Hollywood with Chinese Characteristics (Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You!)

By Laura K. Bisbee


A young Chinese couple purchases tickets for a movie in Hangzhou, China. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Hollywood executives share a distaste for China’s annual movie quota. The Chinese government permits 34 foreign movies to play in Chinese theaters per year, and only after extensive examination and approval. Additionally, Hollywood producers and executives face government-imposed blackout periods (used to promote domestic films) which delay movie marketing and a substantial cut in revenue from distribution fees. “The studios want everything: more films, more revenue, more control over their own destiny,” an unnamed film executive tells Variety reporter Patrick Frater. “But ultimately you get only what the Chinese government wants to give you.”

When a foreign film enters China, it first undergoes the scrutiny China’s official media regulation board, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT).The board encompasses a variety of government agencies and interest groups and includes filmmakers, academics, and public officials. While the board tightly guards its film evaluation standards, China’s Film Industry Promotion law, passed last March, reveals several clues as to what makes and does not make a foreign film “China-ready.”

According to Xinhua, China’s state-controlled media, the law stipulates that both domestic and foreign movies must promote “socialist core values” and the “dignity, honor, and interests” of China. In other words, any film material disparaging of China’s national image is on a fast track to censorship. SAPPRFT also frowns upon content with excessive nudity, drug abuse, and an “overt admiration for Western lifestyles.” Some taboo topics, like SAPPRFT’s dislike of time travel, are more puzzling. According to SAPPRFT, time travel, although not explicitly banned from movies, “disrespects history.” Film critic and journalist Raymond Zhou Liming, however, has a different perspective. As he explains to Hollywood Reporter columnist Johnathan Landreth, SAPPRFT dislikes time travel and other science fiction storylines because they often used as “an excuse to comment on current affairs.”

Despite the maze of bureaucratic red tape and regulations, Hollywood continuously panders to SAPPRFT’s tastes—altering, adding or even deleting entire scenes from movies. These days it’s not surprising to see two versions of a film, one for the world and one for China. The producers of Karate Kid (2010), for instance, edited out 12 minutes of the movie after SAPPRFT expressed concern over the film’s Chinese antagonist. In Iron Man III (2013) and Passengers (2016), producers added scenes with Chinese actors to make the films more marketable to Chinese audiences. Increasingly, Hollywood will strategically employ Chinese actors, dialogue and locations in a movie to win SAPPRFT’s seal of approval.

What is it about making movies in China that makes Hollywood so eager to dish out concessions like candy? “When China was not on the market, you just followed the American way,” actor Jackie Chan tells Times reporter Hannah Beech. “But these days, all the writers, producers — they think about China. Now China is the center of everything.”

The Chinese box office is the fastest-growing box offices in the world, accelerating in value from $2.7 billion in 2012 to $6.6 billion in 2016. The second largest box office market globally after the United States, movie admissions in China are projected to continuously rise over the next few years. Not surprisingly, Hollywood is more than willing to play SAPPRFT’s movie-making version of Tetris when a significant share of its revenue comes from a rapidly growing Chinese audience. Not having a foot in the lucrative Chinese market means not making a profit.

As the Chinese market for movies expands, Hollywood will continue to give chase despite SAPPRFT’s rules and regulations. This strange courtship— at least for now—is here to stay. “We have both big pockets and a big stomach,” says Li Ruigan in Time Magazine. “China has money to spend on Hollywood and this incredible market at home. The China-Hollywood connection will sustain itself for a very long time.”

Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



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