Never before in the history of Chinese television have so many Hollywood stars gathered for the same gala. As soon as June began, during a broadcast that reached more than a billion people live on television and another 400 on the Internet, figures such as Halle Berry, Orlando Bloom, Charlie Hunnam, Tyrese Gibson and Jordana Brewster took the stage to thank the awards to the best in the industry voted online by 80 million fans in the most populous nation in the world. Also at the ceremony were Guillermo del Toro, powerhouse producer Jerry Katzemberg and award-winning composer Hans Zimmer, while Lucy Liu and popular Chinese TV host Olivia Xu were the hosts. There was no shortage of numbers from the Shaolin Warriors, adored martial arts figures, or from Summer Jikejunyi, the winner of the Chinese version of The Voice, and no one was surprised when Jeremy Renner thanked the award for best supporting actor with a recorded message .
Of course, all of this would not have been striking at all if it weren't for the fact that the gala took place in the heart of Hollywood, in the theater named in honor of the person who founded it years ago, the Mexican Ricardo Montalbán. That it took place there was no accident. Increasingly powerful Chinese television executives have brought in renowned producer Don Mischer, an Oscar and Emmy veteran, to organize the Huading Film Awards in the mecca of cinema.
A few days later, an article in the Los Angeles Times, the only morning newspaper distributed throughout the city, devoted considerable space to a report by its correspondent in Beijing, Julie Makinen, on the experiences of the great Hollywood stars when they come to that city to promote their films. It highlighted the curious questions that local journalists usually ask them, such as Hugh Jackman's surprise when a reporter asked him to compare the figure of his co-star in 'X-Men: Days of Future Past', the Chinese Fang Bingbing, with the of the European actresses with whom he had worked, or the disorientation of Johnny Depp when the 'Vogue' interviewer asked him if he would dare to design women's underwear.
Although the section very occasionally publishes articles on cultural events in other countries, China has become a recurring theme. It is not for less. If the American films accumulated succulent collections when they were released in China, nothing will be the same after the premiere there of 'Transformers: Age of Extinction', the latest installment of the franchise directed by Michael Bay. The film grossed considerably more in that country than in what was until now considered the most important market in the world. Indeed, the new Transformers had left in the coffers of the local distributor the staggering figure of 301 million dollars (225 million in euros) at the close of this edition, a partial number considering that, after five weeks of exhibition, remained in the fourth position of the most viewed. In the United States, in seven weeks it had already dropped to number 18, and the total raised barely reached 180 million euros.
So much interest has caused that in recent months it is not unusual for the newspaper to publish the list of the ten highest-grossing films in China last weekend, a true rarity that reflects the attention paid to the second city today from the United States to everything that comes from the Asian giant. The Chinese invasion can not only be seen in what has to do with the cinema. Every day planes full of tourists arrive from Beijing and Shanghai who are not only interested in visiting Disneyland or Universal Studios, but who come to look for investment opportunities, apartments to buy and possibilities of higher education for their children.
In turn, the 11-hour direct flight that separates Los Angeles from Shanghai has never been a problem for North American businessmen who, traditionally, have found in Chinese territory the ideal place to manufacture products for a fraction of what it would cost to do so in the United States. . But never before has cinema played such an important role in the commercial relationship between the two countries as it has been happening in recent times.
The economic boom that has tripled per capita income in China since 2000 has been reflected in an impressive way in the local box office, and this has generated an obsession among the big studios to conquer what has become the second film market in the world. world. In 2011 alone, Chinese spending on entertainment and recreation approached 4 billion euros. For this reason, it is not surprising that every day, on average, some 18 new theaters are opened, a rate that for now will not be enough to surpass the United States as the country with the most cinemas on the planet, even though its population of 323 million inhabitants does not reaches a quarter of the 1,392 that China has, not including Hong Kong or Macao. In contrast, India, with its 1,210 million, is far from generating the same phenomenon when it comes to counting tickets sold. The truth is that in the first months of 2014 the collection in China increased by 30 percent compared to the same months of the previous year, and the same amount was generated in 90 days as in all of 2009. If it continues like this, this year the historical record of 2013 will be surpassed, with a total collection of 2,600 million euros.
