ByBen Sibley, writer at
Avid film fan and film-maker. Love cinematography and great storytelling.
Ben Sibley

----An analysis of Chinas growing film industry and its impact on Hollywood----

Cinema in the United States is a constantly evolving business. From the silent films of the 1900’s to contemporary blockbuster films, the industry has had to adapt to technological advances and public demand in order to survive and thrive. Once again, the film industry is preparing for yet another change. However, unlike many transitions of the past, this upcoming deviation is not a departure from one genre to another, nor an adaptation to a technological change, but rather a shift in its audience. China, the planet’s most populous country, will soon surpass the United States as the world’s largest consumer of film. As any economist knows, shift in demand is often followed by a shift in supply, and this shift will have significant and longstanding ramifications towards the business and art form of Hollywood.

With a rapidly growing population of 1.35 billion people, many industries in China are experiencing growth, and the film industry is no exception. Last year, China saw an increase in ticket sales by over 210 million admissions and fifteen new cinema screens are built every day. With an estimated 25,000 screens to be built over the next five years, Chinese cinema is expected to grow by 17% annually. Last year alone box office numbers improved 33% bringing the year’s total above 5 billion dollars. According to a recent report by Ernst and Young, China’s film market is set to surpass the U.S. by 2020.

This rapid growth can be attributed to a confluence of circumstances allowing for such accelerated development. China has experienced “rapid economic ascendance” over the last decade and has become a much more “individualistic and consumer oriented” economy. In addition, the government has added “culture” to its list of priorities, giving the creative industries economic incentives to invest more heavily in entertainment. Lastly, cinema development has been expanded from the cities into more rural markets, further broadening the already vast audience of willing and able Chinese moviegoers.

Filmmaking is no doubt a creative industry, however it is also a business that revolves around money. Film companies are struggling to make significant profits in the United States and it would be fiscally irresponsible of Hollywood to ignore China as a possible solution to this problem. Over the past few years Hollywood companies have been preparing for a new age of cinema and “Hollywood has already become reliant on Chinese cinemagoers to save its failing big budget productions.” Studios are now partnering with Chinese companies and creating movies with Chinese audiences intentionally in mind. Blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction were partially funded by Chinese companies, and films such as Terminator: Genysis and Pacific Rim, while wildly unsuccessful domestically, dominated the box-office internationally due to the influence of the Chinese Yuan.

This points towards a trend gaining momentum: Chinese taste prioritized over that of the United States. This means a myriad of changes to every aspect of American films. Firstly, more and more American films have plots that center in China. This shift in plot allows a studio to feel as if the film they are creating is more relatable to the Chinese audience. For example, Rian Johnson transplanted the plot of his film Looper from Paris to Shanghai in order to gain additional appeal and funding from China. Casting decisions will also continue to see changes as more and more Chinese actors are cast in films. Chinese stars such as Fan Bingbing have been “parachuted into roles in Hollywood” because of the mass appeal that they garner in China. Studios are also shying away from films that would only find success in American markets. Ben Gerber, journalist for The Guardian, believes executives won’t “…make a 21st century equivalent to Beverly Hills Cop, or indeed Ghostbusters, when such movies are unlikely to translate to Chinese audiences.” The current seems to now be flowing towards 150 million dollar blockbusters produced and conceived with Chinese audiences in mind, or far less expensive non-action films intended exclusively for western audiences. It is unlikely that anything in between will get the green light from Hollywood executives.

It is becoming clear that when the taste of Chinese audiences has come in conflict with that of Americans, China wins the battle. However, this new trend has some dangers attached. The Chinese government exercises heavy control over the media and only allows 34 foreign films to be screened per year that can in no way offend the “notoriously prudish censors.” Taboos range from criticisms of the Chinese regime and period pieces on the Chinese historical era, to the ridiculous such as “ghosts are not allowed in contemporary settings.” These types of rules cripple creativity and Xie Fei, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy believes they kill “artistic exploration” both in China and the United States. These censorship laws are very dangerous and letting China drive American media is a risky proposition.

As films are created with the tastes of Chinese audiences as a priority, they will no doubt be conceived, produced, written and directed in a much more varied way. Yet the industry must be careful and understand the significant power and influence American films hold holds. American films serve as more than merely entertainment. They communicate ideas and have an enormous social impact that is felt worldwide. Through movies people learn about social norms, the perspective of others, and historical events. If by shifting its focus to a Chinese audience the American film industry subjects itself to Chinese censorship, then Hollywood may jeopardize its artistic integrity. On the other hand, if Hollywood ignores the Chinese market it does so at it’s own financial peril. The American film industry must be cognizant of these factors as it carefully walks the line between increasing profits and maintaining artistic independence.


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