In Other Words

China Goes Hollywood

Consumption, Markets and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 2002, London Lights! Camera! Import? The box office success in China of such Hollywood blockbusters as Titanic — bolstered by a glowing review from none other than China’s leader Jiang Zemin — has seemingly revived the country’s faltering movie industry. But as Chinese media have put ...

Consumption, Markets and Culture, Vol. 5, No. 3, September 2002, London

Lights! Camera! Import? The box office success in China of such Hollywood blockbusters as Titanic — bolstered by a glowing review from none other than China’s leader Jiang Zemin — has seemingly revived the country’s faltering movie industry. But as Chinese media have put it, now that the "wolf" has arrived, can it be tamed and domesticated?

By the early 1990s, the industry was already in crisis. Annual attendance at theaters dropped from 21 billion in 1982 to just under 4.5 billion in 1991. Despite serious reservations, China’s government decided in 1994 to allow Chinese moviegoers to see up to 10 Hollywood films each year in domestic theaters. The decision to import Hollywood films — and their ensuing popularity — has led Chinese cinema to adopt Hollywood-style narratives, as in Feng Xiaoning’s Lover’s Grief Over the Yellow River, a World War II epic about an American pilot downed near the Great Wall. And the Chinese industry has even adapted Tinseltown’s business practices: The nation’s studios are working in tandem with distributors and new theater chains, merging into larger conglomerates and seeking diversification to protect themselves against market instability.

The consequences of these trends are taken up in Ying Zhu’s "Commercialization and Chinese Cinema’s Post-Wave," published in the quarterly journal Consumption, Markets and Culture. Chinese cinematic output has always included an uneasy balance among commercial, propaganda (known among Chinese filmmakers as "main melody"), and art films. Zhu, an assistant professor of cinema studies at the College of Staten Island, uses "post-wave" to refer to the triumph of commercially viable films above all others, so that by the late 1990s even propaganda and art films were produced and marketed to maximize their box office appeal.

The partially liberalized Chinese system, Zhu argues, pursues multiple yet contradictory goals. In this hybrid model, the state administers production targets and film licensing while the market determines production investment and film promotion. Thus, the state intervenes to ensure that politically correct films are made and distributed, but the resulting products must fend for themselves in a market concerned only with commercial viability — a fundamental contradiction that has engendered both economic pragmatism and political cynicism among film industry professionals. Moreover, the state has employed protectionist measures to prevent a Hollywood takeover. In addition to import quotas — now expanded to a maximum of 20 films per year under World Trade Organization guidelines — imported films are barred from theaters during certain peak times of the year and limited to one third of screen time compared with domestic films.

So far, the gradual changes have had little impact, asserts Zhu. None of the protectionist tactics has been effective at building up a thriving domestic industry in a market where piracy is rampant, box office figures are notoriously unreliable, and surveys show that consumers prefer to watch television rather than go to the movies. Even government regulators reveal pessimism for the ability of domestic films to compete with Hollywood. Leading directors like Chen Kaige have not flourished in the new hybrid industry, demonstrated by Chen’s disappointing ventures into English-language films. The younger generation of independent filmmakers, however, has been able to use its alienation from the domestic industry to promote new products on the international festival circuit.

Absent from Zhu’s analysis, however, are some important recent developments. Since the international success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hollywood has accelerated its efforts to co-opt Chinese filmmakers who demonstrate commercial potential. Thus, Miramax will market Zhang Yimou’s Hero, a highly anticipated martial arts film budgeted at $31 million, as a second Crouching Tiger. The most commercial of the younger generation of filmmakers, Feng Xiaogang, recently made a cross-cultural hybrid called Big Shot’s Funeral, starring American actor Donald Sutherland and Chinese leading man Ge You, with Feng readily admitting that Columbia Tri-star influenced some artistic decisions in an effort to crack the U.S. and global markets. Sony recently announced its plans to invest $100 million in China’s music and movie industries within three years. Sony chairman Nobuyuki Idei expects China to become the company’s second-largest market by 2008. In short, China’s national film industry is becoming increasingly transnational. The country’s most talented stars and filmmakers will likely bypass low-budget, politically correct domestic productions for the opportunities offered by the global marketplace. Such films should prove successful in Chinese theaters. Purely domestic productions, with no transnational appeal, may be doomed to play to mostly empty theaters.

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