The upcoming Bruce Willis film "Looper" was partially funded by Beijing's DMG Entertainment
With China's notoriously low foreign film import quotas remaining a sore subject for major international production houses, and a point of contention for the WTO, a handful of producers have taken another path in an attempt to capture a bigger piece of China's booming box office. Following the lead of automakers and manufacturers, producers have turned to joint ventures with domestic companies in order to sidestep quotas, leverage the local knowledge and network of local partners, and enjoy a better share of box office receipts. This week, one major Hollywood producer, Legendary Entertainment, announced a new 1.4 billion yuan (US$220.5 million) venture with the Chinese powerhouse Huayi Brothers Media Corp. aimed at making one to two "major, event-style" films per year for a global audience, starting in 2013.
Hollywood is increasingly targeting the Chinese market, which is adding 1,400 screens a year. Chinese box office takings rose 64% to $1.5bn (£910m) in 2010, a fraction of the US's $10.6bn receipts, but a growth rate that puts the country on course to become one of the largest film markets in the world.
Legendary Entertainment's chairman, Thomas Tull, said: "With China's rapid economic growth and rich cultural background, this is a film-making marketplace on the rise."
Kelvin Wu, chief executive of Legendary East, said: "We want to do globally appealing movies, so there will be a lot of elements involving east meets west."
As Bloomberg notes, Legendary's deal with Huayi Brothers isn't the first such partnership, nor is it the only one to take shape as others look to jump on the China bandwagon:
The growing Chinese market is spawning other joint ventures. Huayi’s Wang teamed up with Thomas Tull, founder of Burbank, California-based Legendary Pictures whose hits include “The Dark Knight” and “The Hangover” to start Legendary East, which will make films in China targeting international and local audiences.
Legendary will raise $220.5 million in a deal that will see Hong Kong-based Paul Y. Engineering Group Ltd. take a 50 percent stake in Legendary, Paul Y said yesterday in a statement.
Relativity Media, the West Hollywood-based producer of “Cowboys & Aliens,” agreed On Aug. 14 to make and distribute movies in China with Beijing-based Huaxia Film Distribution Co.
Not all deals will pan out, says Nansun Shi, who sits on the board of Beijing-based Bona Film Group, which listed on Nasdaq in December. “This kind of growth is unprecedented anywhere in the world,” says Shi. “Many, many films are burned and do not make money.”
Bloomberg adds that the involvement of Chinese production companies, whether as part of joint ventures or as major investors in Hollywood productions, is already having a noticeable effect on film content, with locations, stars, and even movie villains being altered to cater to the increasingly lucrative China market. Beijing-based DMG Entertainment funded the production of the upcoming Bruce Willis action film "Looper" under the condition that the film's location was moved from France to China, and that a role was included for the Chinese actor Xu Qing. Of course, the involvement of Chinese partners and/or the restrictions placed on foreign films (or co-productions) doesn't only become apparent as films change location or add Chinese stars. For its upcoming remake of the 1980s Cold War classic "Red Dawn," MGM digitally altered the Chinese antagonists out of the film, replacing them with North Koreans, and red-dubbed the dialogue in order to placate Chinese audiences.
These recent China partnerships bring up interesting questions about the future of international film: Will they, as ostensibly cooperative partnerships, actually create films capable of appealing to both Western and Chinese audiences? Or will these productions essentially remain Hollywood-style films, rendered completely inoffensive to avoid the red stamp of censors and designed with the lowest-common denominator filmgoer (whether in China or the US) in mind?