The problem for the 'majors', as the group made up of Warner, Fox, Disney, Universal and Paramount is called, is that the ruling Chinese Communist Party continues to see movies as an element of cultural dissemination rather than mere entertainment, so that maintains a rigid censorship and a limit to the arrival of foreign productions that is firmly maintained in the 34 that can be released each year in local theaters, 14 of which must be in 3D or Imax. The studios cannot present their films through their local subsidiaries, as is the case in Spain, but must do so through the China Film Group, which has the sole license to import the tapes, and with whom they must share the profits. In addition, there is no rating system that distinguishes adult and children's films, so they all have to be suitable for audiences of all ages.
This does not mean that Almodóvar's cinema is not known in China, since virtually everything that is produced in the world arrives, legal or pirated, on DVD; or it can be downloaded from the internet. But for a film to be screened it has to go through censorship. 'Noé' left in the coffers of Paramount almost 250 million euros worldwide, but despite the good relations of the study with the Chinese hierarchs, and having converted the film to 3D to show it only outside the United States, the censors vetoed it. The truth is that thanks to an aggressive distribution strategy that uses the most famous Hollywood stars as a spearhead, the big North American productions have been gaining positions at a fast pace, making the party leaders doubt the advisability of maintaining a system that deprives the State of receiving the succulent percentages that a more liberal behavior could leave.
Although for now it is local productions that continue to take most of the box office, the situation is changing. Over the past year, only three North American titles made it into the top ten at the box office, 'Iron Man 3', 'Pacific Rim' (which was a flop in the US but a big hit in China) and 'Gravity'.
In the first months of 2014, Chinese films, generally romantic comedies without much intellectual aspirations and little chance of crossing borders, took 63 percent of admissions, which did not stop Hollywood blockbusters from breaking records. Long before the premiere of the new 'Transformers', 'Captain America: the winter soldier' raised 115 million dollars (83 in euros), 'The Hobbit: the desolation of Smaug', amassed 74 million dollars (53 in euros ) and 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' generated 56 million US dollars (40 euros). Even films that flopped resoundingly in the United States, such as "Need for Speed," made up for losses with a Chinese release, where it grossed $66 million (€48), enough to cover the cost of filming it.
But the successive visits of Jackman, who shared his promotional tour with Bingbing, a big local star, Depp, Scarlett Johansson, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield have proven to be the key to convincing Chinese viewers to choose the big Hollywood show for over local productions. Angelina Jolie also took photos with the skyscrapers of Shanghai as a background before the local premiere of 'Maleficent' and made the trip accompanied by Brad Pitt, until recently a figure non grata due to his leading role in 'Seven Years in Tibet' , a film that 15 years ago particularly annoyed the local authorities. Although Pitt kept a low profile during his visit and dedicated himself to accompanying his children while Angelina spoke with the press, his was a symbolic gesture that normalized relations in a market that will be essential for his career in the next years. 'World War Z' did not have a commercial release in the Asian giant, although the alleged reason was the intense scenes of violence and not the presence of Brad, since the censors do not give explanations as to why they approve a film or not.
Chinese investors' attempts to gain a foothold in Hollywood are no less ambitious. The businessman Wang Jianlin, consecrated by 'Forbes' as the richest man in China, had no problem hiring the services of Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio so that in September last year they arrived in the remote coastal city of Quingdao for the start of the works of a gigantic study that, with a cost of 6,000 million euros, will surpass any rival in the world. The owner of Dalian Wanda Group, the parent company of Dalian Media, which owns cinemas, hotels and department stores, is determined to bring big stars to work in China once its Quingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis complex opens in 2016. It will have 20 sound forums, an underwater set and a 10,000 square meter plot of land that will make Cineccità pale with envy. Jianlin invested 50 million dollars in the opening ceremony alone, for which John Travolta, Catherine Zeta-Jones and a significant number of Hollywood executives also arrived, including Harvey Weinstein, responsible for making numerous Oscar-winning films a reality. . Although further details were never given, Dalian Wanda claims to have closed deals with powerful agencies, including the one that represents DiCaprio, to shoot some 30 foreign films a year there.
