Does China still need Hollywood?

February 2021 marked China’s all-time biggest month for movie ticket sales, according to Al Jazeera, where sales totalled 11.2 billion yuan (US$1.7bn). China overtook the United States as the world’s biggest market for movie ticket sales in 2020 as the US box office took a crippling hit from the closure of cinemas because of Covid-19 restrictions.

China produces what you might call “patriotic” blockbusters that now overshadow the American blockbusters in-country. They are not specifically state ordered or sanctioned, but rather, fall in line with the Chinese Government’s approach of indirect incentivised filmmaking. This means favourable economic conditions such as rebates and tax incentives (which are common in the film industry, as Kiwis will know from John Key’s  Hobbit production saga).

In the pandemic era, Chinese theatres were able to open at half capacity in mid-2020 while the rest of the world shuttered all cinemas for almost the rest of the year. During this time, Chinese-made movies benefitted from occasional (and unofficial) “blackout” periods, where only Chinese films are allowed to be screened locally. Naturally, the 18-month hold on Hollywood blockbusters like the new James Bond film No Time To Die, and delays to other blockbusters such as those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise, have also helped Chinese blockbusters (known as “main melody” films in the industry) thrive.

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Chinese cinemas at 50 percent capacity in 2020 | Photo: Global Times

Foreign Policy magazine has coined the term “too red to fail”. That is, if a film indirectly toes the Chinese Communist Party line, it will be a financial success. “Film authorities ensure that big box-office receipts go to films that align with the state’s interests,” the outlet reports. “Indirect censorship mechanisms become financial incentives for profit-seeking producers to create content that will succeed in the economic environment crafted by the state. Such mechanisms have always been in place, such as allowing patriotic film releases timed to major holidays, but have been strengthened under Chinese President Xi Jinping.”

Those who consume Chinese films argue there’s a difference between “Chinese propaganda” in the sense Westerners might think of it (i.e. forging Communist attitudes and ideas about history) and “the propaganda that simply argues we are living in the best possible worlds”. That’s according to Richard Peña, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of the Arts in New York. “Propaganda is really in the eye of the beholder,” Peña told VOA. Ian Huffer, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Massey University, adds, “There is a strand of Chinese filmmaking that is more directly propagandist in that it explicitly promotes state policies and achievements.

“For example, My People, My Homeland educates audiences about universal subsidised healthcare and celebrates the alleviation of poverty in rural villages. However, such films are in the minority. Most recent Chinese blockbusters that have been characterised as propaganda by Western journalism are really more like those Hollywood films over the years that have used military conflicts to evoke jingoist feeling or that show the US saving the world from global catastrophe.”

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My People, My Homeland (2020) | Photo: Deadline

Most Hollywood blockbusters are Anglo-centric propaganda (The Captain America films being the most overt, but you’ll find it in any film from Sam Mendes’s 1917 (showing the First World War through the eyes of a brave young British solider) to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which covers both democracy and slavery in the USA and comes out with the general attitude that America will always prevail.

So, too, can we look at the themes and plots of the biggest Chinese films in recent history and find parallels. For example, Wolf Warrior 2 shows the Chinese military fighting the good fight for African allies (perhaps a subtle nod to the Belt and Road Initiative), and Detective Chinatown 3, which promotes harmonious (and slapstick) working relationships between Chinese, Thai, and Japanese nationals.

“Furthermore, some recent blockbusters are slightly more ambivalent in their representation of the nation, such as this year’s fantasy action movie A Writer’s Odyssey,” says Huffer of the fourth highest-grossing movie in China of 2021.

"The film reveals a China marked by inequality and the abuse of power through the parallel worlds of fantasy and reality that constitute the story, though its demonisation of Chinese tech billionaires could be seen to echo Xi Jinping’s clampdown on such figures." 

The hottest cinemagoing ticket in China last year was The Eight Hundred, a Chinese war movie set during World War II. However, it doesn’t come out with the Communists on top and instead, the Japanese imperialists prevail. Chang Yu-liang, an academic who researches Chinese media at Taiwan’s Nanhua University, explains how The Eight Hundred still falls in line with the Chinese cinema propaganda machine.

“The best patriotic movie is one that you don’t even realise was one,” Chang told Chinese millennial news outlet Inkstone News, which notes how this film frequently emphasises the sacrifices of regular Chinese, not the military, for the good of the country. “Just like Saving Private Ryan, which can be considered an American patriotic film, but you wouldn’t think that while watching it.”


The Eight Hundred | Photo: Variety

Hollywood, thus, is in a strange position in China. The pandemic has crushed US production and the global box office for Anglo-made films, giving China an opportunity to make gains in the US-China trade war. The limited release of US films during the pandemic intensified an already decreasing reliance upon the box office of Hollywood films, Huffer believes. The record box office in China across the 2021 Lunar New Year holiday period suggests Chinese cinema is in a commanding position. “However, Chinese films always do gangbuster business during the Lunar New Year and National Day holiday periods,” Huffer says.  

“Where Hollywood films have played a key role for cinemas and audiences is in the periods outside of these times. For example, in 2019 (the last year to see a normal slate of Hollywood releases in China) the films Bumblebee (1 Jan), Alita: Battle Angel (22 Feb), Captain Marvel (8 March), Avengers: Endgame (24 April), Godzilla: King of the Monsters (31 May) Spiderman: Far From Home (28 June), The Lion King (12 July) and Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw (23 Aug) all made it into the top 20 releases, earning between US$120 million to $614 million each.”  

Therefore, in a post-pandemic moviemaking world, it is likely Chinese cinemagoers will continue to spend their time and money on Hollywood films, especially for favoured franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Fast and The Furious, and Transformers. “However, that fact that the mileage left in the latter two of those franchises may be limited,” Huffer adds, “and that post-pandemic Chinese audiences are yet to really get behind a Hollywood release (e.g. Wonder Woman 1984 flopping) must be making Hollywood a bit nervous.”

 - Asia Media Centre