Cultural Junk Drawer – Transformers, China, and Change

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TAOETRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION earns over $200 million in Chinese Box Office!


Hope you like egg roll with your explodo!


How everything is about to seriously change in the American movie biz–or not

“I’m from the future, trust me, you want to go to China.” – Abe (Jeff Daniels) in Looper.

At this point you’ve probably either seen or (like myself) steadfastly swore NOT to see Transformers 4. In its second week in the US, the Fourth of July weekend, the Michael Bay directed “Movie” dropped sixty three percent of its first week earnings to a measly $37 million. You’d think bad reviews and/or word of mouth is to blame, but if that were the case the Transformer series would’ve stopped at Revenge of the Fallen. Actually this is SOP for big event summer movies, give or take. Odds are you’re going to see this type of movie in the first or second week or not at all nowadays.

There is a little room for snickering simply because Optimus’ only competition was Satan and Melissa McCarthy this weekend. Adjusted for inflation AOE will probably have the worst showing of the four two and a half hour long toy commercials charitably called “movies”. Right now some executive for DreamWorks is trying to figure out a way to “organically” work robot balls and racist caricatures back into the next Transformers movie because that was the reason for the second movie’s success. Now some may rub their hands in glee and see this as the beginning of the end for Transformers, and they might be right for the United States, but that’s not what all the buzz is about because Age of Extinction has made over $200 million in the second biggest market in the world – CHINA!

Transformers: AOE is a kind of culmination of several years of major Hollywood studios playing nice with China and its success will alter the landscape of not only how movies are made but where and why also. First a general overview of what’s going on here; China has almost one and a half BILLION people, huge amounts of land, a political philosophy that fluctuates between iffy and malleable usually within the same day, a strong desire to look good in international opinion and, curiously, a growing middle class. China also produces tons of entertainment in-country and has a voracious appetite for movies. All this makes for can’t-ignore opportunity for American studios; comedy might not work everywhere but shit blowin’ up real good is a universal (and also Warner, Fox, Paramount and Disney) language. The Na’vi of Avatar play just as well to Chinese folk as American so do, it stands to reason, robots that turn into cars.

So, over a billion pairs of eyes eager to soak up the one thing America still does well, make DA BOOM! What’s the problem here?

The problem lies with China’s cultural gatekeepers; only thirty four foreign films are allowed into China each year and a film’s profits are something like a 15/85% split with the big chunk staying in China. There is a loophole though. If the film is a co-production with Chinese studios, a portion is shot in China and has Chinese actors in it the film can dodge the “foreign” classification. This means more American/Chinese co-produced movies can play in China with less competition from all the other countries fighting for those thirty four allotted slots. We’ve already seen this in the past several years roughly starting with the Karate Kid remake starring Jackie Chan and the Will Smith clone with charisma surgically removed, Jaden Smith. Movies like Looper, Man with the Iron Fists, X-Men Days of Future Past and Iron Man 3 have all had at least a toe in the China water.

Cultural watchdogs and censors working off an arbitrary and frequently erratic set of standards aside (just to be clear I’m talking about China and not our own arbitrary and erratic censors) the rewards are too big to not try and game the system. And game the system Hollywood execs have. The scene in Iron Man 3 that played in China only, not naming the movie The Kung-Fu kid, making a factory owner Li Bing Bing instead of some nondescript Chinese guy in a suit (for the record I have NO problem with Li Bing Bing playing anything in any movie, especially the ones in my head where I’m Indiana Jones and she’s a scantily clad princess… um, I’m getting off track here, sorry.)

But the bean counters in the corridors of studio power discovered something else aside from opening a new market for big budget films. Exploiting that market for manpower and squeezing more out of that big budget. I’ll be charitable when I say that China doesn’t have the best record when it comes to workers, or to cast a broader net, human rights. The old, but still relevant, joke about “Made in China” is there because China has astoundingly lax labor laws. Things like flash drives, patio chairs and dog food can be made cheaply because of copious manpower and a government that is founded on the old boy network. So prevalent is the institutionalized networking and political favoritism in China’s business structure they have a word for it: Guanxi. But most are left out in the cold. Whole cities are built just to house (or ostensibly imprison) factory workers. With almost a billion and a half people humans are pretty much a commodity, labor is cheap and disposable and though particular skills are need to do the job you can overcome that with sheer volume.

Making a movie is a huge logistical and financial undertaking with many specialized departments. I’m not saying American film crews are better (though we kinda are, mostly) I’m saying when you shoot a movie in China you don’t have to deal with pesky things like overtime or“safety regulations or crews needing sleep.  Money saved in those areas can then be funneled into more shit blowing up on screen and the producers’ pockets and, of course, the producers deserve all that extra scratch. Basically working conditions in China are why people like Mitt Romney buy personal lubricant. More and more often the very hard, dangerous and demanding job of film production is moving there. I won’t even get into the other things like non-existent pollution regulation and political oppression or even bring up old stuff like Tiananmen Square (Google it).

