Making Films that Chinese Audiences Want to See

Understanding the nuances of Chinese culture and people can make or break a movie.

Hollywood has been accused of pandering to Chinese audiences in a shallow and obvious way of wooing audiences and government censors—and in some cases it has affected box office numbers. The Hollywood Reporter reported tepid audience reactions and box office sales to the latest Transformers movie, “Transformers: The Last Knight,” which earned $228 million in China, about 100 million less than its predecessor. The reason for its lackluster showing? Too much nonsensical Chinese product placement.

The remedy for this is both straightforward and complicated: “Be authentic to the audience,” states Chris Bremble, founder and CEO of Emmy Award-winning Beijing-based visual effects company, Base FX. It seems simple, but Hollywood has been grappling with how to make a good movie, while also incorporating Chinese elements to appeal to that target demographic, for a while. Certainly, there are films that perform extraordinarily well in both markets (i.e. “The Fate of the Furious”), but the rising success of domestically produced films over Hollywood exports points to changing tides: Hollywood no longer has as much market share in China as it used to. However, the key to a long-lasting Hollywood-China relationship could be in understanding and genuinely embracing the nuances of Chinese culture in content.

Understand differences in emotional expression

In China, even the way people outwardly express their emotions is different than in America—getting those emotional beats spot-on is integral for getting audiences to connect to the story. Bremble jokes, “In the U.S., if you love someone, you say, ‘I love you.’ In China, if you love someone, you say, ‘Are you hungry?’”

At the 2017 Asia Society Summit, actress Celina Jade, star of Chinese blockbuster “Wolf Warrior 2” and the CW show “Arrow,” broke down the differences in acting for a Chinese versus American audience. In the pivotal end scene in “Wolf Warrior 2,” Wu Jing, who stars as the hero Leng Feng, and Frank Grillo, who plays the film’s main antagonist “Big Daddy,” have their final fight, which Jade’s character, Dr. Rachel Smith (who is Leng Feng’s love interest), and several background actors observe from behind bars. Jade shares that they shot two versions: an American take and a Chinese take. In the American version, Jade says she opted for a more emotionally stoic approach. “I hold back my tears, and I’m like, ‘Fight. Get up and fight,’” Jade explains. “I’m giving him [Leng Feng] this strength through my connection with him.”

For the Chinese take, Jade explains that the scene was much more emotionally visceral. “They’re having their final fight,” says Jade. “Wu Jing comes to the back and says to everybody, ‘I want you to be crying.’ There are all these actors putting their eye drops in and bawling—like, really dramatic.” She adds that Grillo, an American actor, had a hard time keeping from laughing because it was so unlike Hollywood films. Ultimately, the team decided to go with the Chinese version, which ended up being a “huge success” with Chinese audiences.

The reason for the creative differences lies in the how consumers connect with the movies they are watching. “In American films, we say, ‘We don’t cry as actors—we want to make our audiences cry,’” Jade shares. “Whereas in China, we want to cry with our audience. It’s a very big difference in terms of creative direction.” In China, it’s very much actions, not words, that speak the loudest. Bremble adds, “I think that, often, people are confused and feel that Chinese content is quite sentimental, but the sentimentality is actually quite deep—it’s not a shallow sentimentality.”

Even the minutest details are subject to scrutiny. When developing Base FX’s upcoming Chinese animated film “Wish Dragon,” a Chinese retelling of “Aladdin” about a 19-year-old boy in modern-day Shanghai who stumbles across a magical wish-granting dragon, Bremble notes that the animators—a lot of whom are Chinese themselves—would add little motions or gestures that were quintessentially Chinese. “It’s everything from…the angles of [the characters’] feet when they’re sitting or they’re standing—it’s slightly different than the West,” he shares. “With the lack of institution [in China], there’s a culture of distrust [so] feet tend to be more pushed in, which is a more defensive position.”

Tap into the social relevance

According to some critics, part of what made “Wolf Warrior 2” such a box office success was because it tapped into Chinese patriotism. “[There is] the importance of tackling a struggle or a fight, and understanding the social relevance or relatability of a film to the times and the people,” says Jade. “There’s something ‘Wolf Warrior 2’ did really well-it was about being patriotic.”

Jade believes that the nationalistic tone of the movie appealed to domestic audiences because it portrayed a China that they could be proud of. “For a very long time, Chinese people were emigrating outside of China, but now that China is becoming more powerful, they feel like they have a home, that they’re proud to be Chinese,” she adds. “That’s their fight, and that’s their struggle.”

Rob Cohen, the creative, director, and writer of the original “The Fast and the Furious” movie, also believes the franchise owes its success to tapping into a national sentiment-in this case, the consequences of China’s old one-child policy. “The theme of my ‘Fast and Furious,’ which was make your own family with the love you feel for people, as apposed to just genetics-I think that really resonated,” he shares.

Find themes that are universal

Of course, the ultimate goal for U.S. and Chinese producers is to make content that will travel globally-especially for Chinese studios, which are intent on expanding their domestic entertainment industry across boarders. “The Fast and The Furious” films were successful in both the U.S. and China, and Cohen attributes that to the universality of its appeal.

“I like to think of ‘Fast and Furious’ as a kind of dream state, where the cars are colorful, the people are attractive, and the world is secret and dangerous,” he explains. “Everybody has those fantasies. I found an idiom that was contemporary but had the same yearning for the car, the girl, the connection, but added the melodrama of ‘our family was doing illegal things to pay for their street-racing habits.'”

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For Bremble, it was a little more difficult when selecting a story to produce, since their goal was to find one that would appeal to both American and Chinese audiences-an impossible task, as some people have told him, he says. However, Bremble credits his multicultural team with being able to find stories like “Wish Dragon” that he felt would resonate with both Western and Chinese people. “I have a really amazing team of young creative execs who are very plugged into what’s happening,” he says. “They come from all over the country, they come from big cities, small towns. They are the first point of contact for any project in the company. By the time I see something, I know that it’s valid for the market, locally, and I look at whether it’s valid for the market, globally.”

With “Wish Dragon” (tentatively slated for a 2019 release), Bremble notes that the story integrates cultural components from both sides. “For the global audience, it’s very aspirational story. It’s got a really sweet and heartbreaking love story in it, and we think those play well to U.S. audiences,” Bremble explains. “On the Chinese side…it’s a story very much able values and what you value in life. We think it’s an interesting story for today’s young generation in China, [which] may be the first generation from the country that doesn’t do better than their parents because [economic]growth will slow down. It wasn’t a universal element about the storyline-it was elements of the story that worked for both audiences.”


–This article first appeared on Reach Further, East West Bank’s digital news magazine covering U.S.-China Business.