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Schwarzenegger's action speaks louder in China

The governor, on a trip to promote state trade, is also a poster boy against DVD piracy.

November 16, 2005|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Some people will travel halfway around the globe to be mobbed by fans, and early this week, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did just that. When he arrived in Beijing on Monday, he was instantly engulfed by crowds of adoring Chinese. Security became an issue, and so did irony.

Schwarzenegger is in China to promote California products and, as important, to encourage a crackdown on entertainment piracy. His popularity makes him the perfect spokesman, but there is no denying that this popularity is due, at least in part, to piracy -- according to industry estimates, at least 90% of DVDs sold in China are pirated.

This doesn't mean the Terminator has never been seen in the country legally. With their consistent lack of overt political, sexual or religious content, Schwarzenegger films are almost tailor-made to pass China's State Administration of Radio, Film and TV's stringent guidelines. The governor's cinematic Weltanschauung also fits right into the Chinese predilection for action films, with the added benefit of having minimal dialogue to translate. A grimace is a grimace in any language.

"Action movies are the ones that really perform in Asia," said David Kosse, president of international marketing and distribution for Universal Pictures. "And although he hasn't made a movie in a while, when Arnold was in films, he worked them very hard. He did a lot of traveling and a lot of publicity. So he is still considered a big star over there."

According to Kori Bernards, a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, Schwarzenegger has made more appearances in Chinese movie theaters than any other actor in the last 10 years. Six of his films, including "True Lies," "Eraser," "Terminator 2" and most recently "Terminator 3," have been distributed theatrically. "True Lies" made 102 million Chinese yuan (or $12.6 million, huge by Chinese standards), while others have been licensed to China Central Television.

This gives him a large presence in China's limited foreign film landscape; the only person who comes close is Keanu Reeves, who starred in five theatrically distributed films, including the "Matrix" trilogy, during the same period.

"The governor is a welcome ally in our fight against piracy in China," said Bernards.

China's vast, largely untapped film and television market has been eyed hungrily for years by Western studios. Although it has allowed Western films to be distributed theatrically since the days of "Snow White," the Chinese government imposes strict limitations on how many and what sort of films can be shown.

In 1994, "The Fugitive," starring Harrison Ford, was the first Hollywood blockbuster released in China on a revenue-sharing basis. For years, only 10 foreign films were shown in Chinese theaters each year. When the country joined the World Trade Organization in 2002, the number doubled. That year, Zhang Yimou's "Hero" was No. 1 at the box office there, followed by "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets."

On television, no foreign content is supposed to be broadcast during prime time on any of the country's almost 2,000 stations, and only 25% of what airs throughout the rest of the day can be non-Chinese.

But no matter what the medium -- theater, television or pirated DVD -- the action movie remains the most popular. From more home-grown varieties, such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li, to Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Reeves, action heroes rule the Asian market.

"You don't need to understand American culture; the narratives are drawn in crayon," said Marty Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication. "And in a strange sort of time warp, Schwarzenegger and Stallone are still kings."

The governor's enthusiastic reception highlights what U.S. studio executives have known for years: There is a fortune waiting to be made in the People's Republic. Although the Chinese media and entertainment market has grown rapidly in the last five years, movie attendance in China has suffered a drop-off that makes this year's U.S. slump pale in comparison -- from 29.3 billion in 1977 to 200 million in 2004. The top-grossing film last year, Zhang's "House of Flying Daggers," made the equivalent of $18 million, not a blockbuster by U.S. standards (it also grossed $11.1 million in the U.S. and $92.5 million worldwide).

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