Is Hollywood’s “Fortune Cookie” Approach Working?

For The New York Times, Michael Cieply reports that Chinese demand has not met the high expectations of Hollywood film studios:

In the first quarter this year, ticket sales for American movies in China — including films as prominent as “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” and “Skyfall” — fell 65 percent, to about $200 million, while sales for Chinese-language films rose 128 percent, to well over $500 million, according to the online publication Chinafilmbiz.com.

The weekend brought one sign of a rebound for Hollywood: “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” from Paramount Pictures, took in a respectable $33 million at the Chinese box office, matching roughly 75 percent of its ticket sales when it opened in the North American market on March 28.

But if the preferences of Chinese moviegoers continue to shift to domestic releases, China will maintain control of its own film market just as Hollywood was ready to seize it.

When “Iron Man 3,” an action heavyweight from Disney’s Marvel Entertainment, opens in coming days, it will slug it out with a small, domestically made romance called “So Young,” about a Chinese woman who reconnects with her college sweethearts. It is hard to be certain which film will be the underdog.

Some studios have attempted to tailor versions of blockbuster films for the Chinese audience, such as Iron Man 3, which reportedly has an extra scene featuring two prominent Chinese actors. The film will not, however, be released as a co-production with a Chinese studio, which would have exposed it to a wider audience but would have also been subject to the scrutiny of Chinese censors. As the Guardian’s film blog explains, Hollywood has found it difficult to make inroads in the Chinese market without sacrificing the universal appeal of its films:

Unfortunately, Hollywood’s ersatz “fortune cookie” approach to its Chinese product probably won’t work for much longer. Increasingly discriminating Chinese filmgoers are seeking entertainment that unabashedly speaks for them, and the local industry is increasingly able to provide it. Since the turn of the year, Hollywood has slipped behind not because of the Chinese government’s anti-competitive practices, but because of a stream of hits from Chinese film-makers.

Low-budget comedy Lost in Thailand was a surprise hit in December, followed by Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac and more martial arts from Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster. Stephen Chow’s comeback film Journey to the West was another predictable rainmaker, but there was also a pair of breakout performers in cable TV spin-off Bring Happiness Home and romcom Finding Mr Right. And more are on their way. A formidable showing, then, for homegrown Chinese films in 2013’s first quarter. Lost in Thailand, Chinese Zodiac and Journey to the West all grossed $100m+ at home – and it’s been a year since a Hollywood import (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) managed that. Despite the oriental mood music, Skyfall disappointed in China compared to Daniel Craig’s first two outings – taking just under $60m.

Could this be the start of a divergence of tastes that will make US films try a lot harder to woo Chinese audiences? Buying preferential treatment and milking the PR works for single, high-impact projects such as Iron Man 3, but it’s hardly the kind of comprehensive rethinking needed by the studios to be seriously in the running against local competitors operating with Hollywood savvy. There will come a point when the Chinese, quite understandably, want a Chinese Iron Man.

Update: In response to news that DreamWorks Animation (DWA) is teaming up with China Film Group (CFG) to produce Tibet Code, an animated film set in 9th century Tibet, ChinaFile is hosting an online discussion about Hollywood in China.