DALIAN, China -- For Hollywood, China is a market that cannot be ignored. Last month alone, more than 100 million people went to the movies, a record tally. Yet as studios look to appeal to Chinese audiences, they often end up catering to sponsors and the government in Beijing as well. This has some pondering how Chinese influence may change the complexion of American cinema.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is a prime example of the trade-offs -- and pressure to conform -- Hollywood faces as it taps the Chinese market.
The fourth installment in the "Transformers" franchise was a huge success in mainland China, earning a record $320 million. A number of sponsors, however, were less than thrilled.
"What? That's it?" said Hao Lixiao, deputy general manager of Hubei Zhou Heiya Food, as he watched the action flick for the first time in a Beijing cinema. "I was hoping an actor, or maybe even a Transformer, would eat our duck meat snack. At the very least, a poster of our product should have been shown on taxi doors." Instead, a package of the product is shown in a fridge for about two seconds.
Now, imagine Mark Wahlberg, the star, had taken a breather from battling giant robots to munch on some Chinese duck meat. Would this have fit in seamlessly with the story? In Hao's view, that is not the point. "We paid a seven-figure dollar amount for an impressive appearance."
Hao was not alone in his discontent. Of 25 Chinese companies that paid to have their products shown in "Age of Extinction," three have taken or threatened legal action against the producers. Beijing Pangu Investment, a real estate company, protested that its dragon-shaped building is not shown for a full 20 seconds as promised. A state-owned travel agency that runs a national park in Chongqing complained that the park's sign does not make it on screen at all. "The audience will have no way of knowing whether the park is in Hong Kong or Chongqing!" an agency representative said.
The China factor had some other awkward effects on "Age of Extinction." For many viewers, the scenes there likely seem peculiar to begin with. Until halfway through, the movie is a mainly American story. Then, abruptly, the characters fly across the planet and zigzag through Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing and Hong Kong.
While Wahlberg does not eat duck meat, he does whip out a Chinese ATM card. An American family also purchases a Chinese protein powder. These scenes may have been the result of sponsors' insistence on their products being shown in a straightforward way.
The word in the industry is that Chinese sponsors frown on having their products used for comic effect. Western companies, in contrast, tend to give directors more leeway. This is apparent in the "Transformers" movie: A bus covered with Victoria's Secret advertising is sliced in two. A truck full of Budweiser bottles is tossed in the air.
From Chinese companies' perspective, if they are paying big money, they have a right to dictate how and for how long their products are shown. Chinese authorities, too, want Hollywood to portray the country the way they see fit. And the more Hollywood depends on Chinese moviegoers, the more likely it is to toe Beijing's line.
It is not so hard to imagine a scene in which, at the request of a sponsor, an American actor playing the U.S. president says he believes certain islands in the East or South China seas belong to China.
China also has many political taboos, subjects it considers above scrutiny. First on the list is the continuity of Communist Party rule. Taiwan, Tibet and human rights issues all touch raw nerves as well.
Angelina Jolie learned this the hard way. Her recent movie "Maleficent," produced by Disney, is said to have suffered in mainland China because of comments she made at a promotional event there. While in Shanghai, the superstar was asked to name her favorite Chinese director. "Ang Lee" Jolie replied, adding, "I am not sure if you consider Ang Lee Chinese. He's Taiwanese."
China considers Taiwan one of its provinces. Nationalistic bloggers quickly denounced Jolie, and "Maleficent" earned a disappointing $47 million in China.
While sponsors were displeased with "Age of Extinction," China's government was probably content with its cameo.
There is a scene in which robots attack government facilities in Hong Kong. Panicked police decide they must ask the central government for help. Cut to Beijing, where, in the dragon-shaped Pangu building, the Chinese defense minister pledges over the phone that "the central government will protect Hong Kong at all costs."
It is hard to escape the impression that Paramount Pictures was doing the government a favor by depicting it as a benevolent force committed to a city where, just weeks prior to the movie's release, 100,000 protesters gathered to remember the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. It is worth noting that state broadcaster CCTV's China Movie Channel was among the movie's backers.
While "Age of Extinction" took some critical heat for being a Beijing propaganda vehicle, it comes down to business.
In 2012, China overtook Japan to become the world's No. 2 movie market after the U.S., with theaters raking in 17 billion yuan (about $2.7 billion). In the first seven months of this year, sales have already exceeded that figure.
Opportunities are not confined to the box office. Chinese online video sites are buying the rights to show Hollywood movies about six months after they leave the theater.
This helps relieve one of the biggest frustrations Hollywood had about China in the past: rampant sales of pirated DVDs and illegal file sharing. Efforts to release films in the U.S. and China simultaneously -- and the rise of 3-D cinema -- have also made it harder for pirates to surreptitiously record movies at American theaters, then produce DVDs to sell on the black market.
Even though access to the market is limited -- only 34 foreign films can been screened in China each year, and overseas studios are restricted to a 25% cut of box office revenue -- it still makes sense to keep Chinese leaders happy. That is especially true amid relatively weak U.S. box-office performance. "Age of Extinction" earned a franchise-low $214 million stateside.
Seeking the spotlight
China's growing presence as an entertainment industry player is not only about product placement and politics. More Chinese talent is appearing on Western screens. "Age of Extinction" featured Li Bingbing, an actress who also appeared in the Hollywood horror film "Resident Evil: Retribution."
Another actress, Fan Bingbing, starred in this year's "X-Men: Days of Future Past." She ranked No. 1 on Forbes magazine's list of the 100 most influential Chinese stars. She is certainly bankable in China: The Taobao online shopping site estimates that searches for her name generated $74 million in revenue for the brands she promotes, including Louis Vuitton, L'Oreal and Mercedes-Benz.
China is headhunting talent from Hollywood as well. Beijing Chinese Century Media announced that it is hiring the special effects coordinators of Hollywood hits "Avatar" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," as well as a screenwriter from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." They will work on a 3-D epic based on "Bainiaoyi," a Chinese folk tale about a man with a magic robe who journeys to rescue his kidnapped wife.
Still, although China is influencing American movies, competing with Hollywood is a different ballgame.
In 2009, Chinese real estate billionaire Jon Jiang launched production of a 3-D underwater adventure titled "Empires of the Deep." Envisioning a blend of "Avatar," "Gladiator" and "Pirates of the Caribbean," Jiang went through eight writers and 40 drafts before settling on a story. Olga Kurylenko, who appeared in the James Bond film "Quantum of Solace," was cast. Five years on, and after reportedly spending more than $200 million of his own money, Jiang is still struggling to get the film distributed.
Reviews of the trailer have been harsh. A critic labeled it "China's most expensive and possibly worst movie."
Another Chinese movie, "The Breakup Guru," suffered a humbling defeat in the U.S. market this summer. The romantic comedy took in $107 million in China but only $200,000 during its four-week American run.
Even in the movie business, it seems there are some things money cannot buy.