From Marvel to Fan Bingbing, who benefits from Hollywood’s courting of China?

Hollywood is increasingly seeking to attract Chinese film-goers as the industry realigns – and major players on both sides of the Pacific want in on the action

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 January, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 January, 2017, 8:00pm

With China on course to become the world’s biggest box-office market within two or three years, Hollywood studios have been tripping over each other for a ticket to ride what Stephen Colbert recently dubbed “the pander express”.

It’s hard not to be cynical when efforts to engage Chinese audiences usually seem to involve such screenwriting masterstrokes as getting your giant robots to lay waste to Shanghai instead of San Francisco, or some lantern-jawed action hero displaying an unlikely taste for hanzi-labelled soy milk. The world of cinema is supposedly bracing itself for complete realignment, but you could be forgiven for thinking the only people benefitting at the moment are washed-up American directors on the funding trail and Chinese stars looking to raise their global profile.

But it’s time to look closer – billions of dollars and soft-power pre-eminence are on the table. Here are 10 parties with big stakes in Hollywood’s drive eastwards.

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1. Wang Jianlin

Hollywood’s involvement in China is not a one-way street. Looking for finance doesn’t just mean via the box office – especially with China’s top media players keen to invest directly in the American industry. At the front of the queue is Wang Jianlin, Asia’s richest man and chairman of the Dalian Wanda conglomerate, who now owns AMC (the second largest cinema chain in the US), Legendary Entertainment (producers of The Dark Knight and Jurassic World) and Dick Clark Productions (responsible for the Golden Globes).

Some believe his conflicting interests in film production and exhibition might put him in breach of the 1948 antitrust ruling that broke up the studios’ monopoly.

With Wang only one of a number of wealthy Asian investors bankrolling Hollywood, 16 US congressmen recently called for an inquiry into growing Chinese influence. But with the US industry looking to learn Chinese, how can they not expect the opposite to also be true?

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2. Struggling franchises

Warcraft – which took just US$47 million in the US but US$221 million in China – is the latest, greatest example of a flop saved by the eastern hemisphere. Pacific Rim (US: US$101 million, China: US$111 million) and Terminator Genisys (US: US$89 million, China: US$113 million) also shored up disappointing American showings this way (possibly because sci-fi is still a novelty for Chinese audiences).

But this dubious insurance policy is likely to expire soon. Hollywood’s dirty secret in the noughties, after DVD sales declined, was dumping substandard product on overseas territories and aggregating the numbers to break even. With Chinese filmgoers increasingly expecting quality, they’re likely to be one of the first markets to rebel.

3. Zhang Yimou

With other Chinese directorial names such as Feng Xiaogang and Hongkonger Stephen Chow Sing-chi struggling to have an impact outside China, Zhang is the one best placed to benefit from the Hollywood presence the most. Originally part of the iconoclastic “Fifth Generation”, he is now firmly an establishment figure and already has international clout thanks to Hero and House of Flying Daggers. His 2011 film Flowers of War, an account of the Nanking massacre starring Christian Bale, was one of the first big-scale US-Chinese co-productions – but was a dud in the West.

His US$160 million The Great Wall , released recently in China and due in the UK and US in the spring, will be looking to finally perform the great crossover trick so fervently sought by Hollywood: a blockbuster with integral Chinese elements that doesn’t alienate the rest of the world. Hence the contentious (in the West) casting of Matt Damon in the lead, opposite a raft of Asian stars (Hong Kong favourite Andy Lau Tak-wah; Chinese stars Eddie Peng Yu-yan and Lu Han; the up-and-coming star Jing Tian – who is also lining up for Kong: Skull Island and the Pacific Rim sequel).

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4. Marvel

The Middle Kingdom has been an integral part of Marvel’s dazzling success over the last decades – hence why Doctor Strange chose not to utter the word “Tibet”. Before The Avengers in 2012, the company’s Chinese grosses were negligible, with little or no culture of superhero films there. Since then, every Marvel release apart from the second Thor film has made at least 10 per cent of its final box office in China.

With its cross-fertilising cinematic universe able to spark interest in even marginal first-time properties such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, the company has conducted a masterclass in creating and nurturing brand recognition in an ostensibly arid cultural climate; far more so than fellow Disney stablemate Pixar, which has struggled there. So China will continue to be an integral part of its strategy.

