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The dawn of the Chinese blockbuster

Filmmakers with local heroes and digital technologies are disrupting Hollywood’s global advantage.

In the fall of 2004, I was invited to speak about writing James Bond movies and video games at the Golden Eagle Film and TV Arts Festival in Changsha, China. Odds are you’ve never heard of the city, or the festival — just as I hadn’t, before I agreed to go. But like most things in China outside Beijing and Shanghai, the size and the wealth of Changsha, and the importance of the Golden Eagle festival, took me by surprise. Located 1,500 miles south of Beijing, Changsha was a thoroughly modern metropolis, with a population roughly the size of Houston’s, where high-end European luxury cars were not uncommon on the streets, and old industrial lofts had been turned into chic little restaurants where waiters in black Armani T-shirts served US$100 bowls of shark-fin soup. And the festival itself, an annual conference of media executives and content creators from all over China, took place in an ultramodern convention center and television broadcast facility, ringed by a condominium complex and an amusement park that would have felt right at home in Los Angeles. The keynote speaker was Viacom chair Sumner Redstone.

The night before my talk, I went to the TV broadcast of the festival’s Golden Eagle Awards ceremony, which is sort of like the American People’s Choice awards, in that the winners are chosen by popular vote across China. The TV audience that night, I’d later learn, was 304 million. I didn’t understand a word of the show. But as I sat there, watching the musical acts perform on a stage filled with lasers and pyrotechnics, I was struck by what I interpreted as a Western influence on Chinese pop culture. There was the Chinese Bruce Springsteen, a working man in construction boots and a leather vest; the Chinese Tom Jones, an aging Lothario with his shirt unbuttoned to his waist; the Chinese Spice Girls; the Chinese boy band; and the Chinese Alanis Morissette, singing of heartbreak and revenge.

It would be five years before I realized that I was wrong in my interpretation. But on that night, thinking about how much culture we shared, I decided to begin my talk the next day with a joke.

“Allow me to say that I am both ‘shaken and stirred’ by the warmth of your greeting,” I said, to a hotel ballroom filled with filmmakers and media executives. “Changsha is such a beautiful city that I hope I can come back here one day with 007, and blow half of it up. And I mean that as a great compliment.” For a moment, the response to this was dead silence. Then, as the translation sank in, a wave of laughter rolled through the audience. Clearly, I was among friends — media colleagues — who all shared the same apocalyptic sense of humor, the world over.

Following this, I showed the opening sequence from a James Bond video game I’d written. It was filled with exactly the same kind of epic stunts and incredible action pieces you’d see at the beginning of a Bond film. I explained that the video game industry was now larger than the movie business, and that for the first time, with the latest advances in computer graphics and motion-capture technology, it was possible to create compelling stories with lifelike characters in games.

“There’s no difference between writing a game, or a TV show, or a movie,” I said. “But the challenge — for all of us in this room — is to create those compelling characters, and tell those great stories, whether it’s for 60 minutes in a TV show, two hours in a movie, or 11 hours in a game. We all want the audience to be riveted and feel that they haven’t wasted their time or their money.”

To my surprise, in the Q&A that followed, no one asked about video games. Rather, all the questions were variations on one topic: “How do we make James Bond films?” “How do we make big international action films?” “How do we make movies that play all over the world and compete in the international marketplace?”

Maybe it was because the hour was late, or that I felt a sense of camaraderie with the audience, but I let my guard down, spoke off the cuff, and gave what started out to be a tongue-in-cheek answer.

“Well,” I began, “You don’t. You can’t. In Hollywood, we know how to make those big movies. We burn through $2 million a minute making them. And even then, they bomb half the time. They’re not refrigerators or air conditioners or DVD players. You can’t make them cheaper or faster. And unless you’re willing to spend that kind of money, you can’t get into that business.”

Now there was an uncomfortable silence in the room.

“But,” I continued, “the truth is that there are only a handful of countries in the world that can sustain a domestic film industry — meaning there’s a large enough home audience to turn a profit without relying on government subsidies or international sales: India, Japan, Korea, the United States — and, along with a few others, China.

