China's film ambitions

08:30, August 09, 2010      

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Last year when I was preparing for a new edition of my book Hollywood Politics and Economics, I not only updated the data, but made a major change in tone on Chinese cinema. The book was first published in 2005, when I did not have high hopes for China's film industry. Four years on, I am forecasting the day when China will catch up with the US in box-office takings.

It may happen in my lifetime, faster than we expect, in view of the rapid appreciation of the yuan against the US dollar.

In 2004, US box-office receipts totaled $9.5 billion, and China's takings were 1.5 billion yuan, which, at the conversion rate of that time, translated to 228 times more consumption on the part of the average American compared to the average Chinese person.

Five years later in 2009, the US recorded $10 billion in total receipts and China reported 6 billion yuan, but now the per-capita consumption of movies in the US is only 49 times that of China.

Yes, China still lags far behind, but in four years the gap has shrunk more than three quarters.

Under these circumstances, it is not inconceivable that China may buy up a Hollywood studio in the not-so-distant future. When that happens, it'll create more ripples than Geely buying Volvo.

But Hollywood is an asset whose value means different things to the United States and China. To the US, Hollywood is just a manufacturer of entertainment products, but to China it is a symbol of soft power. The US may not be willing to sell media properties to foreign buyers, but Hollywood studios have always had foreign owners.

Symbolic significance can go only so far, though.

A buyer cannot live on symbols indefinitely and despite the initial and inevitable media hoopla, a buyer will soon realize he or she has bought only the brand, and maybe a library of film rights.

There is not much "hardware" in a modern film studio. And talents and expertise command market prices. So, you don't really "own" any stars.

The new owner will face the choice of making films that appeal to the widest possible audience or those that convey messages, personal or ideological.

More bluntly, does he or she want to keep it Hollywood and make the most money, or make it Chinese and risk losing significant market share? (But I'm not implying a film that looks Chinese that surely lose money.)

Ultimately, it will be a decision between profit and politics.

If potential buyers are looking for signposts, Columbia, which was bought by Sony in 1989, has not done anything to promote Japanese culture in its film products. Ironically, Ken Watanabe, the only Japanese star to break out in Hollywood, actually first appeared in the Warner Brothers film The Last Samurai, not a Sony production.

In my book, I devoted a full chapter to Sony's saga when it stumbled after its purchase of Columbia.

Will the same thing happen to whichever Chinese company that ends up the proud owner of a Hollywood studio?

Can it manage Hollywood egomania?

Whether funds are private or government funneled, buyers should know what they are getting into.

They'd better watch a lot of Entourage before joining the bidding.

Source: China Daily


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