From Co-Productions To Li Bingbing, Hollywood Zeroes In On China

Seen as China's face in Hollywood, star Li Bingbing (Variety)

Li Bingbing. (Variety)

Two major film industry events in Hollywood last week highlighted new shifts in the evolving relationship between China’s film industry and American production houses. A storm of deal-making, announcements, and industry panels, the annual U.S.-China Film Summit and the American Film Market both made it clear that China’s film industry has established itself as a major presence in the minds of Hollywood executives.

Held at The Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles, California, this year’s U.S.-China Film Summit drew many stars and industry executives from China’s film world to Hollywood to motivate discussion about the evolving circumstances of industry cooperation. The major topics at this year’s summit were the elaboration of terms for China-Hollywood co-production and plotting a course for China’s homegrown films to breach the American market. Hollywood is continually looking to break into China’s immense audience base, however, the terms of this expansion are currently restricted by China’s interests in both protecting its domestic production market and the political sensitivities of the mainland’s censors.

Hollywood pictures often perform quite well on the mainland, so in order to keep the money flowing between both industries, China’s regulators are still pushing the current joint production model and keeping a quota on the number of foreign films allowed into the country.

Many Hollywood companies are striving to adapt both business and content to the realities of the Chinese film market, worth an estimated $3.2 billion this year, by establishing co-productions and setting up shop in the mainland.  Earlier this week, Universal announced the opening of an office in Beijing, and if the last week’s industry pow-wows are any indicator, many other production houses will likely soon follow suit.

“This year’s summit is not about bridging differences, but building towards a larger, global vision about what China and Hollywood can, should, and are, doing together as partners,” said Peter Shiao, chairman of the event.

The summit coincided with this year’s American Film Market industry meet-up, which according to The Hollywood Reporter, had the overriding theme of China’s arrival as a global film superpower. AFM attracted a strong presence of China’s film production houses to promote a few recent homegrown action adventure films like Young Detective Dee and Jackie Chan’s controversial Chinese Zodiac. Also announced at this year’s AFM were two Chinese-American joint productions, Skiptrace and Flying Tigers.

Martial arts thriller Skiptrace takes place in Hong Kong and features Sean William Scott, Fan Bingbing, and Jackie Chan, while Flying Tigers is a historical action film depicting the exploits of a World War II Chinese American air-fighter squad. Both film represent banner action productions for the new wave of Hollywood Chinese co-production. “We would make one of these a year if we could. It’s more about finding the right partnerships,”said COO Marc Schipper of Exclusive Media, the Hollywood partner of China’s Huayi Brothers on both films.

Another company following the recent industry trend is Arclight, who also announced plans at this year’s AFM to create two action films aimed at coproduction under their new Chinese subsidiary Easternlight.

Cultural sensitivities, censorship, and economic potential all dovetail in seeing action-adventure and fantasy films become the most viable genres for success in both countries. Representing the path of least resistance to China’s market, the addition of Chinese sub-plots to Marvel superhero films like smash hit The Avengers alongside Michael Bay’s Transformers 4 (parts of which are being shot in China right now) attest to the foreseeable future in terms of American action films made with China in mind. Generally speaking, action-adventure films tend to play well to large audiences while simultaneously they are often skim on sensitive political topics. Hollywood’s recent efforts to tailor films to the criteria of Chinese market and censors are so determined that the shifts are even beginning to draw criticism.

“We want to see positive Chinese images. China has been opening up for 30 years and I think both U.S. and Chinese screenwriters want to write positive images” said Zhang Xun, the president of the China Film Co-Production Corporation at the U.S. China Film Summit. Xun’s lecture also repudiated the belief that for a film to be embraced by China’s audiences, productions need more than just a Chinese sub-character and a couple of extraneous “made for China” scenes.

At the summit, Li Bingbing (starring alongside Mark Wahlberg and Kelsey Grammer in the upcoming Transformers 4) claimed that right now is a “great moment for Chinese film,” and asked Hollywood to brush up on it’s Chinese. The celebrity also let out her hopes to star in a picture with Leonardo DiCaprio someday.

While many industry executives remain eager to move step by step, much of the excitement is coupled with an acute awareness of the challenges ahead.

Dreamworks President Lewis Coleman elaborated some of the road bumps of Chinese co-production at this year’s summit stating “It requires a level of collaboration that we find difficult for the Chinese, mostly because, while they live in a cooperative society, they’re not very cooperative, they’re competitive.”

Also manifesting at this year’s festival is the blooming desire for China’s homegrown film industry—soon to be bolstered by Wang Jianlin’s $8.2 billion film studio in Qingdao—to find an audience overseas. “I don’t think Chinese films can travel the world all that well,” said Zhang Zhao the CEO of Chinese production company LeVision, the company that brought us Tiny Times, a vastly popular youth film that has been heavily criticized for its shallow, materialist content and twisted gender politics.

While the cross-industry movement of Chinese films to America’s theaters and vice-versa offer lucrative potential for each countries film industry, brought into clear focus at this year’s summit is China’s bid for soft power abroad through film culture. Looking to rebrand China’s identity to American audiences, similar to China’s fashion designers attempting to rebrand the image of “made in China”, the recent trend of joint-country productions directs dealings with Hollywood into a strategic position to establish a Chinese presence in film culture globally.

 

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