Hollywood in China: The cycle of boom and bust

Academic Ying Zhu explains why political and diplomatic tensions aside, the business of motion pictures has its own commercial logic so Hollywood and its Chinese counterpart will continue to be locked in a transactional relationship, though more surreptitiously and in a much more low-key fashion.
Chinese fans attend mainland China's first official fandom event for science-fiction adventure franchise Star Trek, at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, on 9 September 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)
Chinese fans attend mainland China's first official fandom event for science-fiction adventure franchise Star Trek, at a shopping mall in Beijing, China, on 9 September 2023. (Jade Gao/AFP)

A Bloomberg article back in January 2021 issued a warning in its title: “Hollywood Losing Ground to Chinese Movies in Biggest Market”, citing the tally for 2020 in which box office share of foreign films in China dropped 50% compared to 2019. 

No doubt, 2020 was an exceptional year with the Covid pandemic decimating US productions and releases, propelling China to the world’s number one movie market. But the exception seems to have become the new norm for Hollywood imports in China.

By the spring of 2023, The Economist declared that “Hollywood is Losing the Battle for China”, citing that from 2010 to 2021, the recorded views of China’s films on Douban, a Chinese site for reviewing films, rose from 21% to 55% as the share of Anglo films fell from 53% to 28%.

Penchant for 'heavy industry films' 

The increasing domination of domestic pictures in the Chinese market in the past decade was partly the result of the Chinese film industry’s push for star-studded and big-budget blockbuster films that toe the party line — what the Chinese called “heavy industry films”, i.e., high-concept, high-tech, and big-budget films that were at once propagandistic and crowd-pleasing, leading to the arrival of the much-talked-about militant entertainment picture Wolf Warrior II (Wu Jing, 2017).

Chinese film critics and academics echoed Zhang Hongsen’s call and started to promote heavy industry films as the best vehicle to lift Chinese domestic pictures.

It was Zhang Hongsen, the screenwriter turned then deputy director of State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, who coined the term in October 2015 to set apart the Hollywood-style capital-intensive, high-tech, and action-oriented domestic blockbusters from the “light industry” of artisanal, low-budget, and personal films.

The film Zhang cited as a harbinger of “heavy industry” that showcased cinematic tours de force was Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 2015), a blockbuster mainland/Hong Kong co-produced 3D fantasy-comedy action adventure. 

A publicity poster for Raman Hui's Monster Hunt (2015). (Internet)
A publicity poster for Raman Hui's Monster Hunt (2015). (Internet)

Chinese film critics and academics echoed Zhang Hongsen’s call and started to promote heavy industry films as the best vehicle to lift Chinese domestic pictures. Rao Shuguang, a prominent film critic and the one-time head of the China Film Association, for instance, stated in an article titled “Heavy Industry Film and Its Aesthetics: Theory and Practice”, that the arrival of heavy industry films encapsulated the "long-term ambition of Chinese cinema to transform from the country of big film market to powerful film producers”.

The push for heavy industry films did pay off, leading to a Chinese market dominated by state-sanctioned domestic blockbusters the likes of Wolf Warrior II, Operation Red Sea (Dante Lam, 2018), and Battle at Lake Changjin II (Dante Lam, Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark, 2022), which were arguably savvier in marketing operation and more sophisticated in storytelling.

... China’s colossal failure of Covid policy in 2022 put a dent in people's faith in the party's governing capability, thus making heavy industry films out of place and out of step. 

Chinese ‘light industry films’ stepping in

But China’s colossal failure of Covid policy in 2022 put a dent in people's faith in the party's governing capability, thus making heavy industry films out of place and out of step. Yet the momentum for domestic pictures continued in 2023, with light industry films stepping in to change the market dynamic.

The national day holiday market in Oct 2023 saw the emergence, indeed flourishing of films of diverse genres and themes, with 12 new films ranging from crime to romance, suspense, comedy and animation being released, as opposed to the monopoly in previous years of a few state sanctioned patriotic films.

