China’s film industry: Blocked by its own Great Wall

An analysis of the collaboration between China and the West

Written by Leung Wing-Fai. The article was initially published on the webpage of the China Policy Institute.

Commenting on the increasingly tight connections between China and Hollywood, Stanley Rosen observed that this was a “win-win” situation; China has the market, Hollywood has the talent. In short, mused Professor Rosen, “Hollywood has what China lacks: Storytelling ability, marketing, and distribution”. As Marvel announces plans to produce an explicitly China-oriented extension of the Captain America franchise (dubbed ‘Captain China’), I want to consider recent developments in the Chinese film industry to assess its purported deficiencies.


As with the rest of its economy, growth in Chinese cinema means rapid expansion. In 2012, China became the world’s second biggest film market second only to the USA, and is projected to be number one by 2020. In 2014, domestic films accounted for 54.51% of box office revenues and half of the top 20 highest earning films. The number of cinema screens rose from 6.200 in 2010 to 31.627 in 2015. Much of the audience is young; they like purchasing tickets online and have mostly grown up on a diet of foreign, especially American, movies, as evidenced by the success of "Avatar" (2009), "Transformers: Age of Extinction" (2014) and "Furious 7" (2015), which respectively broke the all time box office records. Still, it remains impossible to predict box office response in either North America or China: "Warcraft: The Beginning" (2016) was a flop in North America, while the film, financed by the Wanda-owned Legendary Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures, broke a series of Chinese box office records after the opening weekend in June 2016. Oriental DreamWorks, a collaboration between China Media Capital and DreamWorks, produced "Kung Fu Panda 3" (2016), which grossed nearly 1 billion yuan domestically and did well in North America. Elsewhere, films have added Chinese stars or scenes that cater for the mainland market, such as "Iron Man 3" (2013). The Marvel Studio is even planning a Captain China franchise.

The Chinese film industry is actively resisting, imitating and collaborating with Hollywood, making itself a formidable if contradictory force. The aforementioned Dalian Wanda is owned by Wang Jianlin, the poster boy of private business in the new China, a self-made entrepreneur or getihu (个体户), inspired by Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim ‘let some people get rich first’. Wang served in the People’s Liberation Army and then started investing in property, founding Wanda in 1988.


Wanda has only been interested in entertainment for a few years, but has already acquired the most profitable Hollywood film company, Legendary, a production firm whose slate includes the Batman series. Locally, Wang announced the building of China’s biggest studio complex in Qingdao estimated at $8.2 billion. Wanda’s first American film, also financed by the Weinstein company, is "Southpaw" (Antoine Fuqua, 2015), a boxing flick starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and with a largely African American cast and no Chinese element whatsoever.

In July 2016, encouraged by the low exchange rate days after the Brexit referendum, Dalian Wanda-owned cinema chain AMC acquired Odeon and UCI Cinemas in the UK, representing 242 cinemas. With this latest acquisition, adding to Hoyts cinemas in Australia, Wanda has built the largest global cinema exhibition empire. But Wanda is not the only Chinese private enterprise that is venturing into the entertainment industry: Huayi Brothers, an already highly successful private studio, will co-finance at least 18 films with Hollywood studios to be produced over a three-year period beginning in 2016. Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, the three Internet giants, are all investing in the sector.

Meanwhile, the Chinese state has thawed its longstanding policy to assist the growth of the film industry: The quota for foreign films of 20 a year was increased to 34, allowing for 14 imports in 3D or IMAX format. These films can take 25% of the box office with the income being shared. Domestic companies can distribute other foreign films, but the foreign companies do not take any box office share. Thirty to forty films are imported this way every year, though their revenue is a lot lower than that of the thirty-four share-profit movies. In 2014, a series of tax and VAT measures were passed to encourage domestic film exports. These policy changes have come in response to a directive by the Central Committee meeting of the Chinese Communist Party, which announced in 2011 that ‘it is a pressing task to increase the state’s cultural soft power’ and to ‘build our country into a socialist cultural superpower’. When Shanghai Media Group signed its deal with DreamWorks in 2012, Xi Jinping, then vice-president, attended the ceremony in Los Angeles.

While Hollywood has had a long presence in China as co-producer, importer and model of commercial practice, other film industries have also moved to collaborate with China, often aided by government support. The UK China Film Co-production Agreement was signed in April 2014, negotiated between the British Film Institute and China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television (SARFT). Other countries with similar arrangements with China include Singapore and South Korea. Under the UK-China agreement, films will qualify as domestic films in China, not restricted by quotas, while in the UK, they benefit from Film Tax Relief. One of the first beneficiaries was the Shanghai Media Group and BBC film "Earth: One Amazing Day", a sequel to BBC’s Planet Earth documentary (2006).