“So my question to you,” I went on, “is why haven’t you made Sleepless in Shanghai? Or Four Weddings and a Funeral, set in Beijing? Or Lethal Weapon, set in Hangzhou? If I were you, I’d grow the Chinese domestic audience first.”

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Predictably, the Internet trolls weighed in the next day, outraged that “James Bond Screenwriter Says China Can’t Make International Movies,” misconstruing everything I’d said. But two weeks later, a venture capitalist friend from Beijing called, proposing a partnership: “Let’s make those movies for the Chinese domestic audience,” he said, adding, “I’ll bring the money, you’ll bring the Hollywood storytelling.” It took me about two seconds to say yes. I got a visa, we added a young Chinese development executive to the team who’d worked for Miramax in Asia, and we were off and running. I began shuttling between L.A. and Beijing, meeting with Chinese filmmakers, reading scripts, and listening to pitches, trying to find movies to produce.

The trip to Changsha and the Golden Eagle festival turned out to be the beginning of a personal odyssey. A great part of my work, during the years that followed, focused on helping young Chinese filmmakers make better movies — not to compete internationally, but for the far more important and interesting purpose of cultivating their home audience. In the process, I learned a great deal about cultural imperialism in general and American business egotism in particular. Not only had I been wrong in many of my assumptions about the Chinese film industry, I had been completely incorrect about the inspiration for those musical acts. At heart, I had not fully recognized the relationship between local and global culture, and how one evolves from the other. Today I understand it much better. But my early misconceptions are still common among executives in Hollywood and across the United States entertainment and business landscape. Perhaps some soul searching is called for — not just in the entertainment industry, but among leaders of any global enterprise.

Hollywood to Hengdian

For over 100 years, Hollywood has dominated the international marketplace. No one else has been able to produce the hugely expensive wide-screen spectacles that are known as “tentpoles”: projects with Hollywood production values whose ability to attract audiences props up everything else financially. Now, Hollywood’s monopoly on those films may be on the verge of disappearing. Technological disruption has made the tools of Hollywood production available to filmmakers around the globe, in a way that observes no borders. At the same time, the yearning for localization, which seems hardwired into every culture on the planet, is only getting stronger. People don’t want global cinema; they want local movies with storytelling and production as good as anything done in Hollywood.

People don’t want global cinema; they want local movies with storytelling and production as good as anything done in Hollywood.

This is a type of challenge different from what the conventional wisdom would suggest. Chinese filmmakers are probably not going to compete for U.S. or European audiences anytime soon. But they are bringing global production values home to compete intensively with any outsiders.

As anyone who has tried to set up a business outside his or her home country can attest, there’s always a learning curve. There are always things you didn’t know, didn’t anticipate, and didn’t fully understand. When I spoke in Changsha back in 2004, for example, I knew that China had a handful of filmmakers who were turning out a few movies every year that were among the world’s most imaginative, visually innovative, and emotionally satisfying films. But it wasn’t until I began working in Beijing that I realized China was making hundreds of TV shows and movies every year. Many of them, according to Chinese bloggers quoted in Foreign Policy magazine, were derisively dismissed as leiren (“struck by lightning”) for their absurd plots, over-the-top acting, and cheesy special effects — and were subsequently dwarfed at the box office by slick, big-budget Hollywood titles such as Spider-Man, Transformers, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Night at the Museum. (Even with the Chinese quota on “foreign” films, ostensibly enacted to protect and encourage local filmmaking, those American titles accounted for five of the 10 highest-grossing films in China in 2007, with Transformers at number one. The annual quota rose from 20 films to 34 in 2012.)

Still, I discovered there were film schools and first-rate film studios across the country. In fact, what was billed as the world’s largest film studio — Hengdian — took up an entire city not far from Shanghai. Opened in 1996, it had standing sets for Asian street markets, European cities, a futuristic space-travel landscape, and a near full-sized replica of Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City. Just like what you’d find on the old backlots at Warner Bros., Paramount, or Fox, but on a massive scale.

