Will Hollywood's China Pandering Backfire?

Chinese audiences are growing more suspicious of what U.S. filmmakers will do to get onto China's screens.

Moviegoers make their way to a multiplex cinema in Beijing on Feb. 14, 2009, where Taiwanese film 'Cape No. 7', as advertised on top right, hit movie screens in China with its opening.
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The attempts by U.S. filmmakers to make movies especially appealing to China has gotten so excessive that Chinese movie watchers are questioning the motives of even the smallest reference to their country in American films. Monday while in Beijing promoting his space survival epic "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuarón was pressed on his decision to make a Chinese spacecraft crucial to the movie's plot, by "a Chinese press corps grown suspicious of being pandered to for market access," as The Hollywood Reporter put it. Cuarón said the inclusion of the spacecraft was based on "what existed in space at that time" and not "just for the market." (And already "Gravity" has broken Chinese box office records.) But the line of questioning reflects a suspicion both in the United States and China of the many hoops Hollywood will jump through to get American films on Chinese screens.

In 2012 China surpassed Japan as the world's second largest box office and by 2020 it is expected to be No. 1, making it a vital market for the U.S. film industry. However, Chinese state regulators, determined to grow a domestic industry, maintain a quota of 34 international films a year (increased from 20 last year). U.S. studios can get around the quota by co-producing films with China, a standard that requires one-third of a film's funding must come from Chinese sources, one-third of its main cast must be Chinese and that it must have scenes shot in China. But U.S. filmmakers have also been going out of their way to make films that show China in a positive light. This could mean changing ethnicity of villains from Chinese to North Korean, as was done in a recent remake of "Red Dawn," or including Chinese characters not in the book from which a film was adapted, as was done in "Salmon Fishing in Yemen," or rewriting scenes to be set in Chinese locations, as was done in "Looper."

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In plenty of instances, this strategy has paid off. "Pacific Rim" – a film with Japanese Godzilla lore in its DNA – sets its monsters vs. robots gauntlet in Hong Kong, and went on to make $111 million in China, $10 million more than it made in the United States.

However in other cases it has misfired. While still an international mega-hit, "Iron Man 3," drew scorn from many Chinese viewers when Paramount added extra scenes with Chinese actors specifically for the Chinese market. "The extra minutes did not help the film commercially and they may even have hurt," Robert Cain, a film producer working in China, told Christian Science Monitor. "Audiences felt manipulated."

In an email to U.S. News, IHS film industry analyst Xin Zhang explains, "I don't think a US film's success in China depends on how it [has] been catered to the local audience. They pay for the tickets more because of 'Hollywood' [elements], simply adding some 'Chinese elements' may [be an] interesting at the beginning, but not a long-term strategy."

She continues, "Because of the case of Iron Man 3, I believe, the local audience [and] press are more sensitive about this issue ... If not handled well, this may annoy the local audience instead of please them."

"Looper," a space travel film co-produced with China, appears to have produced a similar effect. Though it scored a 93 percent rating on American critic aggregator Rotten tomatoes, its Chinese counterpart Douban.com gave it only a 67 percent, as Mitch Moxley, author of "Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China," pointed out.

TeaLeafNation's Rachel Lu combed through Chinese "Looper" reviews and found "many netizens gave thumbs down to the 'China elements.' Some did not like the product placement in the film's Shanghai skyline by advertisers such as 360Buy, a Chinese e-commerce site, or the performance of Summer Qing, the Chinese actress who plays the protagonist's wife in the film."

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Nevertheless, Paramount is doubling down on the strategy with "Transformers 4," also a Chinese co-production, which is even casting some of the characters through a casting competition in partnership with a Chinese state run television channel.