Hollywood Wants A Piece Of The Action In China's Movie Market

Box office receipts in China reached new highs last year, and American filmmakers want to tap into that market. Host Michel Martin speaks with Los Angeles Times reporter John Horn, about the growth of the Chinese movie market, and how Hollywood plans to cash in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We are continuing our focus on China today, ahead of the president of China's visit to the U.S. Later, we will hear from a descendent of two of the country's most famous expatriates, the remarkable Eng and Chang Bunker, who traveled the world as a circus act, the so-called Siamese twins. They later retired to raise a large family, whose descendents are making their mark in many areas of American life. But first, we want to talk about China's influence on the film business. China has now passed Japan to become the second-largest movie market in the world. And it could edge out the U.S. as the top market in the next 10 years. But in order to crack that lucrative market, Hollywood has had to make some changes, and some of the changes American filmmakers have been willing to make might surprise you. We want to talk about this with reporter John Horn. He's been writing about this for the "Los Angeles Times." Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

JOHN HORN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: The Motion Picture Association of America reports that Chinese box office receipts were a whopping $2.75 billion last year. That was an all-time high. Do we know how much American movies account for that total?

HORN: A lion's share. I mean, last year was so good for American movies that Chinese authorities actually tried to limit their success. There's only a handful of movies that get into China every year that are non-Chinese films. It used to be about 20, now it's about 34. But those American movies that do go into China do outsize business. There are other issues, in terms of the box office. Not all of the money flows back to United States. But it's a huge market for American movie studios and the Chinese audiences seem to want more and more American films.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more, if you would, about what role the government plays in deciding which American movies do make it into theaters in China. For example, the fact that the first thing you've told us is that there's a quota. They only allow 34 films every year. But what other role does the government play in this?

HORN: Every role. That would be the easiest way to describe it. The Chinese government decides not only which pictures will be admitted, they decide how they're going to be released, when they're going to be released, how many screens they'll play on, what share of those films' revenues will go back to the United States. I mean, it is absolutely a government-run monopoly, even though there's, you know, sort of semi-private companies working below the surface. So the government decides, you know, at various stages, what movies they will accept for exhibition into the country. And at the same time, there's kind of a parallel business where the Chinese government, on certain occasions, will coproduce or cofinance an American movie. And that is a little bit more complicated and the benefits for the Hollywood studios, in that case, are that they could get more of the box office revenue than if they were just admitted as a quota film.

MARTIN: Now you reported on the fact that American filmmakers have been willing to make changes in stories of films that they've already cut and released in the U.S. market to appease the Chinese market. And I want to focus on two different aspects of this. One is audience appeal and then, the second is outright censorship. So the first thing I wanted to talk about is audience appeal. I understand that there are just some storylines that the Chinese prefer. Do you want to talk a little about that?

HORN: Yeah, now it may not be storylines that Chinese audiences prefer. It's storylines that Chinese government officials prefer. And we don't really know which is the case. Now there's a huge bootleg market in American DVDs in China. So the appetite for uncensored movies or movies that have not been accepted past the quota is huge. So it's very clear that Chinese moviegoers or DVD watchers love American movies, regardless of the form they're in. That's kind of the side story. The proper story is that the Chinese government wants to make sure that the stories, the films that they're signing off on have, kind of, you know, the right elements. So you're never going to get the Chinese government to sign off on a movie about Tibet, for example. And World War Z, which is a upcoming zombie movie that had a reference to China having a role in the zombie outbreak, right now has not been accepted for exhibition in China. And we don't know if that's because Brad Pitt was in a Tibetan movie or because China was referenced in the zombie attack. So those are kind of the, you know, those are some of the things that you can't do, that are just kind of bete noires.

MARTIN: Well, what about the...

HORN: And then there's the...

MARTIN: Tell me - let me ask you about this, like for example, in "Iron Man 3." I just want to play short clip. I have a clip from a scene where Air Force One is plummeting out of the sky and Iron Man comes to the rescue. Let me just play that and then I'll ask you about it. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "IRON MAN 3")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (as Tony Stark) How many in the air?

PAUL BETTANY: (as Jarvis) Thirteen, sir.