Some of the teething problems for our fledgling production company were typical of any business startup. On Monday we’d all sign off on the Chinese domestic film strategy, and on Wednesday someone would ask, “Why aren’t we making international movies with Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg?” Other snags seemed to be more rooted in cultural differences. Sometimes it seemed as if any signed contract could be renegotiated by invoking the phrase “things changed.” Even the style, and mind-set, behind negotiations was foreign to me. In the U.S., you’d begin to negotiate for talent based on the “ask” from their last picture — say, $350,000 for a director. In China, my colleagues would regularly counter this “ask” at 10 percent, or $35,000. Sometimes we made a deal, sometimes we didn’t. But if someone had tried this negotiating tactic in Hollywood — short of having a shelf filled with Oscars — no one would take that person seriously.

Still, we managed to make our first movie. Hutong Days was a $3 million domestic comedy, set in present-day Beijing. It told the story of a young architect who loses his job when his wife goes away on a business trip, and learns to be a better father, and a better husband, when he’s forced to search for new employment while caring for their 7-year-old son.

The movie did modestly well; the story seemed to resonate with the audience. But for me, the more pertinent lesson took place offscreen. The director spoke no English, and I barely had any Mandarin. Yet as we worked together, tweaking the script, staging the scenes, and editing the footage, we discovered that we shared a mutual language of film and storytelling. We eventually understood each other well enough to communicate just with hand signals. (You can imagine the gesture for “cut a little off the head” of a scene.) This connection transcended the differences in our cultures and upbringing. So much so that when the TV star we’d cast as the architect pushed back on a scene we’d written, where the architect has a flirtation with a housekeeper — proclaiming, “A man of my stature would never be interested in a maid” — we both knew exactly how to respond.

“You’re absolutely right,” we lied. “An architect might not be interested in a maid. But do you know who that housekeeper is in real life?”

He shook his head.

“She’s every one of your fans across China,” we continued. “It’s not about class. It’s about hope.”

The actor furrowed his brow, thinking about this for a moment, then smiled, gave us a wink, and trotted back to the set, where he played the scene with great conviction. The director and I looked at each other and shrugged. No translator was necessary to interpret what we were both thinking: No matter where you go in the world, actors are actors. Their egos are unconstrained by geographic boundaries.

Leaving fatalism behind

I worked on and off in China over the next decade — living in Singapore for two of those years — and watched as the Chinese movie business expanded like a slow-motion fireball in an action film. Every day seemed to bring the announcement of a new cineplex, or a new production company, as the number of screens in China grew from 3,500 in 2007 to nearly 50,000 in 2017, and the aggregate box-office gross went from $455 million to $8.5 billion. The numbers were dazzling, as China passed Japan, then the U.S., to become the world’s largest film market. But I also witnessed a different kind of growth, just as important as the rising box office: A growth in the storytelling prowess of young Chinese filmmakers.

In our early days — from 2005 to about 2010 — most of the scripts we read and the pitches we heard from young filmmakers were stories about fate. The lead characters had no agency. There was no free will, or self-determination. The stories would usually end with the lead character accepting his or her lot in life, rather than charting his or her own destiny.

This ran counter to the way film stories unreel in Hollywood, where our films are founded on something called “the hero’s journey.” It comes from Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which examined ancient mythology and heroic archetypes that still resonate today. Ultimately, faced with dire consequences, a hero must find some deeper quality within that enables him or her to grow, change, and triumph over adversity (see Rocky I–V). This gives the audience someone to root for, something to aspire to, and a shared sense of optimism and hope when they leave the theater. It’s the thematic underpinning of virtually every successful Hollywood film, from The Wizard of Oz to Black Panther — with the textbook example being that moment in Star Wars when Luke Skywalker turns off the autopilot, finds the Force within himself, and destroys the Death Star.

