Western Actors Head To China’s “Wild West” Film Industry

“There’s A Relatively Small Pool Of English-Speaking Actors Out Here”

A-list actors like Christian Bale have starred in Chinese features like Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War"

Discouraged (and occasionally defeated) by a highly competitive and oversaturated Hollywood, a growing number of Western movie and television actors, directors, producers, set designers, and visual effects technicians are venturing to China, with some finding more opportunities in the country’s budding film industry. However, relocating to a film scene that is far more underdeveloped than its American counterpart comes a price that some may or may not be willing to pay.

This week, the Los Angeles Times published a piece that peeks into the careers of two young American film professionals: Nate Boyd and Kara Wang, both of whom have sought and found more success in China than in Hollywood. Boyd and Wang collectively attribute their regular work schedules and comparative success to several fundamental facets of the current Chinese film industry. First, less developed equals less competitive. While treated like sheep in what journalist Gabrielle Jaffe calls the “circus of auditions” in L.A., Boyd and Wang’s talents and training were “better valued” in China.

Second, while Boyd sometimes feels that China’s film industry offers a limited range of parts to (Caucasian/Western) foreigners, typecasting them as either “a military officer during World War II or a study-abroad student chasing a Chinese girl,” others claim China’s cinematic world offers more variety of opportunity than that (barely, for most) found in Los Angeles. Wang, who faced typecasting in L.A. — “I was either auditioning for the token Asian girl role or I had to be the sexy, kick-ass, kung-fu chick that looks good in latex” — says that she finds herself playing a refreshing diversity of roles in China, ranging from “a lady-in-waiting in a historical period drama to a fashionable Chinese gossip girl in a popular series.” Third, whereas Hollywood tends to play it safe, opting to “invest in the fourth season of an established series than take a risk on something new,” China has a higher project turnover rate, which means more jobs, more frequently.

From the article:

Cooperation between the Chinese and American film industries has snowballed in recent years, with “Iron Man 3” only the latest in a long string of co-productions. In the last year, DisneyDreamWorks and Relativity have all formed permanent partnerships with Chinese media groups, and the Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda has just announced its acquisition of American cinema chain AMC. Meanwhile, the likes of Christian BaleHugh Jackman and Kevin Spacey are appearing in Chinese films. While these stars have made passing appearances, the increasing entwining of the industries has led to a small but growing demographic of Western film professionals, like Boyd, making China their home.

One of the "typical" television roles for Western actors in China

However, the same attributes that make China an attractive and promising hub for eager young film professionals are what make for rather difficult filming and working situations, truly a world away from the well-oiled machine of Hollywood. As Jaffe notes, “the inchoate nature of the industry…means that contracts and on-set rights are not up to U.S. standards.” For actors, working in this new market is not without serious challenges, among them obtaining a business visa from a sponsoring talent agency or company, particularly in the midst of a Chinese government crackdown on “illegal foreigners.” Moreover, those working in nonunion China do not enjoy the same benefits and “luxuries” as those working in the U.S., and — like Wang — often must resign from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and waive the benefits of SAG membership. As Wang puts it, that means no more “eight-hour rule, lunch breaks…in China, all that…flies out the windows.”

Western actors like Wang and Boyd can find themselves working on Chinese productions for up to 24 hours at a time. Worse still, from their perspective, while in L.A. actors are often paid by the hour, in China they are usually offered a lump sum with no guarantee of how much time they’ll be needed on set. Even when working on Hollywood co-productions, if hired locally in China, they are considered “local talent” and are paid local rates.

However, even in these rather bleak and bitter working conditions, reminiscent of Hollywood in the 1920s — “before the anti-trust laws, before regulation and before the industry matured” — Boyd and Wang remain upbeat and optimistic about their prospects in film in China. (The article does not quote other actors disillusioned by the industry.) Understanding the tough and often chaotic nature of the developing industry, both Boyd and Wang believe that the longer hours, lower salary, and lack of worker’s security are prices they are willing to pay for the experience they have gained from their time in China.

Will Smith talks via Skype to moviegoers in Beijing who had just watched him star in “Men in Black 3.” (Image: Los Angeles Times)

In a broader sense, the trend of more Western actors — particularly those tired of fighting it out for few parts in Los Angeles — moving to China fits into the wider narrative of Hollywood’s growing dependence on the China film market. In order to bypass China’s notoriously strict film import quota, which was loosened slightly this year, Hollywood has increasingly turned to co-productions with Chinese film companies or China-based subsidiaries, taking local investors’ funds in the process. As the LA Times writes of this process, not everybody is thrilled about the shape these co-productions ultimately take:

“[The cutting of scenes to get a film shown in China is] a clear-cut case — maybe the first I can think of in the history of Hollywood — where a foreign country’s censorship board deeply affects what we produce,” said a leading Hollywood producer who, like several others interviewed for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not want to offend potential Chinese partners.

As overseas box office has become more important to Hollywood, studios have become more attuned to foreign cultures. The industry has been mindful, for instance, about offending Japan, which until recently was the largest foreign market (Japanese characters also play a big part in “Battleship”).

With China, co-financing deals add to the pressure: Under those agreements, foreign films receive funding from Chinese entities and are allowed to bypass the quota system. But such films often must include some Chinese elements — positive ones. Marvel Studios’ “Iron Man 3,” which recently began filming in locales including North Carolina and China, is expected to show a highly friendly side to the Chinese, because the production is accepting Chinese funds from the financing entity DMG.

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