- - 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.

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.

“These people puff themselves up as human rights activists, but they’re willing to get into bed with one of the most evil regimes in the world,” said John Nolte, editor of the conservative culture website Big Hollywood. “It’s immoral and wildly hypocritical.”

Byron Mann, a Chinese film actor who has acted in both American and Chinese films and starred in “Red Corner,” says Hollywood faces some serious challenges working with the Chinese.

“The tricky part right now is to find these co-productions, because American studios want to make movies that can compete in both Chinese and domestic markets,” he said. “You have to find stories, then a script, that will cater to both markets, and that’s not easy.”

Mr. Mann recently finished shooting two films in China: “Cold War,” a fully Chinese police thriller set in Hong Kong, and a martial arts film, “The Man with the Iron Fists,” a Chinese-American co-production starring Russell Crowe.

Mr. Mann explained that as a co-production, “The Man with the Iron Fists” has certain advantages, such as being exempt from counting against the Chinese quota for U.S. films. But with the advantages come unique constraints.

“Iron Fists” “had to pass certain tests, like approval of the script, approval of the final cut, and certain key members of the cast and crew have to be from China,” Mr. Mann said, noting that outside of the few Americans on the set, such as RZA (who scripted, directed and acted) or Lucy Liu, the crew was entirely Chinese.

While acknowledging how damaging censorship can be to artistic creation, Mr. Mann believes that ultimately market realities are more powerful than meddlesome Chinese authorities.

“You have to make movies that matter, are relevant, entertaining and push the envelope,” he said, “so that people will watch the movie regardless of whether they are in China, America, or anywhere else.”

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