One thing that all potential co-producers fear is censorship. The struggle between creative content and politics has been around since the introduction of the medium in the early twentieth century. Leftist filmmakers associated with the May Fourth intellectuals used movies to educate the masses. The Nationalists regulated film production. Mao and the party used film as the most popular media to propagate Socialist ideals, a practice that reached its apogee during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Unlike American studios, Chinese producers had rarely been required to consider how to please audiences as ticket buyers for decades. Even with the Open Door policy and liberalization of the economy, SARFT tightly controlled all aspects of filmmaking.

Only in 1993, when income sharing with foreign films was first allowed, did the Chinese film market gradually open up to become a commercial entity. Like everything else in the new Chinese economy, popular cinema is a new, barely 20 year old concept. What is also new is the need to balance content, political intervention and entertainment value, not only for the Chinese audiences but ideally for overseas markets as well. China is playing catch up and learning fast, while it appears that the demand prevents a gradual maturing process.

Despite being one of America’s biggest cultural exports, Hollywood never worries too much about having to explain cultural specificity to worldwide audiences. China, on the other hand, feels the burden every time. Early successes such as "The Last Emperor" (Bernando Bertolucci, 1988) have not been matched by recent attempts like "The Flowers of War" (Zhang Yimou, 2011), where the existence of a well-known Hollywood star (Christian Bale) failed to make a film set during the Japanese occupation of Nanjing and the massacre relevant to most markets outside Asia. It seems China’s premier director Zhang is again attempting an international crossover with Matt Damon and the Hong Kong star Andy Lau appearing in the patriotic film "The Great Wall" (2016).


So far, many of the successful domestic commercial films have learned from the West rather than the other way round. Consequently, even top Chinese films have rarely performed well overseas in any significant way. "Pancake Man" (2015), a successful film in the domestic market is described by The Hollywood Reporter as a ‘Chinese comedy directed by its star; about an actor making a film about a superhero,’ with the local humour completely eluding the American reviewer. Marvel’s forthcoming "Doctor Strange" has the white actress Tilda Swinton play ‘the Ancient One’, depicted as a Tibetan male in the comics, in order to avoid censorship issues with Chinese regulators. While this latest example of “yellow face” has angered many Hollywood watchers, the negative connotation has been largely ignored by the Chinese media.

We have to remember that cinema is never culture-neutral and, despite all the capital investment and universalizing appeal of some films (more likely Hollywood than Chinese-made), films are cultural products that have to tell stories in order to appeal. The fact is, we are still waiting for the next global Chinese blockbuster after "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" (2000). What Chinese cinema enjoys is private capital and state support (to varying extent), but the industry still lacks exportable brand names by way of stars or studios. As the country is finding it in more general terms, soft power via cultural products like movies is still a Chinese pipe dream.

Leung Wing-Fai is Lecturer in Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London.

