Influence of China’s Box Office on Films with Chinese Story Elements

Influence of China’s Box Office on Films with Chinese Story Elements

12.03.18

Hong Kong, March 13, 2018 – A new study shows a direct correlation between the growth of the mainland Chinese box office and films that avoid negative Chinese story elements, including depiction of Chinese villains.

Influence of China's box office on Films with Chinese Story Elements

CHART (click to enlarge) – Red line shows number of films with negative elements, blue line is number of positive/neutral films.

Based on a list of more than 100 films made by western studios and western producers/directors since 1990, the study commissioned by Hong Kong-based Dragon Horse Films Limited found that the majority of films made after 2011 – when China’s box office passed US$2 billion – have avoided negative Chinese portrayals. (see chart)
Foreign films submitted for release in China must pass government censorship, and movies portraying Chinese or the culture in a negative way are banned or have scenes cut before they can be screened.
The mainland China box office reached US$8.6 billion in 2017. Last year, nine English language films with Chinese storylines and/or characters were released. Two featured Chinese villains in supporting character roles*, but neither of those were from Hollywood studios, which each year compete for the 34 foreign films allowed under the shared revenue agreement between the US and China.
The last big Hollywood studio movie to feature a Chinese villain, “The Dark Knight” (2008), was never submitted by Warner Bros for Chinese approval due to “cultural sensitivities”.
Hollywood producers learned their lesson when films like “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” (2003), “Mission Impossible 3” (2006) and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” (2007) were banned outright or faced cuts before receiving Chinese government approval.
To be sure, Chinese villains are still seen in some English language movies, but these are usually co-productions with mainland Chinese partners (eg, “SMART Chase”, 2017) – where scripts are submitted to censors in advance for approval – or Jackie Chan action-comedies (eg, “Skiptrace”, 2016).
Alternatively, if Hollywood producers feature Chinese villains, they are far more cautious and even cast western actors in the roles. Example: Dave Bautista played a ruthless warlord in “Enter the Warrior’s Gate” (2016), a story set in ancient China.
Other producers have cast Koreans as Asian villains, as in “Lucy” (2014), or the remake of John Woo’s “A Better Tomorrow” (2010). In the case of “The Hangover” comedies, Korean-American actor Ken Jeong played the Chinese gangster Mr Chow, a casting choice that likely exacerbated the situation as far as the Chinese were concerned.
The holy grail in Hollywood today is a movie that transcends cultural barriers and appeals to both mainland Chinese and English speakers – without the pandering that turns off audiences in either market.
The solution is simple: tell a good story. Hong Kong based Dragon Horse Films Limited has a portfolio of Chinese screen stories that were written with an international audience in mind. To learn more, please visit Dragon Horse Films at Hong Kong Filmart 2008, March 19-22. Booth 1E-F22
* Independent film “The Jade Pendant”, featuring Tzi Ma as a Chinese triad boss, was distributed in the US by Crimson Forest. It has yet to secure a release on the Chinese mainland. “SMART Chase”, a story that depicts mainland Chinese criminals in minor roles, is a UK-China co-production.