We’re Going To Need More Popcorn

Inside China’s quickly multiplying multiplexes.

The lobby of the UME Cineplex in Haidian, Beijing.
The lobby of the UME Cineplex in Haidian, Beijing

Photograph for Slate by Eric Hynes.

Up on a big screen in an underground mall in Beijing, Captain America is throttling the Red Skull, and I’m falling out of my seat. I mean that literally: My seat tilts left and right, forward and back, and I’m white-knuckling my armrests to keep from being toppled into the hydraulics. Who knew the future of filmgoing would call for seatbelts? Though prompted by an assaultive “4-D Experience”—think William Castle meets Space Mountain—this feeling of whiplash is pretty common in a country that’s lurching forward at hyperspeed.

Over the course of two weeks this fall, I traveled around Beijing and Shanghai to view China’s booming movie biz from the front rows of its cinemas. New theaters are opening all over the country, especially in the big cities, where you’ll find cineplexes like cherries atop the towering new shopping malls. Once primarily a tool for socialist propaganda, films are now a commodity, along with $5 lattes and Japanese toilets, and as such, they’re no less important to the country’s sense of itself as a model consumer society. In the current Chinese film Love On Credit, a stylish, ludicrously overheated modern romance about twin sisters with contrary opinions about love—one’s old-fashioned, the other’s a gold-digger—even the romantic one can’t resist a closet full of designer gowns (for which pop-up graphics pornographically provide sticker prices. Step down, Sex and the City).

Three years after the Olympics, the Chinese capital is still in full-on development mode. I have never seen as many steel cranes at work as I did in Beijing. (It took me almost a week to realize that certain ubiquitous two-story structures weren’t nifty modular motels but temporary housing for itinerant workers.) There’s nothing organic about such growth—the dusty, winding, honeycombed hutongs that defined the city for millennia are vanishing like so much scorched earth, briskly replaced by skyscrapers—nor about the rapid development of China’s cinema culture. From 2007 to 2011, the numbers of movie screens increased by a staggering 100 percent. (Currently at over 6,200 screens, the number is expected to double by 2015.) A state as rigorously controlled—and cash-rich—as China can reshape itself in drastic ways, repurposing land, relocating populations, and jump-starting industries. For now, supply is exceeding demand: None of the screenings I visited were more than one-quarter full. But as long as the spending class keeps swelling, and multiplexes keep multiplying where the spending class sleeps, the box office will keep growing. Though without another Avatar on the horizon, it’s doubtful that this year’s receipts will come close to 2010’s staggering 64 percent growth.

What China’s target audience wants, or at least what theater developers expect it to want, is an ultramodern “5-star” environment, technological excellence, and big-budget American movies. The first two are eagerly, even ostentatiously provided (I’d never heard of cinemas given luxury hotel ratings before; I half expected to be issued a terrycloth robe at the gleaming CGV), but there’s ambivalence about the third. China, not unlike France, regulates the number of foreign films granted a theatrical release in a given year. The magic number had been 20, but this past March the WTO demanded a loosening of that strict limit, opening the door to more Transformers and Harry Potters than ever before. Meanwhile, Western corporations such as Relativity Media and Legendary Pictures recently struck partnering deals with Chinese production companies, with plans to make films that would be considered a domestic (as well as international) product, thus skirting the quota. Last year Columbia Pictures did just that with its Karate Kid remake, which was shot in China with a largely Chinese cast and crew.

Even with caps on imports, and more Chinese-made offerings, foreign films still account for nearly 50 percent of the Chinese box office. How does the Chinese film industry protect domestic interests while still capitalizing on ticket-buyers clamoring for more Hollywood product?

Discreetly, it would seem. At nearly every theater I visited, there were an equal number of American and Chinese films on offer (and movie popcorn that was packaged in classic American cups yet reliably, and deliciously, coated with caramel). But look closer at the schedules and a pattern emerges: While The Green Lantern or Limitless would play eight times per day, Chinese domestic product like Love On Credit would screen only twice. In these instances, marquee equivalence was basically symbolic. A local film blogger alerted me to reports of a shadier tactic for protecting national pride. Earlier this year, theaters were caught printing out tickets to the propagandistic Chinese epic, Beginning of the Great Revival, when patrons had asked for Kung Fu Panda II—greatly padding the box office for a film that the Internet generation roundly mocked.

Which is not to say that there’s no market for local product: When I was in town, genre films like Mural and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (a breathless epic love story starring Jet Li) were wrapping up commendable runs, and December brings several Chinese blockbusters (though the most hotly anticipated winter release—Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War—stars Christian Bale and is reportedly half in English).

Some Hollywood titles are acquired wholesale, meaning the foreign distributor is bought out for a lump sum. There have been some successes—The Expendables earned the domestic distributor nearly seven times its $500,000 purchase price—but mostly this floods screens with mediocre star vehicles like bougie mope-fest Last Night. The film barely registered at the U.S. box office, but at least Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington look pretty on the poster. Similar logic couldn’t be applied to Double Identity, an inept, direct-to-DVD movie with a heavily Photoshopped poster of an aged Val Kilmer clutching a rifle, striding away from a big explosion and a nonplussed babe on a muscle bike. Ninety minutes and a box of caramel popcorn later, I can report that none of what’s on the poster appears in the film. Bearded and bloated Kilmer plays a physician with “Doctors Beyond Borders” who’s mistaken for an American spy in St. Petersburg, forcing him to flee both Russian thugs and a mysterious English espionage organization. Some of the plot’s incoherence may have been externally created: Thanks to the Chinese censors, who trim away extreme sex, violence, even police procedures, the film clocked in at a full eight minutes shorter than the listed running time.

