China has been raging as the financial savior for Hollywood’s financing woes. Studio films have become more expensive with budgets of $100 million quite common to $250 million for the recent “Fate of the Furious” franchise. Of course, “Furious 8” raked in a half billion dollars in a weekend.
Still, money runs Hollywood. Traditional hedge fund managers have curtailed their diversification of their portfolio, dubious of Hollywood’s excess and profit sharing. In recent years, the competition for audience eyeballs has only grown with social media, the rise of Peak TV, alternate video platforms and vast amounts of original content. Still China is the big elephant – but with conditions.
Chinese investors and more than a billion potential moviegoers have made China indispensable to the film business. The country’s box-office total last year, at $6.6 billion, was the world’s second-largest compared with the first-place U.S., $11.4 billion. In a few years, analysts predict, China will be No. 1.
While the U.S. movie-ticket sales have remained relatively flat, China’s have more than tripled since 2011.
Major Agency CAA sees opportunity.
Private and state-backed Chinese companies have invested tens of billions of dollars in U.S. film ventures over the past decade. The relationship comes with strings attached. Chinese authorities, censors and consumers influence nearly every aspect of American moviemaking in China, from scripts to casting to greenlighting sequels.
“We’re in a moment of significant disruption,” said Richard Lovett, president of Creative Artists Agency, which represents such clients as Sandra Bullock and J.J. Abrams. The firm announced Monday it was expanding its footprint in the country with a division called CAA China.
Kung Fu Panda Sets Off an Industry
That desire got a push from a Hollywood panda named Po. The animated star of “Kung Fu Panda” was created by DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc., the Glendale, Calif., studio then run by Jeffrey Katzenberg.
Mr. Katzenberg didn’t cook up “Panda” to win over Chinese audiences. He and the DreamWorks team conceived of the movie in 2004, when China sales were barely an afterthought. At its 2008 release, China’s market was small but growing.
Yet “Kung Fu Panda” was a hit in China, grossing $26 million, a surprise to everyone. Members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee—a top political advisory body—debated how a U.S. company could understand Chinese culture well enough to make the movie.
“The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure and all the elements are Chinese,” said Wu Jiang, an arts executive, at a Consultative Committee meeting, according to a contemporary account in a state-owned newspaper. “Why didn’t we make such a film?”
Chinese Censors Must Be Appeased
Hollywood executives can rattle off the rules for getting a movie approved by Chinese censors: no sex (too unseemly); no ghosts (too spiritual). Among 10 prohibited plot elements are “disrupts the social order” and “jeopardizes social morality.” Time travel is frowned upon because of its premise that individuals can change history.
U.S. filmmakers sometimes anticipate Chinese censors and alter movies before their release. The Oscar-winning alien-invasion drama “Arrival” was edited to make a Chinese general appear less antagonistic before the film’s debut in China this year.
The superhero hit “Logan” was 14 minutes shorter in China after Chinese censors cut scenes of beheading and impalement.
For “Passengers,” the space adventure starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, a scene showing Mr. Pratt’s bare backside was removed, and a scene of Mr. Pratt chatting in Mandarin with a robot bartender was added.