I would often find myself describing this thematic difference in storytelling to my screenwriting pals back in Los Angeles. I’d explain that in both Chinese and American cultures, you’ll find movies where a threatened king arranges for his daughter to marry an evil warlord in order to maintain peace in the land. In both cultures, the princess and her young guard (whom the king has chosen to accompany her) fall in love during the journey. In the Hollywood version, the guard unmasks the warlord, marries the princess, and becomes the heir to the throne. In the Chinese version, the guard turns her over to the warlord — usually standing in a snowstorm, bereft, with tears in his eyes, accepting that this is the way things were meant to be. The most head-scratching example of this, which I heard from a young Chinese filmmaker in about 2008, was a story about a Beijing police detective who moves to a rural town where a heinous murder has been committed, believing the killer must live somewhere near the scene of the crime. After 25 years of obsessive investigating — losing his wife and job in the process — he learns he was right. The killer did live nearby. But he had died in a car accident on his way home, 10 minutes after the murder.

Sometime after 2010, we started to notice a difference in the pitches we were hearing from young filmmakers, and the movies we were seeing on Chinese screens. The number of “fate” stories diminished, and we began to see more narratives where people became the masters of their own destinies. Young women who took charge of their dating lives; athletes who overcame insurmountable odds; nerdy computer geeks who got the girl — or sometimes the guy.

What caused this change? On one hand, I’m sure the young Chinese filmmakers were influenced by the audience reaction to the movies they were seeing and making. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel the changes reflected a larger shift in Chinese society as a whole: The emergence of a huge, upwardly mobile middle class. China is now a country with more than 100 billion-dollar startups, where an English teacher at a modest engineering school — Jack Ma, from Hangzhou, whose parents were shunned during the Cultural Revolution — created the Chinese Internet giant Alibaba, and became a national folk hero.

Whatever the cause, Chinese filmmakers were now using one of the key storytelling tools in the Hollywood toolbox. The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2013, “China’s domestic filmmakers have stepped up their game, producing better-quality movies.” They were taking a larger share of the overall (and ever-growing) box office, while the U.S. share had dropped by 9 percent. Nevertheless, I still believed that Hollywood’s dominance in the international tentpole category was unassailable. Especially after hearing the audience whoop and cheer at a sold-out showing of Transformers: Dark of the Moon in a theater just outside Tiananmen Square, where it struck me that there were only two essential lines of dialogue in the movie, and they needed no translation at all: “What the f—k is that?” and “Kill it!”

The cultural imperialism trap

By the end of my first decade in China, we’d made a few films, with middling success. The one I was proudest of, Hong He, was a love story set on the border of Vietnam and China, in the aftermath of the “American war” in Vietnam.

Between overnight flights to Beijing, I was still working as a screenwriter in Hollywood, and loved working on American movies. But there was something about the American film industry’s attitude toward China that had begun to gnaw at me. Hollywood wanted — no, needed — the Chinese box office to make those high-budget tentpole movies profitable. A $200 million movie might break even in America, but the real profit came from overseas markets, and China was about to become the biggest market of all. Nonetheless, the American film executives who were now showing up in Beijing seemed both complacent about Hollywood’s dominance and clueless about the Chinese market they were so determined to capture.

Every month, it seemed, a Hollywood executive would appear at a Chinese-American film conference and deliver the same “we know how to make big movies” declaration I’d made a decade before. I cringed every time I heard it, embarrassed not just by my own impetuousness 10 years earlier, but by the snickers and eye rolls that I saw from my Chinese colleagues hearing it now. As one of my mainland friends snickered, “What’s with these guys? Do they think we’re still using shadow puppets?”

It also seemed as though every month, yet another Hollywood executive would announce a surefire plan to win the Chinese box office by making a film with an American male star — who they’d insist was “big in China” — and casting a Chinese actress as his love interest. I couldn’t help but wonder: Had they never stopped to consider how they’d react if an Italian movie producer proffered this scheme to make hit movies for the American audience? Had they walked blindfolded through the airport terminals in Beijing or Shanghai, and missed all the billboards for international brands that used American celebrity endorsements in the United States, but Chinese movie stars in China? Had anyone thought to run this idea past a decent sampling of Chinese moviegoers?

And it seemed as if every month, yet still another executive would show up, trying to make the case for raising the Chinese foreign film quota, proclaiming that “everyone” in China was watching Netflix’s House of Cards, and that there was a “huge” Chinese market for small, independent American movies — formerly known as art-house films. Once again, I couldn’t help but wonder: If French art-house films struggle to find an audience in America, why would American art-house films suddenly be huge draws in China? And was that touted “everyone in China” House of Cards audience more accurately counted as “everyone” the executive had dinner with in Shanghai last night?

