- - Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Here’s a tale of two nations. Both have histories of communism. Both wield great economic and military power. Both have been and remain rivals of the U.S. for influence and prestige on the world stage. And both have emerged as lucrative markets for the American film industry.

But one market, China‘s, is more lucrative — by far — than the other, Russia‘s.

With its population of approximately 1.3 billion, China has Hollywood salivating at the prospect of its vast potential as a market for American movies.

It’s probably no accident that China has been getting perceptibly friendlier treatment in American movies lately than its smaller neighbor to the north.

In the worldwide hit 2009 disaster film “2012,” the Chinese are depicted as the ingenious saviors of humanity. This is a far cry from the days of such films as 1997’s “Red Corner,” a Richard Gere thriller that painted a remarkably negative portrait of the state of the justice system and human rights in China. But in 1997, the Chinese market for Hollywood films was still minuscule, so tightly controlled that it did not look as if it would ever be open.

Chinese moviegoers line up to buy tickets at a theater in Beijing, where movies from the West are popular and now cast China and its people in a better light. (Associated Press)
Chinese moviegoers line up to buy tickets at a theater in Beijing, ... more >

In telling contrast with China, Russia remains a plentiful source of Hollywood villains. In this summer’s box office smash “The Avengers,” for example, a corrupt Russian general and some thugs are seen interrogating a tied up heroine (Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow) before she breaks loose and beats them all up. Likewise, the Angelina Jolie 2010 thriller “Salt” heavily featured Russian characters, virtually all insidious spies bent on destroying the U.S. and resurrecting the Soviet Union.

China and Russia “have gone from backwaters as far as distribution goes to major markets now,” says marketing consulting Robert Cain of Pacific Bridge Pictures, who has done work in both countries. “But China is and will continue to be a much bigger factor for filmmakers.”

Currently, the Chinese have a quota system that allows for the domestic release of 34 foreign films per year, with at least 14 of those having to be in IMAX or 3-D. American-Chinese Hollywood co-productions are increasingly common. “Iron Man 3,” for example, will tap both Chinese shooting locations and funding sources.

As Chinese market clout and direct involvement in production continue to grow, American films hoping to play in China have much to lose by offending the sensibilities of the nation’s rulers. “The Dark Knight,” for example, did not play in China because of a sequence where Batman kidnaps a Chinese businessman out of Hong Kong in defiance of international laws.

Perhaps the most startling example of a de facto Chinese veto power over Hollywood content is the upcoming “Red Dawn.” A remake of the 1984 film about teenage partisans resisting a Soviet invasion of the U.S., the new film was shot with Chinese soldiers conquering America. Financial problems caused MGM to shelve the movie for years, and then came the news: The studio had ordered the filmmakers to replace the Chinese invaders in post-production. “Red Dawn” would now revolve instead around a North Korean conquest of the United States.

Mr. Cain, who covers Hollywood’s involvement in China on his ChinaFilmBiz blog, expects to see Hollywood grow increasingly deferential to the concerns of Chinese officials.

“Around two thirds of the global box office comes from overseas,” Mr. Cain said. “This year, about 10 percent of Hollywood’s grosses will come from China. Because of the import regulations, American producers only get about half as much of the take as anywhere else, so it’s roughly about 5 percent of their revenue. But that number’s going up so quickly that by the end of this decade it’s probably going to be close to 20 percent.”

With that deepening market penetration comes a growing threat of creeping censorship, whether overt or voluntary.

“Censorship is the single most challenging factor for anyone to make films for Chinese audiences,” Mr. Cain said. “It influences decisions about what to shoot, what content to include, what themes to avoid. And as China grows closer to 20 percent, it becomes the most important market in determining what kind of content can be made. I think we’re going to see more self-censorship here. Filmmakers will have to consider the content itself and whether or not it is going to be approved.”

The commercial concerns are understandable, if a bit ironic in light of Hollywood’s self-image as a proud and fearless beacon of expressive freedom.

Story Continues →