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China has one of the world’s most straightforward industrial policies: Identify successful foreign industries, determine what makes them successful, and clone them. This strategy has worked well in telecommunications, where China’s Huawei makes products so similar to Cisco’s that Cisco has sued for patent and copyright infringement. Similarly, China Unicom just launched the RedBerry, which, as you might guess, is a cheaper version of the BlackBerry. Next on the list: copying Hollywood.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, China won over the film world by developing quality art-house movies that brought home international festival prizes. But the American commercial film industry offers more than a Palme d’Or: It’s lucrative both domestically and overseas, and it serves to spread American ideals and culture. That’s why both the Chinese film industry and Chinese politicians want their own version of Hollywood, to create blockbusters of Titanic proportions. It’s a strategy that’s half-succeeding; the Chinese industry is managing to make a few films that sell in the United States. But the other side of Hollywood—domestic box-office success—is proving elusive. As a result, the Chinese industry is increasingly making films designed to fit American tastes, like the Wal-Mart factories in China that make baseball mitts for American Little-Leaguers.
So far, China’s main strategy has been to repurpose its existing assets with filmmaker Zhang Yimou at the forefront of the movement. Zhang is known to film snobs as a director of movies like the critically acclaimed Raise the Red Lantern—productions about the bitterness of life consisting mainly of actress Gong Li looking forlorn and tormented. But that’s the old Zhang. Over the last few years he’s metamorphosed into a big-time martial-arts director, responsible for two successes (or sellouts, depending on your point of view): the epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which have made the bulk of their money in the United States.
The retooling strategy, however, doesn’t always work. Take the 2005 film The Promise, whichput Chen Kaige, director of Cannes-winning Farewell My Concubine,at the helm of a martial-arts romance. In addition to an A-list Chinese director, the movie boasted the largest budget in Chinese film history and starred Hong Kong actors Cecilia Cheng and Nicolas Tse. What could go wrong? Everything. The Promise features a hero who struggles to act through his giant golden helmet, costumes more Flash Gordon than Tang dynasty, and some of the worst CGI since Jar-Jar Binks. The Weinstein brothers planned to distribute the film in the United States but pulled out after getting a whiff of it.
China’s not alone in producing such duds; Hollywood has its share of Jersey Girls, too. But the Chinese movie industry is further hampered by the fact that it’s very difficult for a big film to make money without international distribution. While successful American films make money in the domestic market, and supplement that with ticket sales overseas, the big Chinese films need foreign distribution to break even. Ironically, government policies designed to protect the film industry brought about this state of affairs.
Last week I was in the Beijing cafe Zha Zha, and I asked the barista how often she goes to the movies. “I’ve never been to a movie theater,” she replied—encapsulating the problem. In China, there is less than one movie theater for every 1 million people: That’s something like 2,000 people for every seat.
Why so few theaters? There would be more movie theaters if they made more money, but theaters can only make money if they have something good to show. For trade and ideological reasons, China maintains a quota of about 20 foreign films a year; it even blocks films made with Chinese actors, like Memoirs of a Geisha.
Censorship policy adds another level of unpredictability. TheDa Vinci Code made its world debut in China (four hours before Cannes). The movie seemed poised to become a giant domestic hit, but on June 9, theaters were abruptly ordered to stop screening the film. No one knows exactly why.
Finally, the bootleg DVD industry doesn’t help. As most people know, bootleg DVDs are everywhere in China; my local grocery store in Beijing carries everything from Birth of a Nation to The Bicycle Thief, all for about $1 apiece. Film enthusiasts benefit, but the DVDs compete with films that are still in theaters and gut legitimate DVD sales—a key source of revenue in the United States. While Hollywood complains about losing money to bootleg DVDs, the Chinese bootlegs hurt the local industry, too. The greatest consequence may be cultural: The omnipresence of bootleg DVDs has created a generation of Chinese consumers accustomed to watching cheap DVDs on inexpensive large-screen TVs instead of buying popcorn and movie tickets.
What does this all mean for Chinese film? It means America is the best place for a Chinese film to make money, after all. We’ll likely see less funding for films that Chinese people enjoy—like those of director Feng Xiaogang, filled with quirky Chinese humor—and more movies designed for American tastes (kung-fu aplenty). For better or for worse, it’s less beating Hollywood than serving it. Consider it the Kung Pao Chickenization of Chinese film.