Then there was the dinner party in Santa Monica, Calif., where a film producer by virtue of his trust fund — someone who’d never set foot anywhere west of Hawaii — lectured me about why the Chinese government wouldn’t raise the quota on foreign films: “They’re scared. Terrified. They’re frightened by American movies. They know that once the Chinese people see our culture and our lifestyles, they’ll topple the government.” I’m not sure if he saw my eyes roll in response to this, but when I shared it with my snarky Chinese colleague on Skype a few hours later, he thought it was hilarious. “Actually, we’re doing you a favor by keeping your movies out,” he joked. “Otherwise, we’d think you were more decadent and depraved than we already do.”

My Chinese film friends had a shorthand for this attitude. They referred to it as “American cultural imperialism.” And like imperialism anywhere, it didn’t bode well for the long-term sustainability of the enterprise.

Universal heroes

In 2016, I was accused of cultural imperialism myself. But not in China. And not for any of the Chinese movies I’d been involved with. Rather, it happened at a film school in Los Angeles, with regard to the James Bond films I’d written. A student declared that I was guilty of “promoting a colonialist agenda,” and couldn’t understand “how anyone outside the U.S. or the U.K. could find those films entertaining.” It wasn’t the first time I’d heard this accusation. But it was the first time my answer revealed something to me about my own cultural bias in China.

“Bond movies are spectacles,” I explained to the class. “The women, the guns, the gadgets, the impossible stunts. That’s part of the appeal. But what makes it resonate around the globe is that underneath it all, there’s an archetypal character whose story exists in the mythology of every culture on the planet. The emperor — or the king, or the president, or the tribal chieftain — sends out a lone warrior to save the people from certain destruction. That’s what makes it universal. You find variations on that story with Shogun warriors in Japan, Wuxia warriors in China, Maasai warriors in Africa, Mãori warriors in New Zealand. Bond is only the modern-day version — with higher production values.”

As soon as I said this, I had a moment of realization. Something clicked, and I connected dots I’d never connected before: Nobody owns the hero’s journey. Nobody owns any of these archetypes. But we all take them, and alter them to reflect our own cultures. I thought back to that TV show in Changsha, where I’d pigeonholed one of the performers as the Springsteen of China, and I realized I’d been wrong. Springsteen’s influences can be traced back from Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger to John Steinbeck to Walt Whitman, and eventually all the way back to Homer. The boy groups? The Vienna Boys choir and the 16th-century Italian castrati. The girl groups? They took to the stage as the sirens in ancient Greece, with earlier lineups in Egypt, Babylon, and Judea. Even the endless tranche of superhero movies — wherein a superhero with “personal issues” works out his inner conflicts by destroying an American city — find their shapeshifting character origins in Egyptian, Greek, Indian, Norse, and Chinese mythology. The beloved Chinese Monkey King alone could make 72 different transformations. The only real difference between now and then is that instead of hurling city buses and wreaking havoc on modern municipal infrastructure, Zeus was throwing lightning bolts.

Whether I was guilty of unconscious bias I’ll leave for others to decide. And so far as the Hollywood executives’ attitude goes, the ancient Greeks had a word for that, too: hubris.

For decades, Hollywood ruled over the entertainment world because it could make archetypal movies bigger, better, and louder than anyone else. But to take a page from the Marvel canon, that dominion has now been challenged by the gods of Silicon Valley.

The new local tentpoles

Growing up in Mumbai during the 1970s, the legendary computer graphics chip designer Raja Koduri was enthralled by movies. You may not know his work at Apple, AMD, or Intel (where he’s now senior vice president and chief architect of the core and visual computing group), but you’ve been awed by the graphics his processors have made possible, on everything from the iPhone in your pocket to the visual effects on the screen at your local Imax.

