The Future Of Film: Every Movie Will Be Set In China

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It's almost become old hat to bang on about the rise of China and its box office – but just because it's familiar doesn't mean it's not true. Twenty years ago, Hollywood barely made a dent in China, with very few foreign films allowed into cinemas. Pirated videos did mean there was some access, but for the studios it wasn't a market they could really exploit. Flashforward a few years and it's a different story. In 1997, Titanic set the Chinese box office alight, and Hollywood sat up and paid attention. Now, more and more studios are building physical bases in Shanghai and elsewhere, while many a blockbuster's plot has been retooled to include a handy sojourn to Chinese shores.

Officially, the China Film Group is in charge and its gradual willingness to embrace the entertainment imports of the erstwhile imperialists has made the Chinese box office a powerhouse. In 2012, the official quota of 20 permitted foreign films was increased to 34; one big step in opening up the market, even with the stipulation that those extra 14 films have to be in 3D or IMAX. Moreover, The Hollywood Reporter notes that another increase in the quota – this time to 44 – could be in the runes.

EVEN A PRODUCER WITH THE DULLEST OF SPIDEY-SENSES CAN TELL WHICH WAY THE WIND'S BLOWING; THE NUMBERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES.So far this year, ten foreign blockbusters have topped the box office in China, compared with a mere eight local films. As if that weren't significant enough, there is still a great deal of regulation controlling the number of foreign films being approved and screened within the country, so untapped potential exists for Hollywood studios as and when those strictures are loosened. Crucially, cinemas across the vast country are being erected at a rapid clip (between ten to 13 new cinemas every day, according to the Financial Times). As producer Lynda Obst observes in her recent book, Sleepless In Hollywood, China is now the second-largest movie market in the world and is predicted to surpass the United States by the year 2020. "It had 11,000 theaters in 2012, and is expected to have 16,000 by 2015… Most of these new theaters are 3D and IMAX theaters, built to play our blockbusters."

Even a producer with the dullest of Spidey-senses can tell which way the wind's blowing; the numbers speak for themselves. That's not to say that Hollywood hasn't stumbled a few times in recent years. The most famous example of idiotic Sino-ignorance is the 2012 Red Dawn remake where, having shot the whole damn film with Chinese soldiers invading a sleepy American town, some bright spark twigged that this might make things tricky when trying to sell their product to China. Cue a lot of frantic CG trickery, editing and redubbing to transform the villains into North Koreans (one closed market that Hollywood isn't losing sleep over).

Michael Bay on the set of Transformers: Age Of Extinction
Michael Bay shooting a scene for Transformers: Age Of Extinction in Hong Kong.

Forward planning, in other words, is the name of the game. In fact, there's a healthy spate of blockbusters in the last decade that have handily contrived a reason for our heroes to jolly over to China. Skyfall, The Dark Knight and Mission: Impossible III are just three that have found excuse to go there, with box-office-topping results. It's now little surprise to see huge behemoths like Transformers: Age Of Extinction try to woo the market with use of Chinese actors and a Hong Kong setting. In the case of Bay's interminable four-quel, it paid off, with Transformers 4 the highest grossing film ever at the Chinese box office. Age Of Extinction is the weakest performer in the Transformers series to date at the US box office, with a domestic total that's $100m less than its predecessor ($244.7m at the time of writing, compared to Dark Of The Moon's $352m US take). But in China Extinction has made over $306m. It's thanks to that contribution that Bay's film became the only billion-dollar grosser so far this year, more than $250m ahead of its nearest worldwide rival (Maleficent) and by far the highest-grossing film of 2014 to date (Guardians Of The Galaxy, the highest-grossing film so far in the US this year, is yet to open there).

But it's not just about the setting. In 2006, M:I-III forged a relatively new and ingenious path: it was made as an American-Chinese co-production. Though Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner's marque, Cruise/Wagner Productions, was driving force behind it, it was joined behind the scenes by China Film Group Corporation and its subsidiary, China Film Co-Production Corporation.

Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man 3
Iron Man 3: A Chinese cut of the film showed Tony Stark going to China for no real reason.

THERE'S A HEALTHY SPATE OF BLOCKBUSTERS IN THE LAST DECADE THAT HAVE HANDILY CONTRIVED A REASON FOR OUR HEROES TO JOLLY OVER TO CHINA.Since then, the co-production approach has caught on big time. The biggest and most high profile effort was Iron Man 3: the cinematic equivalent of Richard Nixon in a big coat standing awkwardly on the Great Wall of China, with added explosions and smart Shane Black quips. Unfortunately, the end result was a somewhat uncomfortable Chinese cut of the film, which showed Tony Stark going to China for no real reason. Rian Johnson's Looper managed the whole arrangement far more smoothly, with a Shanghai setting knitted neatly into the plot. (It helped, of course, that it was set in the future, where China's dominance makes more narrative sense.) Many other blockbusters are trying to achieve similar success, and a lot of these co-production deals are struck through Dynamic Marketing Group (DMG), a Beijing company Forbes lifted the lid on a few years ago..

Making these films as co-productions not only simplifies the production process, it also has the crucial benefit of increasing the studio's profits. Imported films currently return 25 per cent of the box office takings to the studio, but if it's a co-production, it counts as a domestic movie, allowing the studio to pocket 38 per cent of ticket sales instead. This is by no means a sure path to box-office success, however: notorious flop Transcendence was a DMG co-production, but still only just recouped its $100 million budget. Still, don't expect one Johnny Depp-shaped failure to stem the tide just yet.

The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan shooting a scene in Shanghai for The Dark Knight.

The question remains: is all this good for cinema? It's certainly good for Hollywood. But the 34 film quota (and the requirement that 12 of those be 3D or IMAX) artificially favours big blockbusters at the Chinese box office. More worrying still is the official censorship that films must undergo. Supposedly Mission: Impossible III had to be recut to remove some dirty Shanghai laundry, while Men In Black III had its Chinese villains entirely removed. Obst sees such interference as cause for concern, particularly as Hollywood becomes increasingly reliant on a Chinese market. "The government of China doesn't want the West intermediating ideas," she explains. "The Web is hard enough for them to control, and now they have their own indie filmmakers. Their audience doesn't want subtitles, or our interpretation of Tiananmen Square. This is not our job." As DMG's Dan Mintz concedes: "We are still in transition from propaganda to entertainment."

But this question of artistic integrity remains a distant second to the commercial reality, which is that Hollywood isn't too concerned about propaganda; not when Chinese box office takings jumped from $600 million in 2008 to $3.57 billion in 2013. With such staggering rewards on offer, studios are eager to push their biggest and shiniest products into those 34 annual slots, even if this means jumping through whatever hoops China demands of it. And crowbarring in a Chinese hero or setting doesn't have to be clunky. Pacific Rim managed to do so in a way that made perfect sense, given its global cast and setting, while a little longer ago Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity universe embraced Chinese culture for purely narrative reasons. As such, this isn't necessarily bad news, but it nonetheless remains undeniable: Hollywood's moving to China and you're coming too.