The group, which owns 6,000 theaters in China, acquired in 2012 the huge North American chain AMC, which has 5,000 stores, for 1.9 billion euros. The group has also just acquired a huge building adjoining the Beverly Hilton hotel, where the Golden Globes have been held for decades. For now they have not revealed what they will do with the site, once a shopping center for the wealthy of Beverly Hills, and where one of the most luxurious parties in Hollywood used to be organized on the night of the Globes. However, Dalian Wanda's strategy of creating Chinese stories with American stars may not be the right one. The Power of Tai Chi, starring and directed by Keanu Reeves and entirely financed by the group, grossed a ridiculous $100,000 when it was released in US theaters in November last year.
Even so, in a sign that the conquest of the North American market will be peaceful, Jianlin has donated 20 million dollars (about 15 euros) to the museum that the Academy of Arts and Sciences is building in Los Angeles. But the symbolic gesture that has not gone unnoticed by North Americans, who are wondering when a Chinese corporation will acquire Universal or Warner Bros, has been that of the multinational company specializing in home appliances TCL, based in Huizhou, Guangdong province.
The company did not hesitate to pay 5 million dollars (3.6 in euros) so that its acronym would be placed before the name of the emblematic Chinese Theater in Hollywood, the room where the premiere of 'Star Wars' took place in 1977, and in front of to which Marilyn Monroe and Gary Cooper immortalized their footprints in the cement. Without a doubt, when businessman Sid Grauman decided to build it in 1926 after the success of a similar room, the Egyptian Theatre, he did not imagine that the name of the new projection space would symbolize what seems to be the next destination of the film industry. .
The ideal formula to overcome all setbacks in both markets is undoubtedly co-production. For the Hollywood studios, this strategy solves the quota problem, since for the Chinese bureaucracy it is a local film. And even if stories are told that are compelling in your country, the presence of Hollywood stars facilitates the global exhibition of a film that would not otherwise cross borders. However, it is still necessary to find how to generate proposals that work in both places: 'The Flowers of War', the most expensive film in the history of Chinese cinema, with a budget of 68 million euros, was a resounding failure when it was premiered in the United States in 2011 despite having Christian Bale in the title role and being directed by Zhang Yimou. That hasn't demoralized those looking for the new goose that lays the golden eggs. During the recent Beijing Film Festival, which took place in April and brought together an unusual number of Hollywood stars and producers, the vice president of Paramount announced from the Asian capital that he had reached an agreement with China Film Group to co-produce a new version of the Marco Polo story to be directed by Rob Cohen. The new film will begin shooting in 3D in October with a cast that has not yet been defined, but will include figures from both cultures.
Among 32 other co-production contracts finalized in those days, Tom Cruise's ex-partner, Paula Wagner, launched an ambitious film about the American pilots who participated as volunteers in the Chinese Air Force before their country entered World War II. . The film, in which much of the money will be provided by the local company Desen Media, will star two American and two Chinese stars, and there will be a love story between one of the newly arrived pilots and an Asian nurse.
Also at the festival was the director of 'Seven Years in Tibet', Frenchman Jean-Jacques Annaud, who has not only been pardoned by the regime, but has found in the eager Chinese capitalists the only ones willing to make a of his many impossible dreams, that of bringing 'Wolf Totem' to the big screen, the successful novel by Jian Rong that Alfaguara has published in Spain.
Jean-Jacques Annaud found his patron in the mighty Alibaba, the same media company that may outperform Facebook when his shares are put up for sale in the United States very shortly. But, in addition, he managed to convince them that the wolves that should appear in the film were raised by the production from birth so that, as adults, they could share the scenes with the human protagonists without suspicion, something that in Hollywood would have been considered a real madness.
The truth is that on both sides of the Pacific, everyone is anxiously searching for that magic formula that allows the abundant new Chinese capital and Hollywood talent to be used to generate proposals that work globally. Perhaps that is the way in which the big screen can resist the unstoppable advance of television and avoid that apocalypse of blockbusters that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predicted at the time. Because if the audience in the United States does not respond, there will always be China's to turn a failure into a success.