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Kung Fu Panda 2: Hollywood works harder to win Chinese audiences

Kung Fu Panda 2, which opened May 27 in China, includes references that will be familiar to Chinese audiences – part of a broader Hollywood effort to flourish in the booming market.

By Jonathan LandrethCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 28, 2011

Jack Black, who voices the lead character in the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ films, mugs with a mascot in New York.

Phil McCarten/Reuters

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Chengdu, China

A decade ago, as China closed in on membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), key negotiators now say, it wasn't talk of opening a huge market to grain or machinery that threatened talks: It was haggling over movies, the ultimate soft-power export.

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Today, Chinese consumer confidence has soared. That has lifted movie ticket sales, which jumped 64 percent in 2010 to $1.5 billion, thanks partly to a 3-D craze and a mushrooming of cinemas in China. But what's also grown is official wariness of the influence of foreign media, so much so that Beijing – a WTO member since 2001 – has all but ignored a March WTO deadline to open film distribution to greater foreign participation, and has refused to discuss the annual cap of 20 imported films.

In late May, taking a page out of China's 1972 playbook – when Beijing gave two rare black-and-white bears to Washington's National Zoo after Presi­dent Nixon's historic visit – envoys from DreamWorks Animation went to Sichuan Province bearing "Kung Fu Panda 2," part of DreamWorks's effort to establish a paw-hold in the globe's fastest-growing movie market. The China Film Group (CFG) released the film nationwide on May 27, dubbed into Chinese.

Their effort drew on lessons from the release of the first "Kung Fu Panda" in China right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many loved it, making it the first animated feature film here to gross more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) in ticket sales. Others said DreamWorks's take on China's ancient culture fell as flat as its 2-D portrayal.

Fast-forward three years and the stakes are higher. Tickets costing as much as 120 yuan ($18.50) helped China become the No. 2 movie market after the United States for 20th Century Fox's "Avatar." After its January 2010 release, it went on to gross more than $200 million in China. Walt Disney Pictures's "Pirates of the Carib­bean 4: On Stranger Tides" recently topped the opening weekend figures for "Avatar."

Those kind of box-office numbers get the attention of US moviemakers. They ensure that the studios will increasingly take into account not only what will fly with China's middle-class audience but also with Beijing censors, who must approve every film.

Disney learns the hard way

Disney learned the hard way that media minders in Beijing watch for anything, anywhere, that questions China's unity and the supremacy of the Communist Party. In 1997, Disney, whose interests in China extend to publishing, merchandising, and theme parks, upset Beijing by releasing director Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," a film about the current Dalai Lama's exile to India after the People's Liberation Army's occupation of Tibet. Though it was never intended for release in China, insiders say Disney's initiatives in China were stalled for years afterward.

Beyond political considerations, US filmmakers are also trying to engage Chinese audiences more directly, instead of assuming that what plays well in New York will also be snapped up by filmgoers in Shanghai.

Fox International Productions recently made two Mandarin-language films that it distributed via Beijing-based partners Huayi Brothers Media. The romantic comedy "Hot Sum­mer Days," which FIP made for $2 million, grossed roughly $22 million. FIP then got Hollywood hitmaker Doug Liman, director of "The Bourne Identity," to boost a martial-arts comedy, "The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman," at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea last October.

Hollywood studios complain about their limited access to China. But they are also currying favor with the CFG, gatekeeper to the wallets of Chinese moviegoers. CFG sees itself as the guardian of Chinese mores. Films must contain the proper "Chinese elements" to be approved for release.

The plot of Sony's doomsday picture "2012" featured Chinese ark-builders as saviors of the story's flood victims. The overwhelmingly positive attention the film received in the state-controlled press hints at China's eagerness for Hollywood to abandon its historical vilification and fantasization of China in favor of helping it look good to the world.

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