Hollywood's New Strategy: Supporting Chinese-Made Blockbusters : Code Switch American studios are working hard to play well in China's gigantic — and growing — movie market, all while negotiating complex rules and competing with popular domestic films.
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Hollywood's New Strategy: Supporting Chinese-Made Blockbusters

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Hollywood's New Strategy: Supporting Chinese-Made Blockbusters

Hollywood's New Strategy: Supporting Chinese-Made Blockbusters

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Hollywood is a huge business, which has reached into virtually every corner in the world. But one market remains hard to crack - China, a big one.

As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, the Chinese have placed limits on just how much of Hollywood culture they're willing to accept - just a few dozen films per year.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: For a while, what every studio wanted was a deal like "Looper's." The science fiction thriller came out last year as an official co-production between Hollywood and China.


BRUCE WILLIS: (As Old Joe) You should go to China.

JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT: (As Joe) I'm going to France.

WILLIS: (As Old Joe) I'm from the future. You should go to China.

GORDON-LEVITT: (As Joe) I'm going...

ULABY: An official co-production is the ultimate binational super deal. It requires a certain number of Chinese actors, Chinese crews, scenes set in China and, of course, cooperation with Chinese censors. In return, "Looper" got a bigger cut of the Chinese box office than other U.S. movies. But the film's China is basically just an atmospheric backdrop. The Chinese actors never speak, even the one playing Bruce Willis' wife.


ULABY: A Chinese cut did expand Chinese elements for its Chinese audience. Hollywood's recent attempts to appeal to that audience - the world's second largest - have often been clumsy or cynical.


ROBERT DOWNEY JR: (As Tony Stark) Where's The Mandarin? Where is he?

ULABY: "Iron Man 3" was not an official co-production, but its studio cooperated with the Chinese government and tweaked it for Chinese audiences. People there saw a version that played down its unfortunately named super-villain, The Mandarin.



ULABY: "Iron Man 3" ended up being a huge hit in China. The version there played up a Chinese good guy, and threw in some Chinese product placements, says Janet Yang. She's a film producer who's worked in both countries for decades.

JANET YANG: The reaction on the part of many Chinese was oh, well, they really didn't have to. It felt tacked on.

ULABY: Hollywood's learning curve is still steep when it comes to courting Chinese audiences, and appeasing its censors. One American producer working in China told me that the country's film board is known to reject horror movies and blowing up buildings - unless those buildings are in Hong Kong.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Come on! Let's go...

ULABY: A movie hard on Hong Kong real estate, "Pacific Rim," was one of China's biggest imported hits this year. The country's censors also discourage movies featuring kids defying their parents. That was a problem for Disney when it tried to spin off a Chinese version of "High School Musical."


UNIDENTIFIED CAST MEMBERS: (As characters) (Singing in foreign language)

ULABY: The final movie included numbers promoting teenage obedience, and the awesomeness of calculus. Disney hired Janet Yang to be executive producer partly because she's an American fluent in Chinese. She had to negotiate expectations between Disney and its Chinese partners. They told the U.S. studio...

YANG: You can't expect a movie with no stars to do well.

ULABY: Because Chinese hits tend to be completely star-driven. The Chinese company suggested building a fan base for the film's young actors by taking them on a song and dance tour around the country.

YANG: Basically, Disney kind of rejected that idea 'cause they said, no - because the whole reason that we're doing this movie is to promote "High School Musical" as a brand and not this whole other thing as a brand.

ULABY: Then, another cultural problem. High school is a miserable time for Chinese teenagers. They're cramming for college, not singing or dancing.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) (Speaking in foreign language)

ULABY: So, Yang said, Disney changed the title - to "High School Musical: College Dreams."

YANG: Because in college, apparently, people are having a good time. (Laughter) They're like, we finally we got into college, whoopee! Now, we can party. (Laughter)


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) (Speaking in foreign language)

ULABY: But all the constant back-and-forthing made the Chinese partners lose interest.

STEVEN SALZMAN: It didn't do well in China.

ULABY: Steven Salzman is one of Hollywood's go-to lawyers, when it comes to negotiating deals with China.

SALZMAN: And I think Hollywood's finally - maybe slowly beginning to figure out, it's not that easy. We can't just walk in there, soak up all this capital, and not provide a real quid pro quo.

ULABY: The quid China wants for its pro quo is help making its own global hits. Now, a wave of Hollywood insiders are eager to volunteer. Jeffrey Sharp produced major independent movies, including "Boys Don't Cry." Now, he's focused exclusively on China.

JEFFREY SHARP: We're working with filmmakers that are either Chinese, Mainland Chinese, Hong Kong or Taiwan. You know, it's basically building partners on the ground.

ULABY: Sharp's teaching his Chinese partners about financing, how to option books, how to package and develop them into movies.

SHARP: They're all Chinese authors, and we're developing a lot of these with U.S. screenwriting talent.

ULABY: This is the latest Hollywood trend, working with what's called Chinawood, as it grows; learning what Chinese people are watching, not what Hollywood thinks they want to watch.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #2: (Spoken in foreign language)

ULABY: Of the eight top-grossing movies in China this year, six were domestic productions; many of them breezy, contemporary comedies. China's audience is hungry to see their own stories on movie screens opening there at the rate of 10 new ones every day. Already, a Chinese company owns the biggest movie chain on the planet, AMC. What China needs now is worldwide, Chinese-made blockbusters to put into them.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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