If you've seen the 2012 science fiction movie Looper, you might remember a telling exchange when a time-traveling hitman (Bruce Willis) sits down with a young version of himself (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and offers some advice.
"You should go to China," Willis says firmly.
Gordon-Levitt resists: "I'm going to France."
"I'm from the future," Willis insists. "You should go to China."
It's almost as if Hollywood is giving advice to itself. Like every other gigantic business, Hollywood wants to sell its products in China. But selling movies in China is different from selling bubble gum or Coke. The country's official gatekeeper, the China Film Group, allows in only 34 foreign films per year, a number recently raised from only 20.
Many millions of dollars of ticket sales come along with snagging one of those coveted spots. So Hollywood's been trying — and trying and trying — to appeal to Chinese audiences while appeasing Chinese censors.
Working Together, Officially
As an "official co-production," Looper cast a certain number of Chinese actors, a certain number of Chinese crew, set a certain number of scenes in China and made other concessions, in exchange for a bigger cut of the box office than other U.S. movies and a preferential release date. (Movies released during major Chinese holidays perform significantly better at the box office.)
When you watch Looper in the U.S., the Chinese elements are not obvious. For example, none of the Chinese actors speak a single line, including the woman who plays Bruce Willis' wife. But in China, a version of the film was released that gave them more emphasis.
Official co-productions such as Looper have fallen out of fashion due to the difficulties involved, but similar attempts to attract Chinese moviegoers are ongoing. Take this summer's megahit Iron Man 3. It also released a Chinese version that played down its supervillian (so unfortunately named The Mandarin) and played up a Chinese good guy, while tossing in some Chinese product placements.
"The reaction on the part of many Chinese was, 'Oh well, you didn't really have to.' It felt tacked on," says independent film producer Janet Yang, who also notes the film was a colossal success in China. Yang is an American who's worked in both countries since the 1980s.
Not Everything Translates
Hollywood's learning curve is still notably steep when it comes to understanding what works and what doesn't in the world's second-largest movie-going marketplace. A 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, filmed in China with Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan stumbled, in part, because karate is Japanese, not Chinese. Maybe The Kung Fu Kid would have done better in China. The Karate Kid was a bust.
One American producer working in China told me, on background, that he's learned that the Chinese censors will never go for horror movies or supernatural elements, and they frown on buildings getting blown up. "Unless the buildings are in Hong Kong," he added. (As it happens, Pacific Rim, a movie extremely hard on Hong King real estate, happened to be one of the top grossing pictures in China this year.)
Producer Janet Yang has stories of her own, as when she worked with the Walt Disney Company to create a Chinese version of High School Musical. They partnered with a Chinese company, Huayi Brothers Media. As she recalls, Huayi Brothers advised Disney, "You can't expect a movie with no stars to do well." Chinese blockbusters tend to be star-driven. To drive up the film's ticket sales, Huayi Brothers suggested building a fan base for the film's young actors by making them into a band and taking them on a song and dance tour around the country.
"Basically, Disney rejected that idea," Yang said ruefully, "They said no, because the brand that were the whole reason we're doing this movie is to promote High School Musical as a brand, and not this whole other thing as a brand."
Yang is quick to point out she can see both points of view, but cultural problems persisted. High school is a miserable time for Chinese teenagers. They're cramming for college, not singing and dancing. So they changed the name to High School Musical: College Dreams, with students singing upbeat songs about the joys of calculus. All the back-and-forth made the Chinese partners eventually lose interest. The movie did not do very well in China.
Home Grown Hits
"I think Hollywood's finally, maybe, slowly beginning to figure out it's not that easy," says Stephen Saltzman, a lawyer who often negotiates deals between Hollywood and China. "We can't just walk in there, soak up all this capital and not provide a real quid pro quo."
The quid China wants for its pro quo is help making its own global hits. Jeffery Sharp is among a new wave of Hollywood insiders investing in what's now being called "Chinawood." He produced major independent movies including You Can Count On Me and Boys Don't Cry. Now he's focused exclusively on China.
"We are working with filmmakers who are Chinese — either mainland Chinese, Hong Kong or Taiwan," he said from his office in Santa Monica. "It's basically building partners on the ground."
Sharp's also working with a publishing company, teaching his Chinese partners about financing, how to option popular books, and package and develop them into movies.
"They're all Chinese authors, and we're developing a lot of these with U.S. screenwriting talent," he said.
The idea is injecting Hollywood DNA into an industry already worth billions. Hollywood is learning to leverage its expertise and learning to pay attention to what Chinese people are watching. Not what Hollywood thinks they want to watch.
Few American movie-goers have heard about Lost In Thailand or So Young or American Dreams In China but all are recent Chinese-made movies that did far better than most American films in the Chinese box office. Of the eight top grossing movies in China this year, six were made in China. China's audience is hungry to see their own stories, many of them breezy, contemporary comedies, and they're getting more and more opportunities. China is pouring wealth into its movie infrastructure. As many as 10 new movie screens open there every day. Already a Chinese company owns the biggest movie chain on the planet, AMC. What China needs now is worldwide Chinese-made blockbusters to put into them.
Certain Americans scoff at the idea that China, in a few short years, could emulate a 100-year-old industry built by immigrants spinning stories mostly about their own fantasies of assimilation. But China is filled with rich stories and great storytellers. And it's banking on its so-called "soft power" to include films with the cultural reach and universal appeal of movies made in Hollywood.