To the average American filmgoer, it’s not immediately obvious that The Great Wall is a Chinese co-production, shot exclusively in China by a Chinese director, and featuring some of the most famous Chinese movie stars. Yet to many industry analysts, The Great Wall was a test of how well a big budget, cross-cultural movie would serve as a model for future co-productions between the United States and China.
Unfortunately, the film has not lived up to its $150 million budget, netting only $128.04 million in its first fortnight, while experts suggest that a net $450 million would be required in order for the movie to not be considered a box office flop. Reviews of the movie have been about as mediocre as its profits. Overall, the film has averaged five out of 10 stars on Douban, a popular Chinese website for reviewing books and movies.
The fact that The Great Wall has fallen far short of expectations means that the question of whether films made in China can capture Western audiences any time soon, and why many Chinese films have failed to do so thus far, is still very much up for debate. While The Great Wall by no means signals the end to co-productions between the United States and China, it does point towards certain structural issues in that model and the Chinese film industry in general that will have to be resolved before we can expect Chinese-produced films to succeed in the United States.
Finding a Chinese partner is the first step for movie-making and distribution in China, as it is otherwise impossible to access the highly restricted Chinese movie market. Chinese law sets a quota of 34 revenue-sharing import slots for foreign-produced movies in China, which are highly coveted. Even if a film secures one of these spots, foreigners are not allowed to independently distribute their films, and must distribute their content through a Chinese entity. Filmmaking activities are likewise subject to limits that prevent foreigners from filming without a Chinese partner.
As a result of these barriers, co-productions, which allow a foreign producer to produce a film in partnership with a Chinese entity, have emerged as a way of increasing access to Chinese movie markets. The most popular type of co-production is joint production, wherein both parties invest in and produce the film, because these productions are considered domestic films and are thus not subject to import quotas and may be directly released in China. To qualify as a joint production, at least one third of the film’s cast must be Chinese and the film must contain substantial Chinese cultural content.
For Chinese film producers, co-productions are tempting opportunities for Chinese stars and filmmakers to break into international markets. Through co-productions and investment in American film assets, China has increasingly moved towards the goal of making movies for international audiences. In this sense, co-productions seem to be a win-win—Chinese stars receive an opportunity to target U.S. audiences, while the United States gains access to the second largest movie-market in the world.
In theory, such partnerships create bicultural productions that allow Chinese culture to be enjoyed internationally and give foreign productions the opportunity to be screened in China. In practice, however, co-productions have found it difficult, if not impossible, to appeal to both Chinese and international audiences—The Great Wall is a case in point. Many of the problems that caused The Great Wall to flop, including uninspired storytelling, empty characters, and various problems and delays in production, can be traced back to larger issues in China-U.S. co-productions.
The Great Wall of Censorship
Restrictions imposed by Chinese state censorship are a major obstacle that co-productions must overcome in attempting to appeal to both Chinese and international markets. All films, whether produced in China or abroad, must be approved by Chinese censors for all audiences, as there is no movie-rating system in China. These censors review scripts or finished films for content that they perceive as undermining Chinese social stability, social ethics, or government.
This obviously affects Chinese producers and their partners—but it also affects Hollywood by forcing producers to remove certain scenes before a movie can be screened in China. Cloud Atlas removed some of its more controversial scenes, such as the same-sex romance and a scene depicting sex between a human replicant and her foreman. Other alterations occur for less noticeable reasons—Mission: Impossible III had to edit out a scene in which Tom Cruise’s character walked past laundry hanging from a clothesline, as demonstrating lack of dryers in Shanghai was perceived as portraying the city in a bad light.
Film censorship demonstrates the Chinese government’s interest in maintaining a positive portrayal of China—the state in particular. This interest was recently reaffirmed with a new film law which, while not fundamentally changing any industry regulations or practices, encourages the dissemination of “socialist core values” in Chinese films.
Such government efforts, however, are counterproductive to promoting the Chinese film industry. In an interview with the HPR, University of Southern California professor Stanley Rosen explained: “If you have socialist core values, whatever they may be, in a film, not only will you definitely fail internationally, you’re going to fail domestically as well, because that’s not what people want to see.”
