Book Excerpt: ‘Hollywood Made in China’ by Aynne Kokas

At the entrance to Shanghai Media Group: “Become an International First-Class Culture and Media Production Group.” Photo by Aynne Kokas.

Hollywood Made in China, a new book by Aynne Kokas, published next week by the University of California Press, represents one of the first wide-ranging attempts to wrap its arms around the complexity and scope of everything that China Film Insider reports on daily:  the rapid growth of China’s commercial film market; Chinese investment in Hollywood; China’s oscillating wariness and enthusiasm in its embrace of Hollywood blockbusters; and Hollywood’s eagerness to adjust its product to appeal to both local audiences and government censors. Kokas’s close reading and explanation of government regulations and how they are interpreted; accounts by foreign filmmakers who have shot in China; and notes regarding on-the-ground practices of Chinese film crews provide valuable information, context and food-for-thought for producers hoping to understand how to proceed regarding the holy grail of US-China co-production and what is at stake.

In the following excerpt, Kokas provides a case-study of Disney/Marvel’s 2013 release, Iron Man 3, which failed to be certified as an official co-production, but established important precedents, and has continued to resonate in terms of the playbook followed by subsequent Marvel releases.

Iron Man 3, the third film in a successful series of adaptations based on the titular Marvel Comics superhero started its life as an official Sino-US co-production between the Walt Disney Company, Marvel Studios, and American-run, Chinese-licensed DMG Entertainment. The film’s actual production, however, was the outcome of policy processes— neither a film co-production nor exclusively an imported film, an example of something I call a “faux-production.”

All films that attempt to get co-production approval in the PRC bear the bureaucratic imprint of Chinese regulators from the beginning of the production process. Faux-productions, by contrast, occur when either the producer or the Chinese government declines to complete the co-production process after having received co-production approval for at least part of the film’s production process. In other words, faux-productions are a product of negotiations between stakeholders what is possible and permissible in an official co-production. The faux-production process can shift the content of a production without providing a guarantee of distribution in the Chinese market. In an interview about the 2012 Sino-US faux-production Looper, director Rian Johnson stated that he decided to shoot his film in Shanghai rather than in Paris to take advantage of Chinese film co-production policy, but that film, too, despite beginning as a co-production, was released in the Chinese market as an import, rather than as a co-production. Faux-productions are essentially partial co-productions, reflecting how Chinese media policy and Hollywood interests draw attention to the limitations of US federal government lobbying on behalf of Hollywood in the Chinese market. Iron Man 3 was ultimately subject to multiple stages of Chinese government review, both as a co-production and as an imported film.

The complexity of the Chinese film co-production process also belies the unpredictability of Sino-US media collaborations. Indeed, after Laurie Burkitt of the Wall Street Journal proclaimed on March 8, 2013, that Iron Man 3 “blasts away the China co-production myth,” the film’s producers revealed that two different versions of the film would have to be released—one in the United States and another in the PRC. The Chinese version was treated as one of the films in the PRC’s thirty-four-film import quota rather than as a co-production. The time, effort, and access provided to the state-run China Film Co-production Corporation (CFCC), China’s official co-production company, and to the SAPPRFT were also unprecedented for a major Hollywood film that ultimately became part of the PRC’s foreign import quota. During production, Chinese censors regularly visited the Iron Man 3 set and gave notes on the script. This practice of censorship during production is common with film co-productions, which are treated like domestic Chinese films in the PRC market, but Iron Man 3 was officially an imported foreign film. The SAPPRFT thus both influenced the content of a major Hollywood release and required that the film be subject to the comparative unpredictability of film import rules. As a result, the co-production process and related co-production policy frameworks influenced a product that extended beyond the policy’s official reach.

Although for Iron Man 3, Marvel Studios did not meet the preconditions for a co-production release, it accommodated the Chinese market by creating a special version of the movie specifically for PRC distribution. Chinese audiences reacted negatively to the scenes that were added specifically for the film’s Chinese version, suggesting that influence over the production process does not immediately translate to gains in cultural soft power.  In Chinese online forums, domestic viewers criticized the differences between the international and Chinese versions of the film. One of the most excoriated moments was an advertisement inserted into the Chinese version for an energy drink from milk manufacturer Yili, a drink that ostensibly helped bring Iron Man back to life. Other largely lambasted sequences included a scene of small talk between Chinese doctors in charge of conducting a risky surgery (aided by acupuncture, of course) on the body of Iron Man’s human alter ego, Tony Stark. Despite audience disapproval, the ceding of control in a Hollywood blockbuster to Chinese regulators and distributors marked a moment of transformation in Hollywood’s relationship with China.