A leadership change at the top regulatory agency might partly account for the changing market equation. Wang Xiaohui, the conservative executive vice-minister of the Propaganda Department with no film industry background who took over as director of the National Film Bureau in early 2018 was promoted to be party secretary of Sichuan province in 2022. This made room for Mao Yu, a studio head turned film regulator, to be the new director of the Film Bureau.

A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Mao’s arrival was privately cheered by the film industry insiders for his knowledge on how the film market actually works. A market under Mao’s reign has so far left room for small films of social and cultural immediacy welcomed by domestic audiences. 

Lost in Thailand (Internet)
A publicity poster for Xu Zheng's Lost in Thailand (2012). (Internet)

The nature and scale of the robust performance of Chinese domestic pictures brings to mind an episode a decade ago, in 2013, when I put Hollywood on notice that the Chinese audience had become fatigued with the monolithic action adventure films as the main staple Hollywood imports.

2013 saw robust sales of Chinese-domestic films of social and cultural relevance led by a number of modestly budgeted films that genuinely connected with the Chinese audiences. It was the year of Lost in Thailand (Xu Zheng) and Finding Mr. Right (Xue Xiaolu), films that spotlighted contemporary Chinese life, filling the niche left by fantasy- and explosion-filled Hollywood action genre and the overbearing Chinese propaganda films. The director of Lost in Thailand put it succinctly at the time, “There is hunger from the audience for movies that talk about the real-life situation in China.” 

A demand for heartfelt stories about China

History tends to repeat itself, and the simple logic applies to the current situation a decade after. Studios and regulators tend to underestimate the intelligence of audiences who gravitate towards films of personal connections, not necessarily films promoted by the governments or the studios.

Authentic and quintessential American stories appeal more to the Chinese audiences than phony tales of forced Chinese elements. 

People watch a screen in Times Square during a promotional event for the movie Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in New York City, US, 1 November 2023. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)
People watch a screen in Times Square during a promotional event for the movie Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, in New York City, US, on 1 November 2023. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

A Hollywood besieged by the streaming platforms on its own domestic turf cannot afford losing the Chinese market. To regain its Chinese footing, Hollywood would be wise to take heed of the following suggestions: 

1) Learn from the Disney Mulan debacle and steer clear of movies of Chinese elements, good or bad, so as not to incur the wrath of either the Chinese censor for “China smear” or the US media and regulator for “China capitulation”. Authentic and quintessential American stories appeal more to the Chinese audiences than phony tales of forced Chinese elements. 

2) Get out of the ghetto of action-adventure and diversify the monolithic and formulaic action titles for China exports so as to fend off audience fatigue. 

Political and diplomatic tensions aside, the business of motion pictures has its own commercial logic so Hollywood and its Chinese counterpart will continue to be locked in a transactional relationship...

Children walk past space suits of the Chinese sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth on display at the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China on 20 October 2023. (Hector Retamal/AFP)
Children walk past space suits of the Chinese sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth on display at the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, on 20 October 2023. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

3) Offer more female-oriented titles to leverage the fast-growing female viewership. In contemporary China, many highly educated women with disposable income have opted out of marriage and childbearing. Single and educated women as a demographic have more purchasing power, and their English is better than their male counterparts and thus more receptive to highbrow subtitled films of cultural nuance. 

4) Invest in Chinese domestic productions of local relevance to capture a share of the market for Chinese domestic films. 

In the end, the cycle of boom and bust remains the norm in the movie business. History more often than not is cyclical. Political and diplomatic tensions aside, the business of motion pictures has its own commercial logic so Hollywood and its Chinese counterpart will continue to be locked in a transactional relationship, though more surreptitiously and in a much more low-key fashion.

While Hollywood continues to covet the Chinese market, China needs Hollywood films to sustain its market momentum. The Chinese film industry alone does not have the capacity nor the stability to churn out enough films to feed the domestic market. Though the honeymoon is over, the marriage endures. 

Related: Chinese films hit it big during CNY, but is it enough to save the industry? | Can China's movies depict poverty and the ugliness of society? | Can the Chinese criticise their patriotic movies?