“In films like Tiny Times [小时代], … it’s all about materialism and conspicuous consumption by wealthy kids—something the government doesn’t particularly like. But it also takes big box office in competition with Hollywood,” Rosen continued, “So you have that basic contradiction. What do you want to emphasize, the political or the commercial?” The contradiction between political and commercial goals lies largely in the ways that censors restrict what stories can be told. Content that tends to sell well in box offices—sex, violence, and rebellious individualism—is often screened out by censors. “The heroes of American films like Iron Man or Avengers go directly against the government,” Rosen said, “You can’t do that in Chinese films.”
These tensions make it difficult to say whether government restrictions on China’s movie industry have achieved the government’s goals. On one hand, Hollywood producers have made conscious efforts to portray China and Chinese people in a positive way, sometimes with great expense—in Red Dawn, Chinese villains were digitally remastered into North Koreans post-production. On the other hand, China has not been so successful in projecting a positive image of Chinese culture internationally, as attempts at cross-cultural co-productions such as The Great Wall have not succeeded in accessing both U.S. and Chinese markets.
Is the problem then simply that Chinese filmmakers are incapable of creating content that the rest of the world wants to watch? Past success seems to indicate otherwise—who could forget the Chinese martial arts movie fad of the eighties and nineties that brought us Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan? However, China and its movie market have changed drastically since then. “In those days there was no domestic Chinese market, so these filmmakers necessarily needed to make their pictures for a foreign audience,” Mathew Alderson, a Beijing-based lawyer specializing in Chinese media and entertainment, told the HPR. “But nowadays they’re making pictures that appeal or are intended to appeal to the Chinese domestic audience, which is quite understandable because you have a middle class now of around three quarters of a billion people.”
For Alderson, it’s less an issue of politics versus economics than one of target audience. “You can’t just expect the domestic industry when it concentrates on domestic films to cater to a foreign audience, and that’s where the contradiction or the problem is,” he explained.
Such a focus on domestic audiences seems to have paid off. Domestic productions have achieved impressive performances at the Chinese box office the past few years, including Lost in Thailand, The Mermaid, and Journey to the West. Given such domestic success stories, Chinese producers are understandably hesitant to risk losing a domestic audience in pursuit of international success.
To those more concerned with the commercial aspect of the industry it is simply safer to target a well-understood domestic audience rather than take a risk in cross-cultural productions. The lukewarm reception of The Great Wall only seems to confirm this. If it had demonstrated more of the style of highly artistic, visual storytelling that Zhang Yimou, director of The Great Wall, is known for, and the Chinese stars had been given more of a backstory, then the film may have at least captured domestic audiences. In taking the risk of attempting to play to both audiences, The Great Wall failed to appeal to either.
Loosening the Reins?
It’s unclear why Chinese films have failed to succeed on the international stage. In any case, something must change in the Chinese film industry before we see a new golden age of Chinese films worldwide, whether it’s loosening censorship, improving storytelling, or more certain international commercial prospects for Chinese producers.
Change might be on the horizon with upcoming negotiations over China’s film importation quota. The predicted February 2017 date for the renegotiation has come and gone, but they will still presumably occur sometime this year. Chinese officials have dropped hints that these negotiations will increase the number of films imported, with China Film Bureau chief Zhang Hongsen warning of more competition coming from foreign movies in 2018. Zhang appears to be confident in the industry’s robustness despite recent drops in box office earnings.
The relaxation of import quotas dovetails with what some perceive to be at least an incremental loosening of Chinese censorship. However, incremental is the operative word here—the brief gay content of Beauty and the Beast made it through Chinese censors, but Moonlight is generally expected to be found unsuitable for the Chinese market due to its gay content.
However, these small shifts need not lead to fundamental changes in the Chinese movie industry any time soon. According to Alderson, “You can’t just assume that China is just going to become like the United States and open its market to the rest of the world, whether it be in film or TV or anything else.”
The increase in film import quotas may, through competition, improve the quality of domestic productions as Chinese filmmakers are forced to compete more robustly with foreign films. If slight relaxations in censorship occur, that might also help Chinese producers tell types of stories that have been previously restricted. However, whether this will rectify the contradiction between political and economic interests or change the calculations of domestic producers is up to speculation. A wildly successful co-production between the United States and China is not impossible, but a safer bet would be that such co-productions will continue to target a single audience until there is more substantial change in the Chinese creative and legal environment.
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