Part 1: Sino-American Relations in Film. The Rose-Tinted Allure of the Asian Film Industry

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Hollywood has long since shifted its exclusive focus of domestic audiences, towards the allure of the Asian market. While progress to infiltrate the Asian film industry since its deregulation at the turn of the century has gained momentum, significant barriers are still to be overcome, particularly in the Chinese context. Industry leaders are poised to inundate their Asian distributors with seemingly ‘safe’ blockbusters, but what we’re currently witnessing is the punishing formation of a chronic ‘hit-or-miss’ audience.

Issues begin with the Chinese film industry’s controlled infrastructure. Despite its deregulation fifteen years ago, the scope for success in the industry from the outset is a marked shortcoming if market saturation is to be achieved. Unsurprisingly, domestic works are given precedence over Hollywood blockbusters or imported international films, regardless of viewer demand. The solitary state-owned studio, China Film Group (CFG) exclusively oversees the distribution operation. However CFG itself is not impervious to the state’s limitations, with heavily controlled censorship imposed on productions and subjection to a quota system.

A further impediment to Western influence is the Chinese film markets’ frequent ‘blackout’ periods. These time spans, in which international films are prohibited from distributors lists, generally appear at peak times on the industry calendar, oftentimes lasting a duration of months. But if timing is executed correctly, the blackout period can be beneficial to Hollywood’s studio heads. In late August this year, Terminator: Genisys prospered at the Chinese Box Office as the lone representative for Hollywood. After a summer of exclusively domestic productions, the masses rejoiced and rewarded the franchise with a total of $112.8 million in box office takings; marginally, but crucially eclipsing the North American reception of $89.6 million. Bouquets should be thrown with caution however, as Joe Wrights’ Pan was thrust into the Neverland oblivion, when it flopped at the Chinese box office. After its first four days, the cherished Peter Pan story, headed by Hugh Jackman failed to inspire the masses, accumulating just $3.4 million. Pan was pitted against similar international films on its Chinese release, begging the question as to whether story is simply inferior to the paramount importance of timed execution. It seems as though nothing is safe; not even Hugh Jackman.

Odds appear to be slowly shifting in Hollywood’s favour. In November, Bona Film group became the first private company to attain a distribution license in China, a welcoming feat for international movies and the studios. Partnered with Twentieth Century Fox, Bona film will invest over $235 million in distributing the studio hits deemed fitting for the Chinese audience. As the second most lucrative box office in global terms, Bona Film’s deal is a boost to Hollywood’s ambition to ‘crack’ the mythical Asian market. The rise of the IMAX experience has greatly aided in delivering CGI-fuelled blockbusters to the Asian audience. IMAX entered the Asian market over fifteen years ago, juxtaposing it’s unique value proposition in line with the Asian film experience. What has resulted is the IMAX experience as an integral component of the exhibition process. The Asian market now looks upon this delivery of high quality visuals as intrinsic in the movie-going process.

As the Free World seeks to push its Western society into Asian markets, it is not without difficulty and strenuous effort. Tough censorship guidelines, coupled with uncompetitive, staggered releases and blackout periods, prevail as the leading uncertainties of the Chinese market. The prevalence of the IMAX experience in the Asia however, lends itself to the assumption that blockbuster’s such as the Terminator are immune from failure. But even a bankable star like Matt Damon monumentally faltered in his first Sino-American venture, The Great Wall. As Jimmy Kimmel cruelly put it ‘[The Great Wall] went on to lose $80 million dollars.’

For the time being as Hollywood succumbs to demand, it continues to churn out CGI hits, with the format optimally displayed on IMAX screens. Hollywood has wedged itself in and has discovered a niche market, albeit a niche of mass proportions. Chinese audiences are looking to ramp up their cinema attendance, with expected box office takings growing by nearly four billion dollars in the next four years. If Hollywood aims to prise a chunk of this $8.9 billion market, safe bets may no longer be a viable option.
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