In 2010, Koduri co-launched Makuta VFX, a visual effects and animation house in Hyderabad. And in 2015, Makuta created the special effects for Baahubali, a mythological tale about a reluctant warrior who unites his countrymen to fight against evil. Produced for only $25 million with a local cast and crew, the film combined the latest in Hollywood special effects (computer-generated palaces, epic battle scenes) with all the hallmarks of Indian films (musical sequences, romance, mysticism, Indian martial arts) and was virtually indistinguishable from a $150 million Hollywood tentpole. The local audience responded by making it the highest-grossing film in Indian history.

Two thousand miles to the east, Chinese filmmakers were also marrying local stories with the latest Hollywood blockbuster visual effects technology. Wolf Warrior II was a Die Hard–like action film set in Africa, about a disgraced Special Forces agent who redeems himself by rescuing a group of Chinese foreign aid workers who’ve been kidnapped by a Blackwater-like mercenary outfit. If it had been made in Hollywood, it would have starred Bruce Willis or Liam Neeson and opened July 4th weekend. The Bruce Willis version probably would have done well at the Chinese box office. But the 2017 Wolf Warrior II — an all-Chinese production, directed by its star, Wu Jing, and made for $31 million — earned more than $831 million at the mainland box office, and became the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time.

Wolf Warrior II wasn’t an anomaly. On a much smaller scale, even a $5 million historical drama that I produced in 2017, The Jade Pendant, used CGI to recreate Los Angeles in 1871 and locomotives from the transcontinental railroad. But most recently, in the tentpole category, the Chinese audience turned out in force for The Wandering Earth, a futuristic space odyssey about Chinese astronauts sent out to save the planet from destruction. It’s a film that looks, sounds, and plays as well as Gravity, First Man, Apollo 13, or any other Hollywood space drama. And it’s already earned close to $700 million since its release in February 2019.

In short, China and India are now making their own tentpoles. This means that Hollywood no longer has the monopoly on the kinds of movies that have been the lifeblood of the American film business. This isn’t to say Hollywood blockbusters won’t continue to attract big audiences in China, or internationally. Some of them will. (Black Panther, for example, earned almost half its money overseas, and grossed over $100 million in China. Beyond the artistic achievement, it could be viewed as a parable for modern China itself, as the story of an ancient but emerging nation with vast riches and technological prowess trying to find its place in the world.) But going forward, these Hollywood films will be competing for viewers and their money with local alternatives using local stars, the local cultural aesthetic, and, probably sooner rather than later, a local phalanx of mythological heroes.

It doesn’t mean much to boast “We know how to make big movies” when everyone can. And we may already be seeing the implications of this at the Chinese box office: In 2018, the U.S. share of the Chinese box office was off by 24 percent. As Rance Pow, CEO of the Chinese film consultancy Artisan Gateway, explained to a group of filmmakers in Los Angeles, while overall ticket sales increased, “Most of that success is weighted in major Chinese-language films. Which means that Chinese tastes in film, and what sells big tickets, is becoming more and more local.” Even Netflix has recognized this, and has opened satellite offices in Asia and Europe to buy and produce high-quality local content that will appeal to local audiences.

As I said earlier, therein lies the lesson, and the caution, not just for Hollywood, but for anyone doing business internationally: Local culture plus globally available technology is the great international business equalizer. It’s what enabled China to grow its own e-commerce giants, instant messaging apps, and ride-sharing services. It doesn’t matter what story you’re selling — cheaper airline tickets or fireballs and car chases — the popular preference will always be found in localization.

In the long history of civilization, people have always gathered together at night, lit by the glow of campfires, sharing universal tales of love, loss, war, and redemption. On some level, we are hardwired to prefer them told through the lens of our own culture. The only difference now is that we’re lit by the glow of LED screens. No matter whether you dominate the globe today in artificial intelligence, robotics, cell phones, wide-screen entertainment, or social networking, only one thing is certain: No one is guaranteed a Hollywood ending.

Author profile:

  • Bruce Feirstein is a journalist and filmmaker known for, among other things, writing or cowriting the James Bond films GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, and The World Is Not Enough. His most recent Chinese film, The Jade Pendant, will be released in China in 2019.
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