East Meets West at the Movies

By Alyssa Rosenberg

The Hollywood Reporter observes that Hollywood, the Chinese film industry, and China’s central government would all like to see more movies that are co-produced by Chinese and American companies. The biggest obstacle to cooperation? Finding movies that will play in both Chinese and American markets, and that can make it past Chinese censors.

Obviously, script approval is a big deal. The MPAA is on record as saying the amount of time it takes to get a script approved in China scares off American investors. And the restrictions can be, to say the list, kind of odd. China recently banned time-travel movies on the grounds that they’re insufficiently respectful to historical figures (no Bill and Ted reboots for China, I guess!).

But finding the overlapping bit of the Ven diagram of Chinese and American tastes isn’t easy either. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which grossed $128 million in the United States, did only $85 million internationally, including in China. Romantic comedies are supposed to be reasonably big in China, but Disney’s remake of High School Musical for Chinese markets flopped. Chinese box office data isn’t reliably available in real time (the tracking sites like The-Numbers and Box Office Mojo seem to get their numbers through a variety of back-end sources, including the proprietors of streaming horror-movie sites), so it’s hard to see Chinese and American audiences reacting simultaneously to a mix of movies. And it would be hard to see that given even more reliable data, since China only accepts 20 American releases a year, so it’s hard to know if Battle: Los Angeles would be as popular in China as it is right now given other alternatives.

It’s possible that Nanjing Heroes, an upcoming Christian Bale-as-hunky-priest-is-a-hero-during-a-Japanese-massacre, will be the movie that hooks both American and Chinese audiences. Or the girl-learns-to-kick-ass-fairytale-rewrite that is Snow and the Seven. But until China accepts more foreign flicks, and until we’ve got more box office successes in both countries, we’re not going to have a good sense of what works on a massive scale in both markets. And that, not to mention the political complications of trying to navigate both the weirdness of the American market and the limitations of Chinese censorship, is going to make doing joint business hard.