But it was not only the images on screen that demonstrate China’s role. Publicity stills from production in Beijing circulated in the global trade press during the film’s production. The final version of the film contained no exterior shots of Beijing, but the production stills communicated China’s importance as a shooting location by sharing Chinese location images with industry observers, even if not directly with audiences. Leaked production stills show Chinese actor Wang Xueqi and the character of Iron Man in front of Beijing’s iconic Yongding Gate, though this image didn’t make the final cut. American reporting on the filming of blockbusters in the PRC offers industry publicity for China’s media production brand even for scenes that audiences never actually see.

Through Iron Man 3, [State Administration of Press, Publications, Radio, Film, and Television] SAPPRFT continued to flex its regulatory muscles in the context of the release of a major global blockbuster. In exchange for being vetted by Chinese censors at nearly every stage of production and featuring special (albeit poorly received) Chinese scenes, the filmmakers received a greater measure of certainty that they could advance their brand within the unpredictable Chinese market. This ultimately resulted in huge box-office revenue in the PRC. The choice to release the film in China first paid off financially; the PRC, where it earned US$63.5 million in its first five days, was the film’s largest international market.

Beyond Iron Man 3’s production process, an important message about the change in the balance of global power is embedded within the film’s narrative. The film follows Tony Stark, an MIT-trained engineer and hi-tech munitions dealer, who uses his own weaponry to transform himself into a, ultimately saving the world from a corrupt US Vice-President. In the film’s Chinese version, Stark’s international collaborators are Chinese physician-scientists in Beijing, albeit in roles reduced from those in the film’s original script. The film valorizes collaborative investment in advanced technology while simultaneously casting doubt on US government motives. In the film’s American version, the role of the Chinese scientists was excised, hiding traces of international collaboration.

Meanwhile, the front for the Vice President’s treachery is an actor whose character is called “The Mandarin,” his fearsomeness bolstered by self-produced propaganda videos. In the original comic book series, the Mandarin was portrayed as Chinese, but not in the film.  The choice to change the ethnicity of a member of a minority group with a contested relationship to the PRC government raises questions, despite denials made by Marvel that the move had creative motivations.

Apropos of the Iron Man 3 narrative, the PRC central government’s policy for growth supports the intersection of the media and technology industries. The country’s twelfth five-year plan supported “the innovation of culture, science, and technology.” The rise of the media industry in parallel with increased technological innovation suggests how the PRC’s cultural policy seeps into essential parts of the country’s trade relations with the United States. The question is not just about the co-creation of culture but also about the resulting joining of broad industries, from technology to media to science. Iron Man 3 drew these issues together in its narrative and provided a global pop culture representation of how technology, entertainment, science, and industry work together.

In May 2013,  Iron Man 3 debuted in the PRC, before its release in the United States, breaking opening-day records. Opening in China ahead of the United States was an attempt to avoid piracy, a practice mirroring troubleshooting tactics for IP protection by other US industries. Releasing a blockbuster of Iron Man 3’s scale in the Chinese market first, the film additionally demonstrated the influence of the Chinese market on the global media industries.

Over its subsequent worldwide release, the movie became the fifth-highest-grossing film ever, with a total global revenue of $1.215 billion, including more than $121 million in the PRC. The success of Iron Man 3 in the Chinese market signaled a turning point in the intersection of Chinese media policy, US media investment, and Sino-US media culture.

Despite being successful financially, however, Iron Man 3, was neither a full soft power nor policy win for China. The film tested, but then ultimately circumvented, the co-production process. The “Chinese elements” added to the film were visibly forced into the narrative. Marvel Studios claimed a share of the Chinese box office that might otherwise have gone to local Chinese films. At the same time, the PRC’s media and trade policy demonstrated the beginnings of Chinese soft power in Hollywood. The film was a big-budget parable, and Chinese distributors profited from its success. The give-and-take involved in faux-productions such as Iron Man 3 draws attention to the ways in which policy drives Chinese and US film industries to become more entwined, demanding compromises from both.