India’s Bollywood is already a household name. Cinema from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea are firmly ensconced on the moviemaking map. But Chinese films have had limited reach beyond the mainland. That could be about to change.
On Sunday in the coastal Chinese city of Qingdao, the Middle Kingdom’s richest man, Wang Jianlin (net worth $22 billion), formally kicked off a process that could precipitate a magnetic shift in the world’s cinematic poles. Red carpet regulars convened in the former German colony to hear the 58-year-old chairman of the Beijing-based property developer Dalian Wanda Group outline his vision to build the world’s largest film studio, Oriental Movie Metropolis, for an eye-popping $8.17 billion and stake his country’s soft power claim.
This staggering sum represents the largest single investment in the history of the film and television industry – reflected by the announcement’s star-studded guest list. Leonardo DiCaprio was there, as were Catherine Zeta Jones, John Travolta, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. Closer to home, Jet Li was too.
Wang offers up an optimistic outlook. In his speech, he revealed the impressive dimensions of the filmmaking space. According to The Guardian, when the mega-project opens in 2017, it will encompass 500 hectares (two square miles) that will host an underwater film set, a permanent car show, seven resort hotels, an indoor amusement park, a 300-berth yacht club, 20 sound stages and, for good measure, a hospital.
All of this leads to one core question. With so much at stake, could “Chollywood” give Hollywood a run for its money? Before giving a general assessment of China’s prospects on the global cinematic stage, it’s worth noting that Asia is no slouch at the box office or in terms of output.
For one, India’s extremely diverse film industry – comprising much more than the Hindi-based Bollywood – is by far the largest producer of films on the planet, churning out more than 1,000 features and 1,500 shorts in 2011 alone. Heading to Asia’s northeast, South Korean film may not have as large an economic footprint or as many credits on its filmography, but the nation is renowned for its quality work in film. Likewise, neighboring Japan has produced a litany of directors lauded as some of the greatest in the history of film. Hong Kong cinema is a major power as well, with auteur and global sensation Wong Kar Wai at its pinnacle.
Why not China too? The mainland can already stake at least one claim above all its Asian counterparts, generating the second-highest box office returns worldwide last year, raking in $2.7 billion to North America’s $10.8 billion. For perspective, Japan and India placed third and fifth, respectively earning $2.4 billion and $1.4 billion during the same period. While these figures are impressive, like many other things about China’s rise, there is always a caveat. And in the case of cinema it is twofold: censorship and red tape.
While China’s box office returns may have exploded, even today the majority of those receipts come from Hollywood imports. The domestic sensation that was Lost in Thailand, which beat perennial favorites Titanic and Avatar, showed that homemade movies have a chance of making a real impact in the future. But these examples are few and far between. As The Guardian notes, a number of co-productions between U.S. and Chinese companies are showing that collaboration is a growing trend, Iron Man 3 being a prime example. Yet, like Lost in Thailand these collaborations tend to either unravel before they even begin or are severely entangled by red tape.
In a similar fashion, censorship puts a muzzle on creativity. Even seemingly benign Hollywood flicks like Cloud Atlas and the latest installment of the 007 franchise, Skyfall, were stripped of any scene that had even a whiff of dialogue or imagery that would be construed as critical towards China. Quentin Tarantino’s gore-fest Django Unchained was pulled from cinemas on the day of its theatric debut only to return in shortened form, sans some of the bloodiest bits.
While these limitations do not seem conducive to making China cinematic top dog, Wang is optimistic – at least he says he is.
“There's no single company in the whole world that has a big-scale production base, and at the same time has screening and distribution channels. Wanda Group is the first one in the world,” he said. “With the huge potential that comes with a population of 1.3 billion, the global film industry will recognize that the sooner you partner with China, the sooner you make more money.”
But can money buy creative freedom?