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Johnson,1,Maundy Thursday,1,Meghe Dhaka Tara,1,Memoir of a Murderer,1,Merantau,1,Michael Haertlein,1,Midi Z,1,Midnight Runners,1,Midori The Camelia Girl,1,Ming-Yeh Rawnsley,1,Mira Nair,1,Miss Zombie,1,Miwa Nishikawa,2,Mohammad Rasoulof,1,Mon Mon Mon Monsters,1,Mong-Hong Chung,1,Monologue,1,Moon Lovers,1,Mototsugu Watanabe,1,Mouly Surya,1,Mountains May Depart,1,Mourning Forest,1,Movie,2,Moving,1,Mr. Socrates,1,Mrs Fang,1,Mrs K,1,Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation),1,Mumon: The Land of Stealth,1,Museum,1,My Dad and Mr Ito,1,Myanmar,1,Nah Hyeon,1,Nandita Roy,1,Naoko Ogigami,2,Naomi Kawase,3,Naosuke Kurosawa,1,Naoyuki Tomomatsu,3,Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit,1,Neeraj Ghaywan,1,Neko Atsume House,1,Nepal,1,Neuchâtel International Fantastic Film Festival,1,Nicholas Poly,4,Night Bus,1,Nikkatsu,1,Nikola Cekic,1,Nirbaak,1,Niwatsukino Norihiro,1,Noboru Uguchi,1,Nobuhiro Yamashita,1,Nobuyuki Takeuchi,1,Noise,1,Non-fiction Diary,1,Norihiro Niwatsukino,1,North Korea,1,Nurse Diary: Beast Afternoon,1,NYAFF,34,Odd Obsession,1,Old Boy,2,Old Stone,1,Old-School Kung-Fu Fest,3,Omar Rasya Joenoes,2,On the Job,1,On The Line Festival,3,On the Run,1,Onibaba,1,Ophilia,1,Ordinary Person,1,Osamu Sato,1,Our Happy time,1,Outrage Coda,1,Palatpol Mingpornpichit,2,Pale Flower,1,Panos,1,Panos Kotzathanasis,155,Paresh Mokashi,1,Park Chan-wook,2,Park Hoon-Jung,1,Park In-je,1,Park Ki- hyung,1,Park Kwang-hyun,1,Past and Future,1,Patrick Hofmeister,43,Pedro Morata,3,Pepe Diokno,1,Perfect Blue,1,Peter Chan,1,Peter Chen,1,Phanumad Disattha,1,Philippines,8,Pieter - Jan Van Haecke,2,Pieter-Jan Van Haecke,5,Pink Eiga,7,PinkEiga.TV,1,pinku eiga,1,Pinneyum,1,Poet on a Business Trip,1,Poolside Man,1,Posto,1,Press Release,1,Proshoon Rahmaan,2,Psychic,1,Rabbit and Lizard,1,Radiance,1,Rage. Lee Sang-il,1,Rahul Jain,1,Railway Sleepers,1,Rainy Dog,1,Raja Mukhriz,1,Randy Mckenzie,4,Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead,1,Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead 2,1,Rape Zombie: Lust of the Dead 3,1,Ravine of Goodbye,1,Re:Born,1,Real,1,Red Beard,1,Resistance at Tule Lake,1,Revenge: A love story,1,Review,5,Reviews,169,Riri Riza,3,Ritwik Ghatak,2,River of Exploding Durians,1,Robin Weng,1,Roman Porno,1,Rouge,1,RV: Resurrected Victims,1,Ryoo Seung-wan,1,Ryota Sakamaki,1,S. Korea,55,S.Korea,2,Saayak Santra,8,Sabu,3,Salaam Bombay,1,San Diego Asian Film Festival,6,Sanjeewa Pushpakumara,2,Sankha Ray,23,Satoru Hirohara,1,Satoshi Kon,1,Satyajit Ray,1,Sayandeep Bandyopadhyay,6,Scarlet Heart,1,Score,1,Seijun Suzuki,2,Sekigahara,1,Sexy S.W.A.T. Team,1,Sha Po Lang,1,Shanjhey Kumar Perumal,1,Shanker Raman,1,Shaw Brothers,1,She's the Boss,1,Shiboprosad Mukherjee,1,Shigeru Umebayashi,1,Shikhar Verma,11,Shikhar Verna,3,Shinji Somai,2,Shinjuku Triad Society,1,Shinobi no Kuni,2,Shinya Tsukamoto,2,Shireen Seno,1,Shirley Abraham,1,Shock Wave,1,Shôhei Imamura,1,Shotaro Kobayashi,1,Shu Qi,1,Shyam Ramsay,1,Siddiq Ahamed,1,Sidharth Bharathan,1,Signature,1,Singapore,1,Singh Anand,1,Singing Chen,1,Sinophone,1,Sion Sono,4,Siti,1,Sixth Sense Hooker,1,Slavemen,1,Sleep Curse,1,Sogo Ishii,1,Solitude,1,Solo,1,Someone To Talk To,1,Sompot Chidgasompongse,2,Song Hae-sung,1,Song Kang-ho,1,Song of the Week,12,Soul,1,SoulMate,1,South Korea,9,Sri Lanka,3,Srijit Mukherji,6,Stanley Kwan,1,Stephen Chow,1,Stephen Fung,1,Steve James,1,Still the Water,1,Stoneman Murders,1,Story in Taipei,1,StudioCanal,3,Subenja Pongkorn,1,Suffering of Ninko,2,Sugihara Survivors: Jewish and Japanese,1,Suicide Club,1,Suman Mukhopadhay,1,Sun-ho Cho,1,Sunao Katabuchi,1,Sunday Beauty Queen,1,Tae Guk Gi,1,Taiwan,20,Takaaki Hashiguchi,1,Takahide Hori,1,Takao Nakano,1,Takashi