Has Hollywood Seen Its Last Chinese Villain?

As Global Movie Market Tilts Toward Mainland, U.S. Producers Scramble To Adapt

A still from Iron Man 3. (Marvel)

A still from Iron Man 3. (Marvel)

Today, Iron Man 3 opens in theaters across the U.S. But it’s already racked up more than $300 million in box office receipts around the globe. And a good chunk of that take comes from China, where the film—originally slated for simultaneous release with the U.S. market today—opened two days ago on May 1.

As the summer movie season officially begins, the saga of Iron Man 3—with its much-reported additional Chinese footage, and the decision to forgo applying for China co-production status—is only one plotline in a script that has Hollywood hastily coming to terms with what will soon become the world’s largest movie audience.

The two different versions of Iron Man 3—one for the Chinese market and one for the rest of the world—is one way that the U.S. film industry is attempting to score with mainland audiences. In the U.S. version, for instance, the character named Dr. Wu has a five-second cutaway; in the Chinese version, he reportedly saves the (Western) hero’s life. Conversely, in the U.S. version, the villain is a half-Chinese character named The Mandarin; on mainland screens he’s known as “man da ren,” which loosely translates into “the Manchurian master.” This transliteration possibly intends to imply that he is a Manchu, the non-Han ethnic minority that ruled China during the Qing dynasty.

Submitting to state censorship is another requisite for access to the lucrative mainland market. The Quentin Tarantino flick Django Unchained was dramatically pulled from mainland theaters a few weeks ago, in some cases just as the screenings started. It will return to Chinese theaters in mid-May, shorn of nudity, some of the gore, and what the Chinese government considers politically sensitive situations.

Over the long term, co-production appears to be the most viable option for giving Hollywood producers the greatest access to Chinese audiences. As we recently noted, co-production status is the only way for a production to avoid the fierce competition for the mere 34 foreign film spots available each year in the Chinese release schedule. But the requirements for this highly sought-after status are stringent, and can’t be met by inserting a few feet of shot-in-China footage into an American production.

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing in Iron Man 3. (Marvel)

Chinese actress Fan Bingbing in Iron Man 3. (Marvel)

Despite the challenges of co-production, Hollywood is stepping up its efforts to attain these lucrative deals. Not only has Paramount Pictures signed a “co-operation agreement” forTransformers 4, due in theaters in summer 2014, the project has already launched a casting search on a Chinese reality TV show that’s expected to draw between 50,000 and 80,000 contestants for four roles. On the other hand, DreamWorks Animation’s co-production of Tibet Code—based on a serial novel written by a Han Chinese author—could score with Chinese moviegoers at the expense of audiences elsewhere, who might be put off by the whiff of government propaganda. Hollywood producers are also experimenting with another possible solution: focusing entirely on China. Village Roadshow, a co-production partner of Warner Brothers, has reportedly had two box-office hits in China already, using mainland talent and sidestepping American audiences completely.

Just as Hollywood is getting comfortable with the new film-industry playing field, though, the Chinese government could end up changing the rules of the game. Fox was recently slapped with an unexpected tax of $2 million, to be deducted from its $23 million box office earnings for Life of Pi, and the studio is refusing payment in protest. Not only does the tax appear arbitrary, it’s a step back from the progress made in last year’s landmark agreement between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and China President Xi Jinping.

The bottom line: Hollywood needs the China market and Chinese moviegoers love Hollywood. Of the top ten grossing films in China last year, only three were Chinese-made; the rest were U.S.-produced. As the situation continues to evolve, a few things are easy to predict: more Chinese actors in U.S. productions—especially action films—and more plot lines that require shooting in China. But American audiences might also find themselves lining up at the multiplex for Chinese-made movies like Finding Mr. Right, a rom-com set in Seattle, or Lost in Thailand, a low-budget flick that’s currently China’s highest grossing film ever. Meanwhile, the best bet for a win-win may see Hollywood sticking to what it does best—pure entertainment—as it shifts its co-production focus to made-for-China-market projects.

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