Hybrid Film Production Trend "Transforming" Chinese Market

Eileen Meng Lu  |

With more American-made films moving to China, U.S. film production companies have to start finding new ways to attract Chinese audience. Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, which will premier June 27, probably did everything courting the Chinese market. And it’s a trend that looks likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Chinese market looks to become the next big target of the American film industry. According to the data of Motion Picture Association of America, China's box office sales were up 27 percent to $3.6 billion in 2013, and headed for $5 billion in 2014 based on the latest figures. On May 21 the number broke through 10 billion yuan, or $1.6 billion sales, and is a month faster than last year to reach the sales. So far, 28 movies made over $16 million, consisting of 13 domestic movies and 15 imported ones, with American movies comprising the majority of it. 

The U.S. box office seems to be inching up much slower than fast-growing China, hovering at $10.9 in 2012 and 2013, slightly higher than 2011's $10.1 billion.  

The large numbers of U.S. movies that are exported to Chinese film market makes American filmmakers huge profits. Not only because U.S. has already owns a big market in China, which counts half of the top entries, but also the fact that U.S.-made movies are "only" half of the top entries, and Hollywood wants even more. 

A month prior to the Transformers 4 opening, the heavy promotion in China began. Partnered with China Movie Media Group, Paramount is making a concerted effort to attract Chinese audience with both festival premiers and Chinese-specific advertising.

The film is set to close the Shanghai International Film Festival a few days after its world premiere in Hong Kong. Aside from that, probably the most innovative thing Paramount used is the video message from main actor Mark Wahlberg wishing Chinese student good luck with their "Gaokao," or College Entrance Examination in early June. In the video, sitting in a movie set, Mark Wahlberg says with Chinese subtitles:

“Hey, everyone, I’m Mark Wahlberg, star of the new movie Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction. The annual college entrance exam is coming, so I’d like to wish all of you students out there lots of luck, and don’t forget to catch Transformers 4 after the exam!”

Except heavy promotion, the content of the film is another sign that the film is designed to grab Chinese audiences' eyes. State-backed by China Movie Channel, and joint funded by Jiaflix Enterprises, Transformers 4 is an American-Chinese hybrid production. As a result,, Chinese audience gets to see something they are familiar with.

Consider the production of Transformers 4. Begun in 2013 May, the crew started to shoot in Monument Valley, Utah, Detroit, Michigan as stand-in for Hong Kong, and McCormick Place in Chicago redressed to portray a city in China. Later in October 2013, director Michael Bay announced that they would be heading to China to finish principal photography and filming some China's sequences. Furthermore, famous Chinese actress, Li Bingbing plays Su Yueming, the "CEO of the Chinese Transformers" in the film.

Co-production Trend in Film Industry

Transformers 4 is also being edited differently for American and Chinese audiences. But it’s not the first Hollywood film co-produced by American and Chinese companies, resulting in two separate versions of the film. 

In 2012, Rian Johnson's time-travel epic Looper released two version: the U.S. cut, with most American scenes and just a short montage in China, and the Chinese cut, with more Shanghai sequences. Looper received funding from DMG, a Chinese marketing and entertainment group.

Similarly, the #2-grossing movie in China in 2013, Iron Man 3, was also a U.S.-China co-production. China's DMG was alos behind this one, and in return they got more Sino-centric content. 

Iron Man 3 has 3 minutes' scenes exclusive to the Chinese cut, but most Chinese audience reported disappointment after watching the "special made" version. 

For example, Chinese movie star Wang Xueqi plays Dr. Wu, who is allegedly a “major role” in the storyline, but only has a “blink-you’ll-miss-it” cameo in the opening; another role is Dr. Wu’s nurse, played by Fan Bingbing, who is completely cut out in the U.S. version.

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Even for the Chinese cut, the plot was criticized as too stiff. Three sequences that Wang Xueqi appears in the movie don’t have much relation to the main storyline, not to mention Fan Bingbing’s three unrelated lines when she plays the nurse in a surgery of Tony. Some Chinese audience even made fun of it that they were watching two different movies: a Chinese movie solely starred by Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing, and the American movie of Iron Man 3.

But one thing for sure, even though the content is not naturalistic, Iron Man 3 was still counted as the second most profitable film in 2013 Chinese box-office.

Based on massive promotion of the film, Transformers 4: Age of Extinction seems more naturalistic in integrating Chinese and American content. Plus, better than Iron Man 3 or Looper, Transformers 4 is state-backed with China Movie Channel, which makes itself the first Western film actively supported by the Chinese government. That is probably another reason that the movie gets so much attention during its promotion period. A good-looking box-office is definitely expected. 

Again, it is not easy to combine Chines and American elements in one film without being stiff. Currently the most anticipated hybrid film yet to come out is Kung Fu Panda 3, which will release next year, based on its outstanding performance of previous installments, either in box-office or in content.

But of course live action movie can be more difficult in terms of hybrid content. Maybe in the future there will be chances that Hollywood studios bring stars to China and make China as an equal part of the movie's storyline, and not three minutes shoehorned in. 


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