The cabal of internet trolls who lost their minds over the possibility of a black man in space – John Boyega as Finn in last year’s Star Wars: the Force Awakens – are already at least four times as outraged about the next addition to the franchise, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The cast of Gareth Edwards’ film includes not one, but four non-white principal characters, in addition to a female lead.
While sub-reddits full of racist keyboard warriors foam at the mouth and threaten a (futile) boycott of one of 2016’s most highly anticipated films, audiences filling the multiplexes for Rogue One will find themselves watching one of the most diverse ensemble casts in a blockbuster ever. Rogue One includes an African-American (Forest Whitaker), a Pakistani-Brit (Riz Ahmed) and two Chinese actors (Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen). The addition of Yen and Wen to the cast of Rogue One makes it the latest blockbuster to increase the Chinese star power of their films.
While it would be great if Hollywood was assembling increasingly diverse blockbuster casts out of the goodness of its heart (it’s no secret the industry has a race problem with casting), the truth is that diversity is starting to sell, and it is selling especially well in China. The Chinese film market is beyond booming, both in terms of box office sales and film investment. In 2015, Chinese audiences spent US$6.5 billion on going to the movies – more than a 50% increase on sales from the previous year. If it continues to grow at its current rate, by the end of 2017, China will overtake the U.S. in terms of box office sales. Naturally, Hollywood studios want to do everything they can in order to access what is likely to become the biggest box office market in the world, and one likely to relieve the financial pressure imposed by Western audiences choosing Netflix or illegal streaming over a night at the movies.
This is no easy task. Only 34 foreign films can be imported into China every year, and the only organization able to grant this golden ticket is the sprawling and far-reaching China Film Group Corporation. A state-run enterprise, the CFGC is not only the sole importer of foreign films into China, but it is the biggest player in nearly every single element of the film industry, from financing, production and distribution rights, through to developing DMAX, a large-screen film format designed to rival IMAX.
With the quota in play, competition to crack the Chinese market is fierce. Many Hollywood studios get around this law by striking up co-financing deals with Chinese companies, including with the CFGC itself. This technically categorizes the film as a Chinese co-production and allows the film to be released outside of the narrow foreign quota. The CFGC has co-financed a number of massive blockbusters in recent years, including Furious 7, Pixels, Warcraft, and upcoming Matt Damon vehicle The Great Wall. The money flows both ways; Legendary Pictures was purchased earlier this year by Wanda Media Group, a diverse enterprise owned by Wang Jianlin, one of China’s richest men.
Another tactic used by foreign production to get the CFGC on side is the production of films in China and its territories. This has resulted in China and the Chinese-speaking world becoming far more visible in Hollywood films in the last 10 years. Shanghai and Macau are some of the more recognizable and popular Chinese settings in foreign films, with future Star Wars director Rian Johnson’s second film Looper securing Chinese film financing in exchange for filming in Shanghai rather than Paris. Since then, Skyfall and Now You See Me 2 have most notably been filmed and set in Shanghai and Macau. Even the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not immune to the Chinese market, with the third act of Doctor Strange taking place in Hong Kong.
A third tactic used by Hollywood to crack the Chinese market is the casting of Chinese or Chinese-speaking actors in blockbuster films, with varying degrees of success. Many of Hollywood’s key players can’t grasp the concept of casting a Chinese actor into plot-centric roles, as they would cast non-Chinese actors. Casting directors for the upcoming Jumanji remake were reportedly asking for “a Chinese component. They don’t necessarily know what it is.” Chinese audiences are wise to films where Chinese actors are shoehorned into near-meaningless cameos, such as Fan Bingbing’s “role” as Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past. This ham-fisted casting is such a blatant play for Chinese audiences that they have developed a specific term for such a role, “flower vases” – there for strategic decoration but not adding much substance to the plot.
Lionsgate Films specifically wrote a part for Jay Chou, a Taiwanese pop superstar, into Now You See Me 2. His role contributed immensely to the plot, and he also performed the film’s theme song, creating a huge publicity boom for the film among his fanbase. As such, the film made US$94 million in China, compared with US$64 million in the US, and a Chinese language spin-off is now in the works.