5. China Film Group

China might be the new box-office Klondike, but that doesn’t mean Hollywood is walking away with all the nuggets. Only 34 foreign films are allowed into the country each year under the quota system – and the studios receive only 25 per cent of the profits under a revenue-sharing scheme (around half of their takeaway elsewhere). China Film Group, the state film behemoth, is the only sanctioned film importer and takes about 22 per cent of the proceeds for the pleasure.

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So what’s good for Hollywood is also good for local coffers. Especially in 2016: the mostly poor performance of local films has seen box-office projections flag well behind the US$7.5-9 billion range projected at the start of the year. Meaning China Film Group sneakily extended last year’s quota to 38; a permanent expansion is expected in 2017.

6. Donald Tang

When two culturally far-flung entities like Hollywood and China sound each other out, it’s the hour of the intermediary. Beijing-based media agency DMG made a name early as “gatekeeper” to culturally tone-deaf LA newbies, and had a hand in Iron Man 3, Looper, Transcendence and the Point Break remake. But investment banker Donald Tang is shaping up as perhaps the most significant broker between worlds.

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The Shanghai-born former head of Bear Stearns Asia is now based in California; he helped shape Dalian Wanda’s AMC coup, secure Chinese financing for hyped start-up STX and has connections to most of the big Chinese moguls. Now, with his company recently acquiring the mini-studio IM Global (responsible for Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Silence), he’s getting his hands dirty – proof, in this cross-border world, of how a banker’s chequebook in Beijing can start the cameras rolling elsewhere.

7. Scarlett Johansson

Chinoiserie was a style of decoration, popular in the West in the 18th century, in which ceramics, interior design and gardens were given an oriental veneer. It’s still working for the 21st-century blockbuster industry as a quick means of appealing to both East and West: Pacific Rim appropriated Japanese kaiju destruction (that’s when monsters wreak havoc), and Big Hero 6 took place in the fusion city of San Fransokyo. Both were big hits in China.

After scoring decently there with 2014’s Lucy, set in Taipei, Scarlett Johansson is fully embracing multiplex chinoiserie by putting a Caucasian face on an iconic Japanese character: cyborg The Major in the live-action version of Ghost in the Shell . The complaints of whitewashing will only be worth it if the film gets a Chinese release, and a chance at cementing Johansson’s stardom on that epic playing field.

8. Fan Bingbing

China’s biggest female box-office draw is the “flower vase” (as locals dub stars opportunistically cameoing in Hollywood films) currently most likely to break through. When Tony Stark turned to Chinese medicine to get his chest shrapnel removed in Iron Man 3, she was the beauty in the operating theatre; she also had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in X-Men: Days of Future Past (literally – she played the mutant Blink).

Her English still isn’t fluent enough to fully leap the language barrier that has hindered most Asian actors, but she has more momentum than the old generation of bilingual Hong Kong stars and Chinese peers such as Zhang Ziyi, who may have already spent their Hollywood currency. Getting sandwiched between Jackie Chan and Johnny Knoxville in last summer’s Skiptrace, one of the few big local hits of the year, will only have enhanced her crossover credentials.

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9. Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis

Another way China is trying to out-Hollywood Hollywood is by establishing Qingdao as a production base to entice the “runaway productions” that have spurned Los Angeles over the past 30 years. Recently trumpeting a massive 40 per cent tax rebate for foreign productions, this Wanda-owned complex will be the world’s biggest studios when it opens in 2018.

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The Great Wall filmed scenes on the existing facilities, and Legendary’s forthcoming Godzilla and Pacific Rim sequels will line up there too. But it will need to pack in more than in-house productions to give Qingdao that international lustre to match LA, Mumbai or even the fading glories of Hong Kong – which means pulling in Hollywood blockbusters.

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10. Cao Cao

As Hollywood tries to pack China with its wares, one man has made the most of a highly specialised niche that remains outside its sphere of influence. Jonathan Kos-Read, 43, is the go-to guy for the token foreigner role in domestic Chinese films. With more than 100 appearances since the late ’90s, Cao Cao – as locals know him – is the most recognisable white actor working in the country.

He’s totally unknown in the West but handsomely capitalises on a parallel cinematic dimension that exists beyond Hollywood. You won’t know him for such iconic parts as a corrupt British policeman in Ip Man 3 and a zombie lawyer in last year’s No 3 Chinese film Mojin: The Lost Legend.