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China’s slowly fading love affair with Hollywood

“Chinese audiences are more and more turning to domestic cultural products – reflecting also Beijing's desire to turn Chinese people to look inward [in recent years].”

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New Delhi: China has been the largest market for Hollywood, a fact that does not need to be iterated, though in the last few years with the rise of high nationalism in China and the extremely deteriorating ties with the United States, Beijing has decided to boost its own domestic movie industry resulting in a significant downward trend for the import of Hollywood films and a great rise in domestic mainland production which is also greatly rife with CCP propaganda.

Erich Schwartzel, author of ‘Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy’, in order to explain this shift in Chinese preference said that “Several years ago, just being a big-budget Hollywood movie might be enough in the Chinese market, but now you don’t just need good production but also a story that appeals to more discerning Chinese audiences.”

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This explains why Disney’s recent animated movie “Encanto” disappointed many Chinese observers, with a modest box office of only $3.7 million in China. Globally, “Encanto” took $240 million. Critics pointed out that the storyline did not resonate with the local Chinese audience.

The improvement in domestic film-making did not come as a coincidence, Schwartzel noted, but as a result of a decade-long effort. In 2008, the success of Hollywood blockbuster “Kung Fu Panda” shocked China’s ruling Communist party. It sparked soul-searching among Chinese political elites and film producers.

“They asked themselves: how could a quintessential Chinese film achieve such a success with American Hollywood?” The turning point was marked by Beijing’s domestic sci-fi movie, “Wandering Earth” in 2019. The $50million-budget film grossed nearly $700million worldwide. US magazine Hollywood Reporter called it: “China’s first full-scale interstellar spectacular”. Netflix came knocking on the door for global streaming rights. “It tells you that Beijing’s ambition to commercialise and develop its domestic film industry is working,” said Schwartzel.

“Chinese audiences are more and more turning to domestic cultural products – reflecting also Beijing’s desire to turn Chinese people to look inward [in recent years].”

The convergence of these various factors has alarmed Hollywood studios, and in the wake of the extreme deterioration of Sino-American relations there has been ever growing uncertainty surrounding the future of American films in the country. Since last year, films such as “Shang-Chi”, “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and “Black Widow” have yet to be released in mainland China. No official explanations were given.

Instead, the patriotic war flick “The Battle at Lake Changjin” has grossed more than $910m globally. According to actor Matt William Knowles “China is now all about protecting Chinese interests. It’s China First,” he told the Observer, jokingly referencing former president Donald Trump’s favourite political mantra “America First”. “They put Chinese interests first and Chinese people first. But what they don’t have is the films that can appeal to the whole world.”

Beijing has always understood the power of Hollywood in shaping its citizens’ minds and knows well how to mould minds to its thinking. As a result, in order to make films in adherence to the norms of the CCP, protectionist measures such as quotas and restrictions on the screening periods of Hollywood films have been adopted in China, resulting in a rapid growth of domestic films in the last two decades or so, said Dr How Wee Ng, lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Westminster.

“Increased living standards, national confidence, patriotic education alongside a growing demand for self-representation as resistance to western takes on Chinese culture such as “Kung Fu Panda” and “Mulan” have been crucial to the building of Chinese audiences and taste for domestic films,” Ng said.

“Just as American films and television programmes were welcomed in China as they played a pivotal role in the warming of Sino-American ties back in the 1970s, the reverse is happening today, when they can suffer from bans and censorship during times of global tension,” Ng said.

In October 2017, China’s president, Xi Jinping, declared: “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” and that China was “standing tall and firm in the east”. Around the same time as that speech made international headlines, a slickly made nationalistic blockbuster called “Wolf Warrior 2” made $870mn at the box office.

The plot of the film – where a selfless heroic Chinese soldier defended African workers and defeated an American aggressor also coincided with the sharp rise of nationalism in China. So much so that the phrase “wolf warrior” has become the phrase synonymous with Beijing’s confrontational style of diplomacy.

Beijing allows 34 foreign films to be imported every year. Yet, over the last decade, the share of non-Chinese films – Hollywood ones included – in box office sales has seen a downward trend, particularly since 2017, according to ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment. Among the top 10 most profitable films on Maoyan in 2021, only two films, “F9: The Fast Saga” and “Godzilla vs. Kong” were non-Chinese. A decade ago, it was six. 

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