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Hollywood powerhouses meet a sleeping giant

EntertainmentMoviesArts and CultureChinaShanghai (China)Beijing (China)Movie Industry

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."

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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.

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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.

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

The American film business made a forceful entry into the Chinese film market during the waning days of Qing, China's last dynasty. It soon swept the market, dominating China's movie scene during the Republic era (1911-49).

China's nascent film industry struggled to maintain a foothold. Building a profitable and patriotic domestic industry were the twin driving forces during this era and remain intact to this day.

The domestic industry has failed to produce entertainment products that would woo global audiences. Yet that has not stopped the Chinese from claiming a stake in Hollywood. One company in particular has been on a spending binge in Hollywood since last year.

Wanda Group, the owner of China's largest theater chain, acquired AMC Theatres in 2012 for $2.6 billion. A year after, Wanda's CEO donated $20 million to the American film academy's history museum, with the proviso that a part of the museum bear the name of Wanda.

Soon after marking its territory in the United States, Wanda's boss, Wang Jianlin, dashed back to China with Hollywood mega-stars by his side to unveil an $8.3-billion film studio complex in Qingdao.

Next, Wanda announced plans for another multibillion-dollar entertainment complex, this one in Wuxi, a city close to Shanghai. The Wuxi Wanda City is to compete head-on with the upcoming Shanghai Disneyland amusement park.

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As the Chinese government seeks to steer its economy toward domestic consumption and boost its soft power and cultural influence abroad, Wanda has become its perfect poster boy. But the financial muscle Wanda brings can't compensate for what is lacking in the Chinese film industry: imaginative and exportable work that can come only from a cultural climate that values creativity, not enforced conformity.

It is doubtful that the Chinese film industry can simply buy or bully its way into the hearts and minds of global audiences. Meanwhile, Hollywood is able and willing to lend a hand. to China's emerging filmmakers — for a price.

So the wolves are indeed at each other's doorstep, and there is a bargain to be made for a joint force to conquer the world.

Ying, a professor of Media Culture at the City University of New York, is the author of "Two Billon Eyes: The Story of China Central Television."

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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