Historically, the only Asian films that broke through into Western screens were martial arts films. Martial arts films were a successful niche product that produced infamous household names such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. At the time, diversity in a film was underrepresented and this niche market was the only path for Asian actors.
2018 seems to be the year that Asians in film were finally busting down the white, pearly gates of Western media, such as this year’s ultra-successful “Crazy Rich Asians”. Turning to the powerhouse Netflix, Asian led TV shows and films seemed to be promoted everywhere, from the Chinese teen remake “Meteor Garden”, the Japanese reality show “Terrace House”, and the Thai soap opera-esque show “Hormones.” Out of nowhere, it appeared Netflix was producing and incorporating all kinds of Asian content.
So, why was this happening? Was “Crazy Rich Asians” really that influential upon the Western audience? Were Asian led films considered “in”? Or was it something else?
The U.S. is semi-permeable; we love exporting U.S. content, but we hate letting foreign content come in. And this semi-permeable quality worked for the entire history of film; the U.S. was the largest market in film and television revenue until China came along. Earlier this year in the first quarter, China’s theatrical box office revenue was $3.17 billion, surpassing the U.S. who produced a revenue of $2.85 billion. In fact, according to multiple analysts, China is well on its way to becoming the largest film market by 2020 (Xinhua, 2017). Being semi-permeable isn’t profitable anymore and we see a shift in Hollywood as it begins to produce content for foreign audiences in foreign languages.
Becoming the largest film market in the world was no accident. China has invested heavily into film accessibility; constructing more than 44,400 movie screens and 38,300 3D screens across the country and enacting laws that promote film resources going to more rural areas. China has also invested in fixing the quality of their content; a few years ago, Dr. David Zuckerberg, and intercultural communication specialist from Sacramento, CA, was brought in to assess the cultural issues plaguing Chinese films from being successful, on topics such as diversity, representation, and dialectic barriers.
China is home to over 1 billion people, making access to their market highly lucrative and Netflix knows this.
China has strict protectionist laws, choosing to create their own Chinese versions of Google and Facebook. Previously, Netflix was unable to stream in China. But last year Netflix signed a licensing deal with iQIYI, China’s top video streaming platform (Brzeski, 2017). U.S. shows like “House of Cards”, “Black Mirror”, and “Mindhunter” all became available and extremely popular in China via this licensing agreement.
China’s protectionism still bars Netflix but they know that gaining access to that market is imperative, “It gets our content distribution into the territory and builds awareness of the Netflix brand and Netflix content” said Robert Roy, Netflix’s vice president of content acquisition.
Netflix is hoping their licensing agreement grows in popularity amongst Chinese citizens, which could potentially open a door for negotiating to bring the streaming service fully to China. In the meantime, doubling down on Asian centered stories has proved lucrative abroad. “More than half of Asian content hours viewed on Netflix this year are viewed outside the region,” said Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings “So we have confidence that our upcoming slate of Asian productions will find fans in their home countries and abroad.”
As U.S. ticket sales decline, we can expect the Chinese film market and investment in securing the Chinese audience to grow. In the meantime, it’s unknown how that investment will affect film and television production in the U.S., but one thing’s for sure. No one’s stories belong in a niche, pigeon-holed away. Even if this expansion of diversity in market stemmed from financial greed, film and television are a way we express ourselves as humanity.
People want to hear these stories and people need to hear these stories.