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Hollywood powerhouses meet a sleeping giant

Perspective: China's massive movie market is influencing U.S. studios. But mainland filmmakers also need American expertise and talent.

November 09, 2013|By Ying Zhu
  • Jaden Smith in "The Karate Kid."
Jaden Smith in "The Karate Kid." (Jasin Boland / Columbia…)

In April, when DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg rebutted accusations of political motivations behind the company's decision to co-produce with the China Film Group an animated feature, "Tibet Code," he was telling the truth. But in September, when Sid Ganis, the former motion picture academy president who is involved in making "Transformers 4" in China, denied any self-censorship by pandering studios ("No filmmaker I know would do it that way"), he was stretching a bit.

In its bumpy ride with China, Hollywood has been on a hot seat, enduring both interference from the Chinese censor and media backlash at home. Indeed, the rumblings have been that Tinseltown is kowtowing to China. Evidence of such compromises includes changing a film setting from the old glory of Paris to the new glory of Shanghai ("Looper"), depicting a Chinese scientist as a hero who comes to the rescue of Western civilization ("Red Dawn") and portraying Beijing, and thus China, as the land of promise ("The Karate Kid"). This new perspective is interesting because China in early Hollywood films was known for vices of all sorts. China in the new films, however, is seen as glitzy, wealthy and fabulously trendy.

As for "Tibet Code," an adaptation of a series of recent Chinese novels set in 9th century Tibet, it would inevitably toe the official Beijing line concerning Tibet. DreamWorks had to come clean, as Katzenberg told the Wall Street Journal, that the film had no "secondary agenda" and that it was chosen solely for its potential as a "blockbuster story."


Despite earlier films critical of China's Tibet policy, such as "Kundun" and "Seven Years in Tibet," Hollywood was not out to smear China then and is certainly not on a mission to rehabilitate China now.

Inevitably, it's the bottom line that the studios are attuned to.

It is widely speculated that China, already the world's second-largest movie market, will overtake North America to become the largest market by 2018 and will be double the U.S. market by 2023. With a financial stake this large, a few pandering plot or location twists is nothing more than "localizing strategy." DreamWorks is simply following the playbook of an industry that has been acutely attuned, from its inception, to what is permissible and indeed preferred in its vast export destinations.

The trend has only intensified in the last decade, with the majority of moviegoers now living abroad, which accounts for up to 80% of Hollywood's box-office income. To maximize overseas distribution, films must be rendered free from international offense. The more expensive the movie, the more scrupulous the studios must be to ensure the avoidance of any potential overseas hazards.

To stay out of (financial) trouble, Hollywood has long modified, obfuscated and even eliminated content that is deemed inappropriate in an effort to appease worldwide audiences of vastly different cultural, religious and political persuasions.

ON LOCATION: Where the cameras roll

For instance, in 1935, RKO handled with great ingenuity rules of the British Board of Film Censors that barred religious icons by keeping Christ off the screen in "The Last Days of Pompeii," which tells the story of a Roman artisan-turned-gladiator who transforms himself after a fateful encounter with Christ. Christ was implicitly invoked but never actually shown on screen.

Recent reports about how much of Hollywood kept its German market running by appeasing the Nazis in the run-up to World War II point to a more egregious case.

In the case of China, a significant proportion of the correspondence in the 1920s, '30s and early '40s between the Hays Office and China reflected American studio executives' concerns about Chinese sensitivities, both cultural and political. The depiction of China was sanitized to appease the Chinese state and public, both hypersensitive to the country's humiliations at the hands of Western powers.

While making "The Good Earth," for instance, MGM carefully studied Chinese films dealing with rural life and solicited story ideas from Chinese elites. A number of plot and character adjustments were made as a result of the Chinese feedback. While making "East Is West," Universal wrote in a Chinese hero to diffuse Chinese villains.

As we fret about the compromises Hollywood makes, it helps to see the Sino-Hollywood courtship as an intriguing case study of political, cultural and economic rivalry and coaptation on a global scale.

It is a fitful relationship that, however tentative and antagonistic at times, has brought two willing partners to the table in their common pursuit of prosperity and happiness— measurable by the enormous box-office receipts.

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV

The ups and downs of this courtship suggest intrigue of blockbuster scale.

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