China: No Country For Foreign Films

The all-American hero Captain America recently made his big screen debut as he saved the world from Nazis and the dreaded Red Skull. But, as American audiences bask in the patriotic glory that is Captain America: The First Avenger, viewers overseas will have a different experience.

America’s star-spangled hero will meet challenges entering international markets, which has led Paramount and Marvel Studios — along with distributors in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea — to change the title of the film. China, a massive movie market, may pass on showing it altogether. China caps the number of foreign films shown in theaters at 20 each year, a limitation that the World Trade Organization (WTO) found to be a violation, and which was supposed to be lifted in March. Hollywood studios need China to follow the ruling of the WTO and to do away with the limit, for their own financial sake.

While the lack of name recognition, as well as anti-American sentiment, will assuredly hurt the film in some regions, China’s marketing decision on the film will have an even greater impact, as blocking its release will hurt the film's international revenue. But conversely, this cap creates a film industry dead set on catering to the demands of the Chinese government, in hopes of reaping the benefits of the country's mass market. Captain America’s potential block is a sign that if films refuse to play ball, they will be shut out of the revenue gold mine that is Chinese cinema.

The limitations undoubtedly hurt Hollywood’s wallet. Millions of dollars in potential revenue are lost by not showing in Chinese theaters.

Chinese limitations have also created a problem for filmmakers and studios in terms of content, as they must toe the line of what is appropriate in the eyes of the government.

China’s film sector is expanding — growing by 65% alone this past year — as it is quickly becoming one of the largest markets yet to be fully tapped by American pop culture. Sure, China has been overrun with staples like McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, where millions of people can now indulge in a quarter-pounder chased with a venti caramel frappuccino. But, the film industry still cannot crack its Communist walls.

China is now the fifth largest international marketplace, and that number is likely to change in the coming years as it adds upwards of three new movie theaters a day.

But, Captain America is one of many films likely to be turned away by the Chinese government. The government handpicks the films, and many feel Captain America will not be one of those chosen because of its blatant pro-American story arch. It is an ominous sign for other films like Cowboys and AliensThe Hangover Part II, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows Part II (which will be shown in China, but will have its debut pushed back so the pro-Communist film Epic is itself a hit).

American filmmakers are increasingly conscious of catering to the Chinese government. A remake of The Karate Kid was altered to incorporate Chinese Kung Fu in an attempt to be shown in China, while the remake of The Green Hornet starred a Taiwanese-born co-star, ultimately securing its showing in China. Just recently, plans for a remake of Red Dawn were changed from having China invade America, to making North Korea the enemy. Studios have also attempted to steer clear of pro-Tibet messages following the backlash for films like Seven Years in Tibet. Brad Pitt is reportedly banned from China for starring in the film.

China is a fully untapped resource for American cinema. The limitations on foreign films set by the Chinese government has created a film industry attempting to gain entrance into China, often willing to tweak story lines to appease the government.

Photo Credit: Da Da Z