But there is more.

“I think they have a real ambition to build up a film industry, a real studio business,” said Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton in 2013. “They hope to learn a lot about how movies are made and marketed.” In other words learn all our stuff and when they get to a point of satisfaction, watch how quickly partnerships disappear. I’m not so naïve to suggest Hollywood studios think long term but it’s possible this relationship never gets past the honeymoon phase. This is a country that only allows thirty four foreign movies a year inside its boarders and that’s with heavy censorship and a keen eye on cultural impact. Who’s to say that when The Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis opens in 2017 or, worse if political climate shifts back to a more xenophobic agenda or any of a million other factors causes China to tighten its cultural and/or physical boarders  that all this partnership will still exist. Bluntly: there has been a precedent set for reactionary sentiment in China, severe reactionary sentiment. Yes, money talks, or more succinctly screams but China has demonstrated in the past that money takes a back seat to maintaining the status quo. Of course China has their censorship in place and, of course, the studios have to adhere to their demands. But I’m sure that when Paramount has a $250 million budgeted action movie that needs international success just to break even they’ll stand by their director’s choice to show a Chinese official as an inept bureaucrat that allows the aliens to invade earth despite China’s demands to the contrary.

Which brings up the next big problem: Content. The twelve of you who saw the Red Dawn remake – didn’t you think it strange that it was the North Koreans that invaded the mid-west? The original draft had China as the invaders but since action movies make a lot off international screening and China is the number two market in the world, it is no surprise that North Korea launched a tactically idiotic offensive against America’s heartland with no consideration for long term goals, logistic support, resources or manpower, something only a bigger country could even hope to pull off. North Korea invading the middle of America is even less believable than Thor playing a teenager. In fact, I’ve had a second degree (in the Kevin Bacon sense) experience with this. My friends Josh Finney and Kat Rocha (for full disclosure their 01 publishing handles my GN Crazy Mary) had a graphic novel called Titanium Rain published with Archaia. It’s a lighthearted whimsical book about the world coming to the edge of World War three because of a civil war in China.

Archaia had a vendor in Hong Kong that handled the actual physical task of publishing their books. The vendor refused to print the book because of its political content; it cast China in a bad political light. This personally affected me because I co-wrote the prose story appearing in the back of the book and I felt obligated to call Josh every other week and threaten him in a bad Chinese accent. The point is that when China either directly or by being the eight hundred pound gorilla indirectly dictates the content of American films there is a serious problem. The Red Dawn fiasco is just one of many problems that can surface. The Titanium Rain situation is another. Granted at the moment were talking about giant robots hitting each other but you can bet that the decision to make the Mandarin of Iron Man 3 a drug addled English buffoon wasn’t an entirely “creative” one. I couldn’t imagine Titanium Rain ever being done as a movie, at least not with the content intact. It would become something like Top Gun but with less homoerotic subtext.

Maybe I’m being too much of an alarmist. In truth most big budget movies haven’t been made in Hollywood for at least a decade or more. Places like Australia, Canada and even Detroit have had the honor of getting their citizen’s everyday life inconvenienced by closed off roads, loss of parking, and extreme depletion of alcohol. In the last four years I worked on Argo for a few days and an upcoming film called The Gambler (not a Kenny Rogers reboot) that is the sum total of big budgeted feature films I can recall working on. China is just another stop in movie making’s endless quest for novelty, economy and money.

There is a silver lining though; cross pollination.  For years I (and I can reasonably assume you the humble reader) have been a fan of such Chinese imports as John Woo, Chow Yung Fat, Jet Li, Ang Lee (I forgive you for Hulk) and other talents. The Matrix wouldn’t have been half as cool without all that Kung Fu choreography from Ye Wu Ping. Avatar: the Last Airbender wouldn’t even exist (the cartoon. Not the movie, obviously, it would be a better world if the movie never existed, ever!). Some kid in China is watching an American movie right now and will become an action movie director that synthesizes the best of both cultures, a John Woo of his (or her) generation. Some kid here in America is watching a Bruce Lee movie for the first time and saying “Holy Shit! I want to be a Kung Fu master! Ok, all of us said that but one or two might follow through, that’s my point.

There is also the peace dividend; maybe only Nixon could go to China but Wolverine, Bumblebee, and The RZA can play there! I’m not a big advocate of the monoculture but the one plus of the Hollywood/China bedfellows is that the more we have in common, the more familiar reference points we share with people in other cultures and countries, the less likely we are to want to blow each other up. In this respect Optimus Prime could do more to save the world than he ever has fighting Megatron.

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