Written by Zhan Zhang.

Three years ago, the National Digital Film Industrial Park opened in Wuxi, not far from Shanghai, with the nickname “Huallywood” (Hua meaning China). It was viewed as “ushering in a new golden age of filmmaking in China” and “Huallywood” aimed to become a global digital film capital in China like its counterparts in the United States and India. That was the year the Chinese domestic Box Office reached $2.7 billion and surpassed Japan to become the No.2 film market in the world. Debate about China’s booming film industry and expanding market scale spread everywhere both in media narratives and academic discussions.
However, if we look into details of China’s Box Office that year, less than half of the income was contributed by Chinese domestic productions, and just over half went to imported films, mainly Hollywood productions. It was the first time in 10 years that the Chinese domestic film production made less than half of the annual Box Office. According to another report about the film industry in China, actually more than 80% of Chinese film production companies lost money that year, as Wang Zhonglei, the CEO of one of the biggest Chinese film group Huayi Brother put down it, ‘Chinese film-making industry produces unhealthy bubbles‘.

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Figure 1. Gross Box Office of China and North America

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Figure 2. number of feature films produced in China and North America
(Data in both Figures is sourced from the European Audiovisual Observatory YearBook 2014 and the Entgroup database. Calculated using 2015 exchange rates)

From the figures above we can see that China has produced more films than North America in the past few years. The big gap between the high production number and the low market performance of domestic Chinese films in China and even weaker market performance in the international film market underpins my query about whether China’s film industry really is entering a golden period (“Huallywood”) or is evidence of Hollywood’s success in China?

Differentiated from the Hollywood definition of film as “commercial products”, film production holds deep political, ideological and cultural significance in Chinese society. It has been seen as a product of “political, economic, military, and cultural invasion of the West”, and carrying “a deep colonial branding” (Wang, 2003) for a long time. China began to build its own “independent national film system” after 1949, and Hollywood films were totally banned in the 1950s. From then until the late 1970s, films were served as the Party-state’s propaganda tool. Responding to the Party’s political agenda, new explorations and experiments in the film industry began during the reform era, as exemplified by the so-called Fifth-generation directors. But, when film as the conveyor of official ideology was emphasized again in 1990s (Su, 2011), a sharp reduction of both audience and Box Office was documented.

In order to save the falling market, The Fugitive, a contemporary Hollywood blockbuster was released in China in 1994. Hollywood films quickly made up for the poor performance of the domestic film market by taking a share of around 40% by the mid-1990s. There were only 10 foreign films imported to China during that time, but these 10 films played a “saviour” role to the Chinese film market (Wan, 2005). About 70% of China’s film market was taken by American films by the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s (Rosen, 2002; Zheng, 2000). China entered the World Trade Organization in 2001, and the number of imported films (mainly from Hollywood) was obliged to rise from 10 to 20 (6 of them from non-American countries since 2004), and then this quota system of 20 imported foreign films on a revenue-sharing basis was kept for another 11 years until 2012.

Thanks to the huge “Hollywood” pressure, the Chinese film industry went through different phases of reform in terms of marketization for both film production and distribution. Chinese blockbusters began to appear and compete with Hollywood ones, and some of them (although very few in number) performed even better than Hollywood blockbusters in different years (i.e. Hero in 2002, Red Cliff in 2008, Aftershock in 2010). The imagined arrival of the “Huallywood” golden era was conceived soon afterwards.

Behind the “Huallywood” myth is the crisis facing middle-to-low budget domestic film productions, which in fact comprises the majority of Chinese films every year. Around one third of domestic films make their way to cinema screens each year, and generally 20% of them make a profit and 10% broke even. This means that a substantial proportion of Chinese productions are lose money.

Since 2012 another 14 Hollywood productions were allowed to be imported to China, intensifying the competition between Hollywood blockbusters (especially 3D and IMAX films) and Chinese home productions. Although in 2013 and 2014, domestic Chinese films restored their hold on just over 50% of the Box Office share, Hollywood is not fading away. In addition to taking most of the rest of Box Office revenues, Hollywood companies have begun to make co-productions with Chinese film companies, which could bypass the limits of 34 imported foreign films and get distributed as domestic Chinese films. This could potentially distort the domestic Box Office, and challenges the Chinese emphasis of film productions as “cultural (and political) products” by following the American “commercial” way and American style of storytelling. In the face of this reality, should we still be optimistic about the “Huallywood” brand? Or should we be more realistic and observe how Hollywood is actually winning China—“Hollywina”?

Zhan Zhang is Post-doctoral researcher at the China Media Observatory, Università della Svizzera Italiana. Image Credit: CC by Jonathan Kos-Read/flickr.

References:
Su, W. (2011) Resisting Cultural Imperialism, or Welcoming Cultural Globalization? China’s extensive debate on Hollywood cinema from 1994 to 2007, Asian Journal of Communication, 21(2), pp.186-201.
Rosen, S. (2002) The Wolf At The Door: Hollywood and The Film Mrket in China, in Heikkila, E.J. & Pizzarro, R. (Eds.) Southern California and the Word, Westport, CT: Praeger, pp. 49.
Wan, P. (2005) An Analysis of 10-year Box Office of Revenue-sharing Imported Films, Journal of Beijing Film Academy, pp.49-60.
Wang, S. (2003) Framing Piracy: Globalization and Film Distribution in Greater China, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United Kingdom.
Zheng, D. (2000) To Be, or Not To Be: An Analysis On the Survival of Chinese Film Industry After Entering WTO, access: http://www/cnki.net.