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Evolution or extinction?

Evolution or extinction?
Surpassing the 2011 record set by James Cameron’s Avatar, which made US$230 million at the Chinese box office, the latest installment of Michael Bay’s long-running franchise did even better in China than in its home market, where Transformers was displaced from its No 1 spot by Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in its third week of release.

The movie’s liberal inclusion of ‘Chinese elements’ along with widespread familiarity with both the movie franchise and the Hasbro line of toys among the younger generation guaranteed Transformers a significant marketing buzz in China. However, it is the movie’s ‘Chinese elements’ that have dominated mainland headlines.

Chinese actress Li Bingbing was given a supporting role opposite Stanley Tucci, a number of Hong Kong and mainland A-listers had cameos in the movie’s third act, and a range of Chinese products, from carton milk and energy drinks to IT companies and hotel chains were prominently placed throughout the action. Hong Kong, Beijing and Guangzhou were all featured locations, and Chinese landmarks including sections of the Great Wall, Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium and the Hong Kong Exhibition Center were all included with various levels of relevance to the plot.

In the past decade, China’s film market has seen year-on-year growth approaching 30 percent, and the number of theaters, particularly those equipped to screen 3D and IMAX productions, has mushroomed. In 2002, China’s box office receipts of 900 million yuan (US$108.7m in the year) represented a paltry 2 percent of the total US market. By 2013, China’s box office was raking in US$3.6 billion annually, a third of total US receipts that year (US$10.9bn).

Shift in Focus
Age of Extinction is indicative of a new breed of Hollywood blockbuster devoted to commercially, if not creatively, breaking open the Chinese movie market, now the world’s second-largest. In its bid to secure greater audience share despite the State-mandated quota system, Hollywood has attempted to appeal to Chinese moviegoers in a variety of ways, from marketing and product placement to content creation and casting. Producers have to appeal to both Chinese moviegoers, the commercial needs of Chinese distributors and the content requirements of the State censorship apparatus to secure a market presence in China.

2012’s Cloud Atlas, for example, saw Chinese actress Zhou Xun cast in multiple roles, and the movie secured official co-production status from the Chinese cultural authorities, exempting it from State import quotas on foreign films. However, almost 40 minutes of the movie were cut at the request of the Chinese authorities, including numerous sex scenes and references to a relationship between two male characters, a move which Chinese critics claimed dented the film’s coherence, and, consequently, its profitability on the mainland.

More recently, X-Men: Days of Future Past, which earned US$114 million in China, cast Chinese actress Fan Bingbing as mutant superhero Blink in post-apocalyptic sequences set in a fictional temple near a desolate section of the Great Wall. This cameo was generally well received by Chinese audiences and critics alike.

However, as cooperation between Hollywood and Chinese distributors and investors has deepened, focus on the China side has moved away from creative content and increasingly towards commercial interests, namely, product placement.

In this respect, Transformers: Age of Extinction has blown all competitors out of the water with its China box office take. Not only did the movie go on release entirely uncut in both North America and China simultaneously (Hollywood productions are typically screened later in the People’s Republic for a variety of reasons ranging from the need to secure approval from State censors to avoiding direct competition with domestic films), but it also enjoyed an unprecedented level of cooperation with Chinese commercial entities. Paramount Pictures worked hand-in-glove with M1905, the new media subsidiary of the China Movie Media Group (CMMG), throughout production, making Transformers a groundbreaking effort to fuse the interests of the world’s two biggest movie markets.

Formerly part of the State-owned China Film Group Corporation (CFGC), which retains a monopoly on the distribution of all imported movies and operates China’s sole national TV network permitted to screen imported movies (CCTV6), CMMG owns the advertising rights to more than 4,000 movie screens across the Chinese mainland, accounting for 70 percent of China’s box office. CMMG not only provided a wide range of marketing channels to Age of Extinction, it also lined up China’s top 10 cinema chains to both promote and screen the movie.

According to a report in China’s 21st Century Business Herald, besides marketing and promotion, CMMG also made a direct investment of 50 million yuan (US$8.05m) inTransformers, and was thus a major beneficiary of the film’s box office take in China.

CMMG was also responsible for organizing the mainland premiere of Age of Extinction held in Beijing on June 23, making this the first ‘foreign’ movie to have its international premiere in China. The premiere was attended by Paramount’s vice-chairman Rob Moore, director Michael Bay and stars Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz.

As government quotas allow for only 32 foreign movies to be imported into China each year, cooperation with China Film Group Corporation is increasingly seen as essential if a production is to hit the big time in China.

Controversy
However, a movie’s success in this unique world market was not determined by promotion alone. The latest Transformers iteration, while a record-breaking hit at the box office, has found itself under scathing attack from Chinese critics, many of whom reacted to the movie’s much-hyped ‘Chinese elements’ in a similar fashion to their American counterparts – with amusement, disbelief, and, in some cases, outright disgust.

This skeptical response is nothing new – in 2013, Iron Man 3 included almost 10 minutes of additional content inserted solely for the mainland Chinese market, which featured Chinese actors Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing as a heart surgeon and his assistant in a sequence liberally sprinkled with cameos from Chinese products that were met with audible howls of derision during mainland screenings.

In Age of Extinction, Chinese celebrity Han Geng appeared in a five-second cameo in which his character was ‘killed’ by wayward Decepticons. Other celebrities were also featured in bit parts, but apart from Li Bingbing, no Chinese actor had significant dialog. Some critics even pointed to Li’s inclusion as largely token, as her character had only a minor impact on the film’s plot.

Complaints surrounding Age of Extinction’s Chinese product placement were even more vociferous, as many of the products, with the notable exception of featured Chinese automobile brands, had no connection to the narative. In addition, many Chinese brands appeared in sequences set in the US, a jarring creative decision that was mocked by many commentators. ‘What the hell is the China Construction Bank doing in Texas?’ asked one moviegoer in an online forum, after one character attempts to withdraw money from an ATM in a small American town apparently operated by the State-owned Chinese financial institution. Chinese brands of carton milk, and the Chinese version of the energy drink Red Bull, complete with Chinese character logos, also appeared in Transformers sequences set in the US.

According to an online survey conducted by the news page of major web portal QQ which drew responses from more than 66,000 netizens, 39 percent ‘disapproved’ of the way so-called ‘Chinese elements’ are incorporated into Hollywood movies.

For many, such disputes over product placement lie in the contradictory goals of Hollywood and Chinese investors in foreign films. While American studios attempt to strike a balance and appeal to both a domestic and international audience, Chinese investors, particularly commercial interests, lacking recognition overseas, focus squarely on the Chinese mainland market. Of all the Chinese companies that enjoyed product placement in Age of Extinction, only IT giant Lenovo has a major presence in North America, where it enjoys a growing share of the local desktop PC market, a fact not lost on international and Chinese critics of the movie.

Despite the criticism and legal disputes, most analysts believe that China-Hollywood collaboration, fueled as it is by ever-increasing profits, can only expand in the foreseeable future. With box office receipts reaching US$2.2 billion in the first half of 2014, it is projected that China will surpass the US to become the world’s largest film market by 2016.

Yu Xiaodong

Yu Xiaodong

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