Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Aynne Kokas – Associate Professor of Media Studies at the University of Virginia; Senior Faculty Fellow, Miller Center for Public Affairs; and author of “Hollywood Made in China” (2017) – is the 243rd in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Explain the competition-cooperation dynamic between Hollywood and China’s film industry.
China presents an important market for U.S. filmmakers. U.S. blockbuster successes are now those that succeed in both the United States and China. Chinese production studios like Alibaba Pictures and Tencent Pictures have begun to take a significant role funding films in Hollywood.
As I note in my article “Chilling Netflix: Financialization and the Influence of the Chinese Market on the American Film Industry” in Information, Communication, and Society, U.S. entertainment platforms are also so desperate to access the Chinese market that will work against their own long-term interests. Netflix, for example, licensed its content to the Chinese platform iQiyi, which in turn bolstered iQiyi’s popularity.
China is also a competitor to the preeminence of the United States’ box office. Analysts predicted that the country would overtake the U.S. box office in 2017, 2018, and 2019 due to its higher rate of box office growth. In 2020, China’s box office has the advantage of a return to comparative normalcy in the theatrical distribution landscape due to the country’s COVID-19 response.
Why is this symbiotic relationship increasingly integral for sustaining both the U.S. and China’s movie-making business?
Without the Chinese market, films like “Tenet” (Christopher Nolan, 2020) and “Mulan” (Niki Caro, 2020) would have had significantly lower theatrical box office revenue. So, despite the Chinese box office being a major competitor to the U.S. film industry, it is also an essential income-generator, particularly for big-budget blockbusters.
Chinese filmmakers, for their part, remain interested in expanding beyond success in the Chinese domestic market out of national interest if not economic necessity. Chinese films can recuperate their budgets in the domestic market. Recent films in the pre-COVID-19 era like “The Wandering Earth” (Frant Gwo, 2019) and “Nezha” (Yu Yang, 2019) brought in domestic tallies in the $700 million range, producing a tidy profit. However, the Chinese government has repeatedly issued statements urging Chinese filmmakers to become a global film power by 2030.
Analyze the socio-political context of global public backlash again Disney’s “Mulan.”
“Mulan” is part of a long-standing tradition of U.S. studios trying to make content tailored to the Chinese market but with global appeal. Disney’s live-action Mulan drew on the studio’s earlier 1998 animated version of the film, as well as a pre-modern Chinese ballad. While the film received positive publicity initially due to its all-Asian cast, there quickly emerged concerns about Disney’s role in connection to human rights in China. Disney’s framing of “Mulan” as a battle between Imperial leadership and Western barbarian anarchy reinforced Chinese government narratives of the need to for oppressive political measures against under-represented groups throughout the country.
Crystal Liu, the star of the film, expressed her support for the Hong Kong police when they were violently suppressing democracy activists. Disney refrained from commenting, apart from broadly supporting Liu’s right to express herself. This led to widespread global boycott threats in places ranging from Korea to Japan to the United States.
After the film’s release, its credits revealed that the filmmakers had cooperated with government entities in Xinjiang, a site of massive detention camps in China. One of the entities, the Public Security Bureau of Turpan, has been closely associated with significant human rights abuses. Disney’s willingness to cooperate with such partners as a condition for doing business drew mass global outrage.
Describe the role of China’s government apparatus in the country’s movie production process – is there a demarcation between art and propaganda?
The Chinese government is involved in the production process in multiple ways. The first is through state-run film groups. The China Film Group Corporation, for example, is a state-owned monopoly with which all imported films have to work. Its subsidiary, the China Film Import and Export Corporation, is the sole government-authorized importer of films. The China Film Co-Production Corporation oversees co-produced films. The Chinese government treats approved Sino-foreign co-productions as domestic films for film distribution in China. The China Film Group Corporation itself also partners with foreign film companies for production, as in “Mulan’s” case.
The government is also heavily involved in the oversight of content. The National Radio and Television Association (NRTA) oversees media content. NRTA is a ministry-level executive agency overseen by the People’s Republic of China State Council.
As U.S.-China rivalry escalates, what is the impact on both countries’ filmmaking business and audiences?
U.S.-China rivalry presents a significant challenge for filmmaking in both countries. In the United States, increased pressure on Hollywood studios from Washington, paired with greater oversight of Chinese investment in the United States, makes the financial environment for Hollywood studios more uncertain.
More significant constraints in the Chinese market with respect to stricter content controls and higher profile oversight of the film industry via the State Council paired with increasing nationalism make it difficult for Hollywood studios to plan for their China releases.
The two markets are highly interdependent but face stiff headwinds as U.S.-China rivalry intensifies.