Image via The Great Wall Official Site
“It might indeed be the case that Hollywood tentpoles increasingly are catering to Chinese tastes, yet Chinese taste long has been molded by Hollywood, which ultimately sells American, not Chinese, dreams.”
In an age of all too rapid digitization, China and Hollywood have officially begun their cooperational tête–à–tête, trying to best figure out the way that these two very different, very distinct and very divergent economic powerhouses can work together on the socio-cultural front and produce quality entertainment for, essentially, the global audience.
Let’s start with the good news. Both sides seem to have the best intentions and a genuine desire to partner effectively. The not-so-good news is that, at least for the moment, this blockbuster rapprochement is still very much a work in progress and many kinks and operational procedures need to be ironed out. Thus far, no movie from the joint efforts has resulted in a product that has received global acclaim, both financially in terms of revenue and critically with respect to industry opinion.
For a Hollywood that has somewhat struggled to adapt to the age of instant information and compete with its content producing rivals in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn, China represents a saving grace, a messiah even, in the era of declining box office sales stateside and an increasing preference towards anything and everything streaming and live (see Netflix, Hulu and Amazon). With capital-rich coffers and a voracious appetite for Hollywood IP, the Middle Kingdom seems to be the ideal consumer, and, as luck would have it, financier, for the ever-so-slightly decaying infrastructure of the American entertainment complex.
Conversely, for China, Hollywood represents the ultimate in the American dream for a still developing nation, where 30 years ago owning a T.V. was a momentous and rare accomplishment. Unlike investment in other industries, pouring capital into Hollywood is accompanied by a certain cultural cache. For some tycoons, it even carries an air of validity: If China can control the apparatus that feeds the global pop culture appetite, it has truly solidified its place on the world stage. Moreover, investment in Hollywood gives China a much-desired “seat at the table.” Through overpaying for American production companies, distribution chains, film ventures and movie chains, China is allowed to witness the intricate inner-workings of Hollywood business-making, carefully take notes, study and, in turn, one day replicate the rather fine-tuned operational processes of Hollywood. The value of this window into the inner belly of the Hollywood beast for many, especially for Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man and chairman of Wanda Studios, is, of course, priceless.
Let’s examine Wanda’s recent investment into Hollywood and see what implications it has for the industry, in general, before discussing the main topic: U.S.-Chinese joint film ventures.
Dalian Wanda Group Co. has lead the charge into investing in the U.S. entertainment sector. In 2012, Wanda shelled out $2.6 billion for the acquisition of the North American theater chain AMC Entertainment. Since then, Wanda has made a series of strategic acquisitions for an often exorbitant, eye-popping price tag, perhaps best exemplified by the purchase of Legendary Entertainment – responsible for such hits as Godzilla, Inception, Jurassic World and Pacific Rim – for $3.5 billion (in cash) in 2016. Wang Jianlin has expressed the desire to invest billions in all six of the major Hollywood studios in the coming years, having recently inked a considerable strategic marketing and co-financing deal with Sony Entertainment. Clearly, Wanda has an insatiable appetite for investing in Hollywood and plans to ramp up its investments in the future – in addition to building the world’s largest film studio on China’s northeast coast for $8.2 billion.
Probably the most buzzworthy U.S-China joint-venture of late is The Great Wall. Directed by the acclaimed Zhang Yimou, the film stars Matt Damon as a European mercenary during the Song Dynasty. Damon, along with a slew of elite Chinese mercenaries, (spoiler alert) save China from monster invaders attacking The Great Wall. The movie has been greeted with decent reviews and okay box office numbers from the Mainland box office. The film opens in late February in the U.S. Some have criticized the movie for continuing the stereotype/myth of the “white savior complex” in the East. Others have noted that the film appears to be more American than Chinese creatively, but the financing is essentially all Chinese.
With a budget of $150 million, the film represents a joint-venture between a variety of players, including Le Vision Pictures, Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures and China Film Group Corporation, among others.
Again, why the heavy investment on the part of China? “We have both big pockets and a big stomach,” says Li Ruigang, head of China Media Capital (CMC), a private-equity firm that has partnered with Warner Bros., DreamWorks and Imax, among others. “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.”
For many American players, joint productions represent the only viable way into the Chinese market. Since China wants to protect its relatively nascent film industry, it has initiated a quota system that essentially limits the number of big-budget imported films to 34 a year. In part to circumvent the quota and in part to better cater to the tastes and preferences of local audiences, Hollywood has turned to co-productions, often via a series of joint ventures and co-financing deals, with a Chinese partner. Recent examples include Flagship Entertainment (joint venture between Warner Bros., China Media Capital and broadcaster TVB) and the recently announced partnership between Paramount, Huahua Media and Shanghai Film Co. Co-productions require a certain amount of Chinese financing, scenes shot in China and Chinese actors. Yet, the question remains – Do these joint ventures truly appeal to a global audience, or is it simply an act of an East-pleasing pander?
Beyond the legality (and technical intricacies) of gaining access to the Chinese market, these joint ventures ideally represent collaboration on another front: creatively. Though the current system seems to be China fronts the money, America chips in with the creative content chops and, hopefully, China will be able to hold its own in terms of creative contribution as it continues to build out and invest in its emerging robust creative class. As the quote at the beginning indicates, this may take time, since the Chinese creative ideal has been so indelibly formed and molded by the lens of Hollywood.
Even CMC’s Li, one of China’s biggest film investors, acknowledges the dilemma. “Chinese money can buy a lot of things,” he says. “But it cannot buy creativity. You cannot buy people’s minds and dreams.”
Steps towards the emergence of China’s own unique voice in the output of entertainment products can be seen in Sony Picture’s chairman Tom Rothman’s recent Writer’s Initiative program, where the studio will host emerging and established writers from China. They will meet established Hollywood film and TV execs and scribes to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects for Hollywood films and Hollywood/China co-productions, which will hopefully one day make it into the studio’s future co-financed joint venture slate with Wanda.
Of particular note, the most successful co-production thus far has been Kung Fu Panda 3. The film, which earned $519 million globally, was produced by Dreamworks and Oriental Dreamworks, which began as a partnership between China Media Capital, Shanghai Media Group and Shanghai Alliance Investment and Dreamworks in 2012. Not exactly the paragon of Chinese ingenuity. Some might even say it is another instance of the storied tradition of “Panda Diplomacy.”
What’s the future? Remains to be seen on the silver screen (or a mobile device) near you.
What are your thoughts on the future of Chollywood? Feel free to comment below and continue the discussion.