Miike,7,Take Care of My Cat,1,Takeo Kikuchi,2,Takeshi Kaneshiro,1,Takeshi Kitano,1,Takuro Nakamura,2,Tamura Senichi,1,Tanit Jitnukul,1,Tanvir Ashraf,1,Tatara Samurai,1,Tatsuhi Omori,1,Tatsumi,1,Teddy Soeriaatmadja,1,Teenkahon,1,Tetsuya Mariko,1,Tetsuya Nakashima,1,Thailand,14,Thanatos Drunk,1,The Adventurers,1,The Apology,1,The Bad,1,The Boy and the Beast,3,The boy from Ipanema,1,The Cinema Travellers,1,The Crawler in the Attic,1,The Crazy Family,1,The Day After,1,The Dollhouse,1,The elephant and the sea,1,The Executioner,1,The Eye's Dream,1,The Forsaken Land,1,The Fortress,1,The Gangster's Daughter,1,The Girl Who Never Knew War,1,The Golden Fortress,1,The Good,1,The Great Passage,1,The Hole,1,The Inugami Family,1,The Iron Ministry,1,The King of Pigs,1,The Last Executioner,1,The Last Painting,1,The Long Excuse,1,The Magic Blade,1,The Man Without a Map,1,The Mayor,1,The Merciless,1,The Mermaid,1,The Muse,1,The Naked Island,1,The Net,1,The Prison,1,The Raid,1,The Raid 2,1,The recipe,1,The Road Home,1,The Road to Mandalay,1,The Room,1,The Salesman,1,The Sleep Curse,1,The Strange Saga of Hiroshi the Freeloading Sex Machine,1,The Table,1,The Third Murder,1,The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue,1,The Tooth and the Nail,1,The Truth Beneath,1,The Villainess,2,The Violin Player,1,The Weird,1,The Windmill Palm Grove,1,This Is Not What I Expected,1,This Is Not What I Expected!,1,Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum,1,Three Sisters,1,Three Times,1,Tiffany Hsiung,1,Tokyo Idols,1,Tom Waller,2,Tony Leung,1,Tony Takitani,1,Torico,2,Toronto International Film Festival,1,Toshiaki Toyoda,1,Toshihisa Yokoshima,2,Toshimasha Kobayashi,1,Toshio Matsumoto,1,Toshiya Fujita,1,Town in a Lake,1,Traces of Sin,1,Trailers,50,Train to Busan,1,Tran Ham,1,Translated articles,1,Trapped,1,Triple Threat,1,Tsai Ming-liang,2,Tulsi Ramsay,1,Twilight Dinner,1,Twitch: You Are My Toy,1,Typhoon Club,1,Um Tae-hwa,1,Unbowed,1,V.I.P.,1,Vampire Cleanup Department,1,Vanishing Time A Boy Who Returned,1,Vannaphone Sitthirath,1,various,1,Varnyathil Aashanka,1,Vesoul International Film Festival,6,Vidya Balan,1,Vietnam,3,Vikramaditya Motwane,1,Vimukthi Jayasundara,1,Vinay Shukla,1,Violated Angels,1,Visitor Q,1,Vital,1,Voyage to Terengganu,1,Wang Bing,2,Wang Lung-wei,1,Wang Ming-tai,1,Warriors of the Dawn,1,Wei-Hao Cheng,1,West North West,2,What A Wonderful Family 2,1,What Time Is It There?,1,Whispering Corridors,1,Whispering Star,1,White Sun,1,Who Killed Cock Robin,1,Wilson Yip,1,Wine War,1,With Prisoners,1,Woman of the Lake,1,Won Shin-Yeon,1,Wong Chun,2,Wong Jing,1,Wong Kar-wai,2,Woo Ming Jin,1,Xaisongkham Induangchanthy,1,Ya-che Yang,1,Yamato (California),2,Yan Pak Wing,2,Yang Ik-june,1,Yang Jong-hyeon,1,Yao Tian,1,Yeon Sang-ho,2,Yes Madam,1,Yeti Obhijaan,1,Yiu-wai Chu,1,Yoji Yamada,1,Yoonsuk Jung,1,Yosep Anggi Noen,1,Yoshihiro Hanno,1,Yoshihiro Nakamura,2,Yoshihiro Nishimura,3,Yoshimasa Jimbo,1,Yoshinari Nishikori,1,Yoshishige Yoshida,1,Yoshitaka Mori,1,Yoshiyuki Kishi,1,You Losers!,1,Your Name,1,Yu Aoi,1,Yu Irie,1,Yu Sang-wook,1,Yuen Chor,1,Yuji Shimomura,1,Yûji Tajiri,2,Yujiro Harumoto,2,Yuki Tanada,1,Yukihiko Tsutsumi,1,Yusaku Matsumoto,1,Yutaka Ikejima,2,Yutaro Nakamura,1,Yuya Ishii,2,Zakka Films,1,Zhang Lu,1,Zhang Yimou,1,Zombiology: Enjoy Yourself Tonight,1,
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Asian Film Vault: China’s film industry: Blocked by its own Great Wall
China’s film industry: Blocked by its own Great Wall
An analysis of the collaboration between China and the West
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Asian Film Vault
http://www.asianfilmvault.com/2017/05/chinas-film-industry-blocked-by-its-own.html
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