Could China become the biggest player in film?
China has overtaken Japan as the second-largest market for movies in the world, and it could edge out the United States in the next decade.
That moviegoing audience is so big — the Motion Picture Association of America has said that Chinese box office receipts were a whopping $2.75 billion last year, the lion's share of which came from tickets for American movies. Movies from the United States did so well, in fact that China that the Chinese government has put a quota on how many are allowed to be shown there, accoring to John Horn of the Los Angeles Times.
"There's only a handful of movies that get into China every year that are non-Chinese films," Horn said. "It used to be about 20, now it's about 34. But those American movies that do go into China do outsize business. There are other issues, in terms of the box office. Not all of the money flows back to United States."
Horn said that the Chinese government is deeply enmeshed in the movie industry: which films will be admitted, how and when they'll be released and when, how many screens they'll play on, and how much of their box office take makes it back to Hollywood. "It is absolutely a government-run monopoly, even though there's sort of semi-private companies working below the surface," Horn told Tell Me More.
Sometimes, Horn said, the Chinese government will even co-produce or co-finance an American movie. (It's more complicated, he said, but in those cases, Hollywood studios can get more of the box office revenue than if they were just admitted as part of the quota of non-Chinese movies.
But the Chinese government also plays film editor. American filmmakers have been willing to make changes in stories of films that they've already cut and released in the U.S. market to appease the Chinese market.
After initially barring "Django Unchained," Chinese officials allowed it to be released in the country — with deep revisions to some of the film's bloodier scenes. "When you start editing out violence from a Quentin Tarantino movie, it's a little bit like removing all the sports from a football game," he said.
And in "Iron Man 3," two Chinese characters who had simple cameos in the original version, were given full back stories for the Chinese version.
"In the comic books, there's a character called the Mandarin who is kind of a Chinese exile, very villainous," Horn said. "Little bit of a spoiler — if you've seen 'Iron Man 3,' the Mandarin in this movie isn't really a Chinese exile, he's not really the villain. So they kind of watered down the Mandarin as a Chinese villain. So that's part one. Part two is the filmmakers shot an additional four minutes of scenes that are only going to be shown in China, and they're really kind of minor scenes."
Those scenes made especially for Chinese theatergoers are so minor, Horn said, that the film's director didn't even direct scenes that are shown for Chinese audiences. ("Iron Man 3" is expected to gross about $130 million there.)
But Horn said that it's often hard to distinguish between which elements Chinese moviegoers prefer in their American films and which Chinese officials find most amenable. That helps explain the booming market for bootlegged American movies.
"It's very clear that Chinese moviegoers or DVD watchers love American movies, regardless of the form they're in," he said. "That's kind of the side story. The proper story is that the Chinese government wants to make sure that the stories, the films that they're signing off on have the right elements. So you're never going to get the Chinese government to sign off on a movie about Tibet, for example. And World War Z, which is a upcoming zombie movie that had a reference to China having a role in the zombie outbreak, right now has not been accepted for exhibition in China. And we don't know if that's because Brad Pitt was in a Tibetan movie or because China was referenced in the zombie attack. So those are some of the things that you can't do, that are just kind of bete noires."
So how does this go over with American filmmakers? And what about the big studios?
"DVD sales around the world have flattened, box office in the United States isn't growing," Horn said. "China represents one of the true growth markets, one of the only growth markets in the entire world for Hollywood. So Hollywood studios are desperate to get their movies in there. Now filmmakers may fight, they may complain, but ultimately they're going to have to go along at a certain point."
Horn pointed to the forthcoming "Transformers 4." The studio is doing a reality show-style casting game, and they're going to cast some actors, professionals and nonprofessionals, to be in it.
"Would Michael Bay prefer not to have to go through that kind of ritual for 'Transformers 4'?" Absolutely," Horn said. "But if that means that his film will be exhibited in China and that it will make tens, if not maybe more than $100 million there, he's probably willing to take that just for the benefit of the revenues it will generate."