Red Obsessions: Film Business Moves from Hollywood to Asia

February 7th, 2013

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Lars-Olav Beier, February 06, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

The movie industry is increasingly shifting toward Asia, especially China, striking fear in the hearts of Hollywood studio executives. The two cultures are about to clash at the Berlin International Film Festival, which opens with the Chinese epic film “The Grandmaster” by Wong Kar-wai … //

… Asian Film Market Gains Financial Weight:  

Not just China, but also South Korea and Russia have become more important in the film business in recent years. The Russian market grew by almost 20 percent in 2012, with a film like “Ice Age 4″ earning $50 million there, or more than half of its budget.

“We can no longer risk making an expensive film with a star who isn’t popular in Asia,” says Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer (”Pirates of the Caribbean”). While American films earned up to two-thirds of their revenues in North America in the 1980s, today it averages only about one third.

Hollywood has been beset by fears of a sellout, ever since Indian investment firm Reliance acquired the majority of the DreamWorks film studio and a Chinese company bought the second-largest movie theater chain in the United States. Finally, in mid-January the Chinese electronics company TLC bought the naming rights to Grauman’s Chinese Theater in the heart of Hollywood, one of the most famous movie theaters in the United States. It seems only a matter of time before the Chinese buy their first Hollywood studio.

It’s happened once before, now more than 20 years ago, that Asians, specifically Japanese companies like Sony, acquired a number of studios. “China wants something different from Hollywood than what Japan wanted at the time,” says American industry expert Thomas Plate. “It isn’t as much about money as it is about know-how.”

Of course, money isn’t the only issue for Hollywood, either. America sees cinema as its very own art form, tailor-made for telling the world American stories and celebrating American values. “We’ll still be making movies about American football in the future,” says Bruckheimer, “but with much smaller budgets. That’s because it’s almost exclusively American viewers who are interested in football.” Bruckheimer exhorts his screenwriters to think internationally and write roles for Asian stars into films.

“The days when you could make a lot of money in the cinema with the American dream are numbered,” says Stefan Arndt of Berlin production company X Filme. Arndt produced “Cloud Atlas,” the film version of the novel by David Mitchell, with stars like Tom Hanks and lots of German, Russian and Chinese money. The film tells six parallel stories that take place in six different ages.

It’s about reincarnation and the transmigration of souls, “spiritual aspects that had great resonance in Asia,” says Arndt. Because no US studio was willing to finance a film with a $100 million budget, Arndt took his project from country to country. “We raised the money within a few months.”

Chinese Censors Quick to Cut:

“Cloud Atlas” has already played in Russia, where more than two millions viewers saw the film. That’s twice the total audience as in Germany, and not much smaller than in the United States. “The film is about fighting for freedom and searching for salvation, which appeals to Russian audiences,” says distributor Alexander van Dülmen, who co-produced the film and distributed it to theaters in Russia and Eastern Europe.

The movie theater business works differently in Russia than in the United States or Germany. “Almost every film stays in theaters for only two weeks,” says van Dülmen, “which is why you have to make a big splash.” In its first week, “Cloud Atlas” was playing in half of all Russian movie theaters, costing $3.5 million in PR alone. “It’s a very lucrative but also a very risky market,” says van Dülmen.

Last week the film had a successful premier in China, playing on 4,000 screens there. But Chinese moviegoers saw a noticeably shorter version than viewers in the rest of the world. The censors had cut “Cloud Atlas” by 23 minutes.

“The censors mostly zeroed in on the sex, but not the violence,” says director Tom Tykwer. “The parts of the film that preach revolution against an existing system were also edited. But everything is there in the trailers, including gay kisses and sex scenes. Curious.”

The censorship of Western films is common in China. For instance, references to prostitution in Shanghai were cut from the Bond film “Skyfall,” and a scene in which a hired assassin murders a security guard was also removed. Chinese censors reach right for the scissors when it comes to matters of internal security.

Producer Bruckheimer thought it would be a good idea to cast Hong Kong star Chow Yun-Fat in his third “Pirates of the Caribbean” film. Unfortunately, the censors in Beijing didn’t like the way the actor portrayed an eccentric Chinese man. They saw the character as a caricature and removed it completely.

Pirated DVDs Broaden Chinese Audience: … //

… (full text).


Berlinale 2013: Film Fest Spotlights Women and Eastern Europe, on Spiegel Online International, February 06, 2013: The 63rd Berlin International Film Festival kicks off on Thursday with a martial arts epic from Hong Kong. The festival’s director says this year’s selection pays particularly close attention to women, indigenous peoples and life in Eastern Europe …;

The High Stakes of Native Resistance, on  Life on the Left, by Geneviève Beaudet and Pierre Beaudet, January 25, 2013;
(Thanks to John Bradley for this translation from Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme).

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