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Investment and development are just as heavy in Shanghai as they are in Beijing, but you can still find traces of the city’s movie-palace past. Long neglected by the PRC as an embarrassing reminder of less autonomous times, Shanghai’s resurgence seems less a negation of its fin de siècle cosmopolitanism than an appropriation of it. Which means that certain tree-lined, bourgeois districts have been largely left intact, along with theaters that made Shanghai one of the capitals of cinema before WWII. The Xinguang Film Art Center, the country’s first sound theater, still operates, exhibiting headshots of classic Chinese movie stars in its small lobby; and the majestic art deco façade of the Cathay still towers over its French Concession intersection, though its screening room has been shoddily quartered and a hair salon is awkwardly sausaged into its lobby.

Fortunately you can still visit one of most beautiful cinemas in the world, the aptly named Grand Theatre at the north end of the People’s Park. Built in 1928, the Grand survived all manner of Maoist incarnations, and has now been restored as a living monument to cinema. Its scalloped facade takes up half a block, gleaming white marble coats the floor and dual staircases of the lobby, and its main theater seats over 1,500, with a balcony that goes on forever. When I saw The Green Lantern there, I couldn’t keep my eyes on the screen—not because of the shoddy, seemingly secondhand 3-D glasses I was issued—but because of the majesty of a space that makes the Ziegfeld in Manhattan seem twerpy by comparison.

Shopping for bootleg DVDs on Shanxi Road in Shanghai.
Shopping for bootleg DVDs on Shanxi Road in Shanghai

Photograph by Lauren Sandler.

But Shanghai is also as gaga for multiplex construction as Beijing. In the Xujiajui shopping district, the Metro City mall sits across an eight-lane intersection from the Grand Gateway mall, each with a multiplex on the top floor, each offering an identical slate of films. Confusing signage sent me through the back door of Grand Gateway’s Yonghua Cinema City, which was just as well, because not even journalistic due diligence could have gotten me to hand over 120 Chinese yuan (roughly $20) for The Green Lantern in 3-D, 150 yuan to experience the film in jostling 4-D, or 120 yuan to see Limitless in the VIP room. (According to domestic sources, the average ticket price nationwide hovers around 45 yuan.) Most new theaters feature some version of VIP, offering priority seating and peripheral perks as a reward for repeat business (while stoking an emerging pride in earning-power privilege). I tried sneaking into the VIP room, but a polite young usher intercepted me. When I asked what was so special about the room, he replied, “Very big, soft seats.” That’s all? “Also lots of Coke and popcorn.” Limitless, indeed.

Such exorbitant ticket prices can be hard to fathom considering how commonplace bootleg DVDs are around both cities. For less than $2 apiece, on Shaanxi Road in Shanghai I picked up copies of Captain America—the same week I saw it on the big screen—and the then-yet-to-be-released Real Steel. The ubiquity of bootleggers, despite a general crackdown in recent years, attests to the fact that people still watch movies this way, degraded video and audio be damned. (After my 4-D experience, it was truly disorienting to watch Captain America through a camcorder.) But the new class of cinemagoer—and class is definitely the word for it—is in it for the spectacle, the plush seats, the sleek interiors, and the VIP exclusivity.

Not that there are no true fans among the mall shoppers, or that a knowledgeable, passionate class of cinephlies won’t eventually shape the future of Chinese moviegoing. There’s already strong evidence for that, from the Chinese movie mags that put the latest David Cronenberg and Clint Eastwood joints on their glossy covers, and the lively debates at, ground zero for Chinese cinephilia, to Beijing’s beautiful new arthouse, Broadway Cinemateque MOMA, where the latest festival-feted films from a new generation of Chinese auteurs—like Lu Sheng, Lixin Fan and Teng Yung-Shing—actually get shown on Chinese screens. The state, however, is still plenty skittish about independent voices, evidenced by the fact that this fall’s Beijing Independent Film Festival was forcibly exiled to a far-flung suburb, where press and attendance could be minimized.

You wouldn’t know that Chinese tastes are so varied from what’s playing at the CGV or UME. But the same could be said of American multiplexes. And whether it’s courtesy of strict governmental oversight, cowardly low-risk capitalism, or de facto theater-chain collusion, it still amounts to a dismaying lack of choice. No wonder Hollywood feels so at home in the Chinese market. In strictly regulating what and how people watch, you’re also teaching them what to want. In that sense, maybe something positive can be gleaned from the thin crowds I encountered at Beijing and Shanghai cineplexes. Mammoth screens and luxury upholstery are all well and good, but who wants to see 1-star movies in a 5-star setting? Of all the foolish gimmickry of 4-D, which included wind machines and incessant pokes to the back to simulate bullet wounds, my favorite was when my seat vibrated for no discernible reason. Eventually China’s theater owners will have to find a better way to keep their patrons from falling asleep.