Bart: Everyone I encounter in town this week seems fixated on Chinese takeout — only it’s finance, not food. Specifically, funding for films and theme parks. Here’s the catch: For every mogul who claims he’s made a ‘killer deal,’ I run into ten who say their deals imploded. “Once your deal closes with the Chinese, that’s when the real negotiations begin,” according to one veteran of the co-production process. Jeff Robinov and Ryan Kavanaugh may have announced megadeals, but will they get their money? On a smaller scale, look what just happened to Paramount on their Transformers: Age Of Extinction deal – a Chinese partner (the Pangu Group) changed their minds when they saw the film and it endangered the China release of the movie. Two weeks ago China abruptly scrapped a giant alliance between the world’s three largest container-shipping companies, triggering confusion among Euro entities like Maersk as well as US lines.
Bart: Inhibiting the potentially lucrative co-production process is a long list of “no nos” imposed by Chinese censors. Movies can’t “re-interpret” history, depict the supernatural or display “gratuitous violence.” Those are the official censorship bans. Unofficially, movies can’t depict an American looking smarter than a Chinese character. Bruce Feirstein, the very successful writer of two James Bond films, who has written and produced several co-productions in China, tells me it’s a disastrous mistake for a movie to portray an American leading man who goes to China, does an action scene with, say, Jackie Chan, and then gets the girl. The Chinese girl, that is. “There are 650 million Chinese men who would not like that scene,” he reminds me.
Fleming: The communist government is telling studios upfront what can and cannot be in Hollywood movies that hope to play there. The potential Chinese audience is so large and growing so fast that even though distributors only get as high as 25% of the revenue—and none of the ancillaries that are worth hundreds of millions in other territories–studios are kowtowing to be among the 34-film annual quota. I’ve spoken to several parties, and beyond the examples you cited, they gave me some “suggestions” that everyone heeds if you are looking for entry, let alone a co-production designation (our international editor Nancy Tartaglione informs me that there hasn’t yet been a true China-Hollywood co-production yet, only cooperation agreements). The suggestions: no vigilante-ism; no civil disobedience; police and military can have guns, but no guns or serious violence by Chinese civilians; no Chinese villains unless they are from Hong Kong or Taiwan; no explicit sex; no Chinese prostitutes. On the genre front: no horror films; no ghosts, no vampires and no werewolves; no religious-based films; no time-travel movies.
Bart: Maybe the Chinese demands should cause Hollywood to ask itself this question: How broadly should American movies re-shape themselves to accommodate not only China but all foreign markets? Hollywood decision-making already has been influenced by the fact that 70% of the audience is overseas — more superheroes, fewer dramas, etc. Now the content as well as the subject matter is changing. The marketing militia opposes scenes that will not play in Russia or Brazil — or China.
Bart: As American companies acquire an ever-growing stake in China, and other countries, it will be interesting to see whether they fare better than foreign companies have in Hollywood. Entities like Matsushita, Polygram and Sony have had rocky going in the U.S. China’s Wanda has taken a more conservative path in focusing on exhibition — but if it acquires an oligopoly will that darken the picture? Globalization is great on paper, often nasty in reality.
Fleming: Hollywood is a town built on Other People’s Money, and all the past international examples you mention lined the pockets of Hollywood more than those foreign corporations. The scales favor China right now, and that is a real sea change.
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