Beijing scenes in 'Transformers' shows effort to break into China market
BEIJING - Dazzling special effects, Optimus Prime - and Beijing. The latest Transformers movie has all three, mixing Texas-based action with scenes in China's capital and a heavy dose of Hong Kong in an effort to straddle the world's two biggest moviegoing audiences.
The fourth installment of the Michael Bay-directed franchise has gone all-out to woo China's audience with Chinese locations, talent, even a reality TV show. Transformers: Age of Extinction illustrates the delicate balancing game for Hollywood studios trying to figure what the Chinese market wants while simultaneously catering to Americans.
If such films aren't handled properly, they risk alienating both audiences, said Michael Keane, an expert on China's creative industries at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
In China, the core moviegoing group of 19-to-25-year-olds already likes Western films, he said. "They would like Transformers, and as soon as you start stuffing in Chinese elements, they can see through it, and you may shoot yourself in the foot by doing it."
Western studios are adding Chinese elements to increase their appeal in China, where films earned $3.6 billion in ticket sales last year. Skyfall was partly set in Shanghai and Macau. Chinese actress Fan Bingbing played a mutant superhero in X-Men: Days of Future Past, which has earned $114 million in China - almost a quarter of the movie's total international box office.
But the sprinkling of Chinese elements in Transformers: Age of Extinction, released in China and North America on Friday, goes further than most recent Hollywood films.
More than a half-hour of action takes place in Hong Kong, and the crew filmed in three other Chinese cities. Chinese star Li Bingbing has a major role, and boy-band singer-turned-actor Han Geng has a one-liner. A reality TV show had been staged to choose four people for roles.
In one scene, a billboard stretches across most of the screen, advertising Chinese liquor. In another product placement, Stanley Tucci's character drinks from a carton of Chinese milk.
Online film critic Zheng Kunjie said the number of Chinese elements in the film was "unprecedented" in a Hollywood import. The familiar scenes and brands make the Transformers movie more realistic to a Chinese audience than one that employs a Western stereotype of "a classically beautiful China" as in Skyfall, she said. While these will make Chinese moviegoers interested in the film, the Chinese elements don't affect the development of the story, she said.
Florian Fettweis of Beijing-based media consultancy CMM-I said too many Chinese elements could dilute the appeal to U.S. moviegoers.
Western movies with more China-specific narratives tend not to fare well at the box office, such as last year's directorial debut by Keanu Reeves, Man of Tai Chi, set in Beijing and centering on Chinese martial arts.
Unlike the latest Transformers movie, Man of Tai Chi had official coproduction status in China. To be classed as such by Chinese authorities, at least a third of the film's main creative talent must be Chinese; 30 percent of its film budget must come from China; some production must take place in China, and the film must include a certain amount of undefined Chinese elements.
Officially designated coproductions benefit both sides. For Hollywood, they earn an automatic exemption from China's quota on foreign movies and allow a larger share of the country's box office. China's filmmaking industry, meanwhile, is keen to acquire more skills and technological know-how.
Last year, there were 49 official coproductions in China, the majority of them with Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies. (China counts productions in self-governing Taiwan as being Chinese.)
There were three China-U.S. coproductions, including Cloud Atlas. A flurry of recent cooperation agreements between Hollywood studios and Chinese players suggests that more are coming.
In April, Paramount and state-owned China Film Group signed a deal to co-produce the fantasy-action movie Marco Polo, based on the 14th-century European explorer who traveled to China. He is a positive figure in Chinese history and fodder for a Chinese-inspired script.
Last week, Chinese private investor Fosun International Ltd. announced that it would invest in Studio 8 - a company founded by former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov.
Hollywood coming to China isn't "necessarily a good thing for creative freedom" because screenwriters will avoid topics that Beijing is sensitive about, such as the Dalai Lama or the Falun Gong spiritual group, said Keane, the expert at Queensland University of Technology.
"It's going to mean a kind of dumbing-down - in terms of, people will self-censor. They're going to make stories that are neutral or even positive towards China in order to get into the marketplace."