Though China’s box office is indeed booming, so much so that Xinhua recently touted the nation’s recent record-breaking box office year, along with Indian news outlet Outlook publishing an article about how “China aims to become the world’s largest film market by 2020.” However, some Beijing film insiders harbor doubts about those prospects. Yes, even though Bollywood smashes like Dangal are cashing in on the Mainland and hefty Hollywood tentpole flicks like Justice League are counting on Chinese audiences to turn a profit, some have serious concerns about China becoming the biggest movie market on the planet.
Keith Collea, a noted Hollywood 3D movie expert who collaborated with Chinese director Jiang Wen on his hit 2014 flick Gone with the Bullets (GWTB), before working as business development manager on films like Maleficent and The Amazing Spider-Man, has doubts as to whether or not Chinese audiences will continue to devour Hollywood fare, or one day have domestic options that can properly compete for their attention.
“The question is whether they’ll be watching Hollywood movies or Chinese movies,” Collea says. adding that the latter won’t likely be as big of a box office draw anytime soon. And he’s quick to point out the reasons why: “The movies being made here are being made by companies who should stick to real estate and mining, by producers who were in the mail room last month and by writers who have no idea how to write anything. Almost the entire industry here is built on a house of cards. There are maybe about 50 mature, intelligent, responsible and talented filmmakers in all of China.”
All that has brought Collea to a conclusion: “The local market may become the biggest viewer pool, but there’s still a discrepancy as far as creating a watchable product that will appeal to the local audience.”
Luke Tai – general manager for China at Infratrans Vision Co. through which he has consulted on Chinese films such as the 2013 hit Young Detective Dee – agrees that “short-sightedness” is holding China’s film industry back from overtaking Hollywood, even as its audiences continue to prop up mega-budget movies from Tinseltown, USA. Though less scathing in his assessment than Collea, Tai nevertheless says: “I believe it is possible that the Chinese box office could go beyond the American’s, but the level of special effects and other technology, not to mention the quality of the scripts, aren’t likely to improve enough for it to overtake Hollywood by 2020,” which is, of course, the aforementioned year that analysts projects China’s film market to become the world’s largest. “I believe that Hollywood will still maintain the position of the leader in this industry, and although Chinese movie makers are studying Hollywood very hard, I don’t think it can surpass it for a while.”
John Zhang, the director of Penn Wharton China Center at The Wharton School and a noted expert on Chinese media and entertainment industries, says onlookers should compare the silver screen to a certain sport that broke through in China not that long ago. “The NBA has attracted a huge audience in China, but it has done so with only one Chinese player, Yao Ming, despite the best efforts by NBA to draft Chinese players over the years. No one will call Yao Ming a basketball legend like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryan just because he is popular in China. Yet, Hollywood is better positioned to capture growth everywhere in the world when it focuses on acting talent and good stories.”
That sunnier outlook is shared by Stanley Rosen. The professor at the USC US-China Institute, who specializes in Chinese politics and society, Rosen has a far more optimistic outlook about China’s greater cinematic clout. “Hollywood and China are working much more closely in film production, as Wolf Warrior 2 demonstrated,” he says of the recent Mainland shoot ’em up that became the country’s highest domestic grosser. And while it was decried by many critics for being jingoistic and culturally insensitive, at least has one promising point in Rosen’s eyes: it stands as an example of China “allowing films with flawed heroes, similar to Hollywood productions, to be depicted on the screen, so long as they show their patriotism and the end result is very positive for China.”
In the meantime, Zhang sees all those points as moot, because China is set to become the world’s dominant movie market even without a comparatively competitive movie making industry of its own. He explains: “This is a numbers game. China has a vast potential audience, screens are added every day, and more and more movies are produced in China. Given that China has over 1.3 billion people, it should have the biggest market in the world for just about everything. The target is entirely achievable by 2020. Indeed, if China lifts restrictions and has quality movies out there, it could become the biggest market today!”
Despite those positive points, and the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the Chinese film market, Collea says it will be tough for movie makers on the Mainland to dodge one pressing issue: “How can you build the largest market in the world if the people that control have no idea what ‘good’ is, refuse to take a chance on development, can only tell if something is good if someone else put money into it already? It’s so stupid and crazy.”
Yet after expressing those exasperated sentiments, Collea ended on a note as positive as those expressed by Rosen and Zhang: “But seriously speaking, there’s a lot of new talent being developed in China, and I’m very hopeful this new breed of young filmmakers will take us into the future like the old masters of China did in the past.”
— This article originally appeared on The Beijinger.