Rogue One will be hoping to achieve similar success. The original Star Wars films were not released in China, so it does not have anywhere near the brand recognition that it has with Western audiences. Casting Yen and Wen – two of the biggest names in Chinese cinema – is Disney’s attempt to secure a following for Star Wars in this critical market. The two actors have been in front and centre in Chinese language trailers, far more heavily featured than in trailers for the rest of the world.
While Hollywood might be wising up how to best employ Chinese actors in films, Chinese product placement is still in a rather awkward and ham-fisted stage, and not yet smoothly integrated into films. Chinese milk brand Shuhua Milk featured in Transformers: the Dark Side of the Moon, with Ken Jeong even naming the milk in an adlib, which Michael Bay decided to keep in the film. Moon Milk, by rival milk company Mengniu, was singled out by Chinese audiences for the clumsiness of its product placement in Independence Day: Resurgence. Marvel has also been criticised by Western commenters too, for its use of lower-end Vivo phones in Captain America: Civil War, with one mobile expert noting that “the US government would never, never, ever let Cap and Tony use phones from an off-brand Chinese phone manufacturer”. Doctor Strange’s sponsorship deal with Yakult led to a very prominent Yakult neon sign being featured in the Hong Kong sequence of the film, and some really weird crossover advertising. Maybe there isn’t a seamless way to link a time-warping magician and a probiotic yogurt drink, but until producers can find a way to do it, it seems Chinese audiences would really prefer that they didn’t.
As Hollywood has chased the Chinese cinematic dollar, however, the tension between the artistic and commercial aspects of cinema has discreetly tightened, with an additional element of politics now involved. Given the influence of the state-run CFGC on the entire industry, actors, directors, and entire productions must toe a very fine line in terms of how publicly outspoken they are on political issues. Actors have been removed from films or obliged to make public apologies for politically unfavorable – or even merely equivocal – behavior. One only has to look at the treatment of internationally renowned but domestically reviled Chinese artist Ai Weiwei to realize the consequences if the film industry dared to defy the government.
There is also strict government censorship to contend with – Deadpool made no concessions to Chinese censors and was banned from release entirely, a massively bold move in terms of reducing its potential profit. Suicide Squad was also unable to secure a Chinese release, despite numerous compromises being made to achieve a PG-13 rating in the US. Where the US ratings are based mostly on levels of violence and nudity, it appears Suicide Squad’s sympathetic portrayal of less than law-abiding characters did not appeal to Chinese censors; films that “propagat[e] passive or negative outlook on life, worldview and value system” are banned.
There is no getting past the fact that the cinematic tastes of Chinese filmgoers will have an impact on the films being made for the rest of the world – for better or for worse. Some films which have been almost universally panned by Western critics do incredibly well in China, including Warcraft and Pacific Rim – both of which are getting sequels based largely on their success in the Chinese market (it will be curious to see if Pacific Rim 2’s casting of John Boyega as its lead impacts the success of the film; attitudes towards black people in China have some way to go). Transformers: Age of Extinction is the fourth highest grossing film of all time in China; it received a “truly rotten” rating of 18% on Rotten Tomatoes. Warcraft did not fare much better at 28%.
While Chinese cinema has a strong track record of producing movies which are extremely well-received by Western critics, the films that are raking it in for Hollywood tend to be heavy on CG, explosions and general Michael Bay-esque mayhem. Both Warcraft and one of 2016’s other highest grossing films in China, Zootopia, feature almost entirely CG characters, which make them far easier to dub into Chinese. This is great if you love animation and explosions; if you like a little more variety and nuance in your blockbusters, you might be out of luck for a while.
The rise of the Chinese film market and industry will have consequences far beyond those outlined here, and its influence on Hollywood will stretch far beyond the borders of both the US and China. What the Chinese market wants and likes will determine the films that the big studios continue to produce, and the strict content controls of the lucrative Chinese market may make it even harder for independent films to succeed. However, for now, the fact that Hollywood has to bow to international pressure to make its films more diverse is a clear silver lining. We can only speculate as to what the future of big cinema will look like. In the meantime, let’s sit back and enjoy the adventures of a rag-tag, multicultural gang of space rebels – and the fact that their diversity sells.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
If you’re yet to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, make sure you check out Everything You Need to Know before viewing.