DOWNEY JR: (as Tony Stark) How many can I carry?

BETTANY: (as Jarvis) Four, sir.

MARTIN: I understand that additional footage was added, that there were two Chinese characters who had simple cameos in the original version, had a full back story. Why? Now what's that about?

HORN: There's two things that actually happened in Iron Man that are worth noting. One is that in the comic books, there's a character called the Mandarin who is kind of a Chinese exile, very villainous. Little bit of a spoiler - if you've seen "Iron Man 3," the Mandarin in this movie isn't really a Chinese exile, he's not really the villain. So they kind of watered down the Mandarin as a Chinese villain. So that's part one. Part two is the filmmakers shot an additional four minutes of scenes that are only going to be shown in China, and they're really kind of minor scenes. In fact, the director of the film, Shane Black, didn't even direct the scenes that are shown for Chinese audiences.

Now that is partially to appeal to the Chinese moviegoers, and it's certainly successful. "Iron Man 3" is probably going to gross about $130 million in China, which is a huge number for an American film. But the idea is to give the Chinese audiences a little bit extra. And those scenes will never be shown in U.S. theaters. They probably won't even make it into the U.S. DVD cut of the film. There's an actress named Fan Bingbing, who, you know, if you blink, you'd miss her in the American version of the film, but has, you know, extended scenes in the four minutes that are added to the Chinese version of the film. And the idea is just to give Chinese audiences a little bit more to help sell tickets there.

MARTIN: But what about the whole "Django Unchained" experience? I understand that Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" had some bumps in its Chinese release.

HORN: Just a few.

MARTIN: Tell me about it. Like, for example, this is a very violent scene. I just want to play a little bit of it where a pack of dogs is released by the plantation owner, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, to attack and kill a slave on his plantation. This film was - this was controversial in this market, so I just want to play very briefly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "DJANGO UNCHAINED")

MARTIN: So what happened there?

HORN: Well, "Django Unchained" was the first Quentin Tarantino movie that was ever exhibited theatrically in China. And what happened is, when the film first premiered in April, it had already been censored a little bit by the Chinese authorities. It started showing and literally, a minute or two into the screening, the house lights came up and the projector stopped and Chinese authorities pulled the film from Chinese theaters. About a month later, it came back and it had been edited even more severely. And when you start editing out violence from a Quentin Tarantino movie, it's a little bit like removing all the sports from a football game. There's really not that much left. And the audiences rejected the movie, they didn't go see it, it was a box office flop. So as you're trying to kind of accommodate, you know, the Chinese authorities and their censorship needs with a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino, you're basically going to end up with nothing because you have cut so much from the film that is no longer what Quentin Tarantino tried to make.

MARTIN: Are American filmmakers talking about this? I mean, I recall that Quentin Tarantino got very annoyed when people questioned him about the level of violence in this film, which was released, as many people recall, right around the time of the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. And he was very aggressive about defending his artistic vision. Okay, so the question now is, what are American filmmakers saying about this? Are they just willing to acquiesce or do they say that they don't have any control over this? Or what's the conversation like about this in Hollywood?

HORN: Well, there's two different conversations. One is that the studios are so reliant on Chinese money that they want to make sure that their movies are shown there. So you know, DVD sales around the world have flattened. Box office in the United States isn't growing. So China represents one of the true growth markets, one of the only growth markets in the entire world for Hollywood. So Hollywood studios are desperate to get their movies in there. Now filmmakers may fight, they may complain, but ultimately they're going to have to go along at a certain point. And a good example would be "Transformers 4," which is Michael Bay's next film. Now they're doing kind of a reality show casting game, where they're going to cast some actors, professionals and nonprofessionals, to be in "Transformers 4." Would Michael Bay prefer not to have to go through that kind of ritual for "Transformers 4"? Absolutely. But if that means that his film will be exhibited in China and that it will make tens, if not maybe more than $100 million there, he's probably willing to take that just for the benefit of the revenues it will generate.

MARTIN: John Horn is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. He was kind enough to join us from the studios, from the Marketplace Studios, in Los Angeles. John Horn, thank you so much for joining us.

HORN: My pleasure, thank you.

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