asia, Boost Chinese Films and Foster New Talent.’ We are helping the Chinese film industry reach the international level,” Ding Li, the Shanghai festival’s deputy general manager said when announcing the partnerhship. “Through cooperation with the U.S.-China Film Summit, we hope we can together build a quick and complete way for communication between two countries’ film industries, capital, outstanding projects and talent.”

Just as China is attempting to get its voice into the global news mix by building extensive and expensive international news operations through state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) and the Xinhua News Agency, the Chinese film bureaucracy has high hopes of Chinese movies serving as a key driver of country’s “soft power” overseas image-making.

But as veteran China entertainment journalist Jonathan Landreth points out in his China Film Insider blog, this sliver of the China Dream is hardly a glimmer. While on his state visit to the US in late September, Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to watching Sleepless in Seattle and House of Cards in his remarks to the business community. During the visit, director Xu Zheng’s comedy Lost in Hong Kong was released in the US.

Lost in Hong Kong, distributed in the United States by Plano, Texas-based Well Go USA Entertainment, thus far has pulled in about $1.3 million in U.S. ticket sales at 34 screens nationwide and has cracked the top ten of the most commercially successful Chinese-language films to play in American cinemas. Yet its success is dwarfed by, for example, the tenth most-successful Hollywood film in China just this year: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which has raked in $137 million for its co-producers, Hollywood studio Paramount Pictures, Chinese e- commerce giant Alibaba, and the China Movie Channel, a unit of state-run broadcaster China Central Television. For all the hype about boom times in China’s movie marketplace—the box office in the first half of this year soared nearly 50 percent over the first six months of 2014—China can’t seem to land a single hit in what is still the largest theatergoing movie market in the world: the U.S. of A.

Part of the problem, of course, is that Chinese producers and directors must get their scripts approved by China’s censors in order for the movies to be shot and shown in China. These squeezed and scrubbed storylines appear to carry little appeal for foreign audiences beyond students looking to supplement their Chinese language learning. USC professor Stan Rosen, the expert’s expert on Chinese film, offered his views in “Hollywood in China: Selling Out or Cashing In?” in The Diplomat earlier this year:

Chinese success is inherently limited because in China, unlike Hollywood, film is expected to perform several contradictory functions simultaneously. For example, in discussing the film industry, Politburo member and director of the Propaganda (Publicity) Department of the Central Committee of the CCP Liu Qibao has praised the success of Chinese films in the domestic market and noted that China should also become an international movie power, but at the same time he has called for the country’s films to take “socialist core values as a guide” and “contain more elements of the Chinese Dream.” Liu’s comments may appeal to Xi Jinping and his colleagues on the Politburo, but they reflect a lack of knowledge of audience preferences. This introduction of politically correct requirements virtually guarantees a result counterproductive to state intentions. By contrast, Hollywood makes “high concept” films that are meant to have universal appeal, across all cultures, with profit virtually its only motive.

The most recent Hollywood hit in China, Mission Impossible, Rogue Nation, was co-produced by Paramount, Alibaba and a unit of CCTV. This represents just a trickle of the Chinese money that is flooding into the banks in Burbank. Through these investments, Chinese “soft power” seems to be gaining some traction through Chinese sensibilities slipping into the scripts of sino-financed films. According to Rosen, Hollywood’s “success has fueled widespread criticism that the quest for market share has compelled Hollywood to “sell out,” to self-censor in making films that, at best, avoid sensitive social and political issues, and at worst offer an overly positive picture of China under Communist rule.”

Rosen, however, also downplays China’s effect on Hollywood so far. He says that Chinese villains are certainly vanishing from Hollywood movies and various scenes are eliminated, added or enhanced to show China in a positive light. But, Rosen reckons, these sorts of alterations are part of Hollywood’s long success in projecting its own soft power.

For anyone familiar with the history and goals of Hollywood, it should not be surprising that films intended for overseas markets are tailored to suit the demands of those markets. Hollywood has always been concerned with the bottom line, so the reaction to the astonishing rise of the China market represents business as usual. It is this flexibility and ability to adjust that has been a major contributor to its long-term success. In this regard, it is instructive to compare Hollywood’s strategy to China’s efforts to promote its soft power by succeeding on the international film market.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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About James McGregor
James McGregor is an American author, journalist and businessman who has lived in China for more than 25 years. Currently, he is chairman of APCO Worldwide, Greater China. A professional speaker and commentator who specializes in China’s business, politics and society, he regularly appears in the media to discuss China-related topics. McGregor is the author of the books "No Ancient Wisdom, No Followers: The Challenges of Chinese Authoritarian Capitalism" (2012) and "One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China" (2005). He also wrote the 2010 report "China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’ – A Web of Industrial Policies." From 1987 to 1990 McGregor served as The Wall Street Journal’s bureau chief in Taiwan, and from 1990 to 1994 as the paper’s bureau chief in Mainland China. From 1994 to 2000, he was chief executive of Dow Jones & Company in China. After leaving Dow Jones, he was China managing partner for GIV Venture Partners, a $140 million venture capital fund specializing in the Chinese Internet and technology outsourcing. In 1996, McGregor was elected as chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China. He also served for a decade as a governor of that organization. He is a member of the Atlantic Council, Council on Foreign Relations, National Committee on US-China Relations and International Council of the Asia Society. He serves on a variety of China-related advisory boards.

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