If China Buys An American Movie Studio, How Will It Change What We See On Screen?

While noting that Chinese corporations don’t have to try to buy an American movie studio, the Hollywood Reporter examines the reasons that they might want to, considering the investments the manufacturer TCL has made in naming rights and product placement in the last month. Clarence Tsui writes:

But China’s expansion into Hollywood is, in many respects, the opposite of Japan’s. Sony and Matsushita ran Columbia and MCA according to their own business ethos and, in the case of Sony, hoped to generate content for its own products. What China needs from Hollywood is more than a return on investment; it needs expertise. By partnering with Hollywood, the Chinese film sector — which saw box office jump from $144.2 million in 2002 to $2.69 billion last year, with the number of screens going from 1,400 to about 12,000 in the same period — can continue its rapid expansion while avoiding growing pains. “We want to be a global film exhibitor, and to develop this infrastructure on our own would take a long time,” Wang told THR in June. “Through the [AMC deal], we can achieve this very quickly.”…

As Chinese conglomerates acknowledge their inexperience in running multinational corporations, the takeover of a Hollywood studio instantly would grant China enormous cachet — and even more power — on the global film scene. The purchase of Hollywood assets is “an enhancement of a company’s brand,” says Yang. “If Wanda can properly handle the adjustments in AMC’s corporate management and ensure a smooth transition, it will improve Wanda’s bargaining power abroad.”

It’s an important question for reasons of content as well as finance. Even though Chinese companies don’t own American movie studios, the New York Times explained in a story earlier this month that American movie makers, in order to gain access to the lucrative Chinese audience that, thus far, has shown a preference for American imports over domestic Chinese projects, is collaborating with Chinese government advisors to get their movies past the country’s censorship board:

Paramount Pictures just learned the hard way that some things won’t pass muster — like American fighter pilots in dogfights with MIGs. The studio months ago submitted a new 3-D version of “Top Gun” to Chinese censors. The ensuing silence was finally recognized as rejection….One production currently facing scrutiny is Disney and Marvel’s “Iron Man 3,” parts of which were filmed in Beijing in the last month. It proceeded under the watchful eye of Chinese bureaucrats, who were invited to the set and asked to advise on creative decisions, according to people briefed on the production who asked for anonymity to avoid conflict with government or company officials. Marvel and Disney had no comment….

Hollywood as a whole is shifting toward China-friendly fantasies that will fit comfortably within a revised quota system, which allows more international films to be distributed in China, where 3-D and large-format Imax pictures are particularly favored. At the same time, it is avoiding subject matter and situations that are likely to cause conflict with the roughly three dozen members of a censorship board run by China’s powerful State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, or S.A.R.F.T.

I have no objection to Hollywood thinking creatively about the fact that its audience is international, rather than simply domestic. That fact alone should drive the casting of more actors of Asian—and hopefully some day African—origin, and more consideration about what sources of drama, other than the establishment of American badassery, will resonate abroad. But it’s one thing for Hollywood to consider the needs of international consumers directly, and another for studios to have to seek the approval of government organizations that don’t necessarily represents the cultural demands and politics of consumers.

Given that seeking that approval is necessary to access that market in the first place, and that working with Chinese filmmakers and crews on co-productions has the effect of building up a film workforce and credentialing Chinese filmmakers with American audiences, I understand why studios would make the decision to press forward. But I’d rather see American filmmakers make movies that then get cut for Chinese audiences if they’re going to be cut at all, as was the case with Cloud Atlas. It’s not an ideal solution, but in a situation that offers no ideal options, I’d rather censorship be obvious than assimilated. A Chinese-owned studio would be more likely to integrate censorship requirements into creative decision-making from the start, making those changes more invisible to us.