When martial arts blockbuster Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) earned an astronomical US$854 million in China last year – making it the second-highest grossing film in a single market ever, behind Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) – two things happened. First, the economic might of the Chinese film audience was thrown in the spotlight again. Second, commentators couldn’t stop noticing the film’s unabashed patriotism.
One writer combed the film for evidence of China’s geopolitical strategy; The Australian newspaper even called it “Communist propaganda”. Hollywood movies were once regularly accused of “cultural imperialism”, but the rah-rah flag-waving of a Michael Bay film is now so familiar as to be invisible. Yet when China does the same, everybody takes notice.
The response to the film was symptomatic of China’s growing status as a global superpower and the cultural influence its cinema is set to wield. The moneymaking potential of China’s film economy is difficult to resist, but for Western film industries, entanglement with China means adjusting their product in ways that go beyond the proscriptions of the local censors.
China’s increasing effect on Hollywood is already becoming evident: superstar cameos in big franchises such as Transformers and X-Men, for instance, or the four minutes added to the Chinese edit of Iron Man 3 (2013). The biggest move, though, is co-productions: projects for which international producers officially partner with China’s state film authorities.
So far, these productions have yielded mixed results. Last year, The Great Wall (2016), a US-China co-production, met with indifference in China and bafflement in the United States, where the placement of Matt Damon in the middle of a Chinese medieval fantasy copped accusations of “whitewashing”. As a model of the future of blockbuster co-production cinema it didn’t seem promising.
The Australian industry has been taking a punt on China, too. Last year, the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts inaugurated an annual Best Asian Film award to reflect Australia’s tightening bonds with Asian film industries and the growing impact of the Chinese diaspora on local box office trends (Wolf Warrior 2 was among three Chinese movies nominated, but lost to India’s Dangal ). And November saw the 10-year anniversary of the Australian-Chinese co-production treaty. Eight films have been sanctioned under the treaty, and four have been released.
The latest to reach local screens is Guardians of the Tomb (2018), a science-fiction feature in which an international cast – including Kelsey Grammer of Frasier fame – is menaced by a nest of carnivorous funnel-web spiders in the tomb of an ancient Chinese king. It comes from Arclight, an international film sales and financing company that scored a hit in China in 2012 when its Australian-made shark flick Bait 3D earned a surprise US$28 million (it made US$800,000 in Australia).
Since then, Arclight has staked out a position at the intersection of Australia, China and Hollywood, launching a co-production development initiative, Chinalight, with help from Screen Australia. Arclight’s Australian CEO, Gary Hamilton, sees Australia as a gateway to Hollywood for China.
“We don’t describe our movies like Guardians of the Tomb as Australian movies, even though they really are,” he says. “We sell the Chinese on the fact that these are Hollywood movies. But secretly they’re Australian.”
But “secretly Australian” films are a compromised proposition for local stakeholders, who must be satisfied with a film made by the local industry but not really for local viewers, and with little in the way of a local story. Guardians of the Tomb, for instance, received development and production support from Screen Australia, but was conceived largely for the Chinese market. Though it opened on 2,500 screens in China, it debuted on only 12 in Australia. So why channel public funds towards a film that lives or dies overseas?
“[Guardians of the Tomb] was entirely shot in Australia,” Hamilton says, “except for three days in China. It’s Australian writers, an Australian director, lots of Australian actors. I think that is the trade-off. If you’re making Australian films using Australian taxpayer money just for the Australian market, then it becomes a subsidy, because they’ll never make their money back. Most Australian films cannot be sustainable without exporting; and other than a [film like] Lion , most Australian films, if they’re local stories, are not going to travel.”
There’s little in the way of a local story in Guardians of the Tomb. Prominence is given to Chinese lead Li Bingbing and Americans Grammer and Kellan Lutz, with Australian Shane Jacobson in support. The most identifiably Antipodean reference comes in an animated prologue that sees a fleet of ancient Chinese seafarers trading with Indigenous Australians. In one simple gesture, the movie explains away its central conceit – the unlikely presence of funnel-web spiders in the middle of a Chinese desert, while also pointing to a history of cultural exchange in which the film itself takes part.
As a co-production, Guardians of the Tomb is not restricted by China’s import quotas (limited to about 34 foreign films each year) and its foreign backers are entitled to a higher percentage of the Chinese box-office takings than they would receive otherwise (42 per cent instead of 25 per cent). The film debuted in China on 2,500 cinema screens, which is more screens than Australia has in the whole country. The economic advantage is clear, especially when it puts Australian jobs on the table.
The 2017 Jackie Chan movie Bleeding Steel, while not an official co-production, also received Australian support. The Sydney-shot film – the biggest-budget Chinese movie ever filmed in Australia – was attracted to the state by the government’s Made in NSW fund, which touted the 200 production jobs the film would provide.
And yet, like The Great Wall, both Bleeding Steel and Guardians of the Tomb found a muted reception at the Chinese box office, with the Chan vehicle earning US$46 million in December and Guardians of the Tomb collecting US$8 million since it opened in China in mid-January.
While the Australian audience for films such as these seems to be a distant consideration for its backers, a small market does exist in Australia for Chinese cinema. Guardians of the Tomb’s Australian release arrives through Asia Releasing, a distribution company that services Chinese communities across the West. The CEO, Milt Barlow, describes an appetite for Chinese films among the Chinese diaspora that has emerged in the past decade, in step with China’s burgeoning industry.
Wolf Warrior 2, for instance, earned US$1.4 million in its 2017 Australian release. That might sound relatively small, but it’s not much less than more mainstream Australian fare (in comparison, Australian romantic comedy Ali’s Wedding  earned about US$1 million in theatrical release).
Total box office earnings for Chinese films in Australia last year were about US$5 million. The growing Australian market for Chinese films reflects the growing Chinese-born population – now 2.2 per cent of the total, up from 1.2 per cent in 2006.
Even for films such as Guardians of the Tomb or Bleeding Steel, with their marginally Australian dressing – a Jacobson here, a throwdown on top of the Sydney Opera House there – distributors target the Chinese diaspora.
“There really isn’t any interest from a Western audience,” Barlow says.
Chinese students are the key demographic, with the audience clustered mostly in Sydney and Melbourne.
Barlow says Guardians of the Tomb’s small release in Australia reflects its small takings in China.
“There’s a long way to go on those co-productions,” he says. “Sometimes they can get stuck in an area where they’re not sure if they’re a Chinese film or a Western film.”
Hamilton and Arclight are still looking for the sweet spot in which a project can cater to China but also possess foolproof international appeal. They are trying to hit it with their next intended Australia-China co-production, Killer 10, a war movie to be directed by Australia’s Phillip Noyce. Despite the martial story, there will be none of the contemporary geopolitical resonances of Wolf Warrior 2; Hamilton plans it to be “the first international film to show the Chinese and the Americans fighting arm in arm during World War 2”, and envisions a diverse, 10-strong cast of Chinese, American and Australian movie stars.
He professes optimism about the future of co-productions.
“All we see are films that haven’t quite worked,” Hamilton says. “The Chinese and the Americans are followers. The minute one [co-production] breaks out as a huge box-office success both in China and the US, everybody is going to follow suit. We’re just seeing the beginning of it.” The Guardian