As Hollywood goes to ever-further lengths to captivate the growing Chinese movie audience, its latest effort, "Iron Man 3," seems to have backfired.
The blockbuster broke Chinese opening day box office records last week, pulling in $21 million. But Chinese fans are seriously unimpressed by the rather obvious ploy the producers used in a bid to make the film more attractive to them, and box office numbers have flagged in recent days.
Disney-owned Marvel studios added an extra four minutes to the Chinese version of the movie, giving film goers here a minor plot twist and a few shots of female heart-throb Fan Bingbing and another local star, Wang Xueqi, against a Chinese background.
Disney’s effort is just the latest episode in US film companies’ continuing efforts to grab a larger slice of the Chinese box office pie. Already the second-largest and fastest growing movie market in the world, China is expected to outstrip the United States by 2020, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
But the Chinese "Iron Man 3" scenes were so clearly bolted on and irrelevant to the story line that many people here felt insulted rather than entertained. “The Chinese version treated Chinese audiences like idiots,” complains Liu Kunpeng, a young IT engineer. “I want to see the same version that the rest of the world sees.”
“The extra minutes did not help the film commercially and they may even have hurt,” suggests Robert Cain, a film producer who has worked extensively in China. “Audiences felt manipulated.”
Foreign films are strictly controlled in China. The authorities allow only 34 foreign movies to open each year in China, and let their producers keep only a small share – generally well under 25 percent – of the box office revenues.
One way around those restrictions is to co-produce a film with Chinese partners – Sony chose this route for its remake of “Karate Kid.” Co-productions are treated as domestic films, and their makers get 40 percent of the box office take.
But the conditions are strict: 30 percent of the money must come from China, 30 percent of the film’s “major players” on either side of the camera must be Chinese, and the film must reflect a Chinese theme or cultural context.
“That’s a lot to ask of a film … if you want it to have commercial success outside China too,” says Mr. Cain.
So Hollywood is trying all sorts of tricks, short of co-productions, to make its products appeal to the Chinese authorities and Chinese audiences.
Last year’s time travel movie “Looper” was set partly in Shanghai, and Bruce Willis’s character spent more time there in the Chinese version of the film than he did in the version released internationally.
Paramount is going even further with “Transformers 4," due out next year. Working with Chinese state-run TV’s movie channel, Paramount launched a casting competition here three weeks ago, seeking on-line Chinese applicants for four roles in the film, “a strong stylish man, a geek, a sexy woman and a little Lolita,” according to the TV channel’s website, which is running the contest. The winners will be presented in a movie channel special in August, organizers say.
The producers hope that this will not only give their film valuable publicity, but earn kudos with the Chinese authorities. “It’s a good way for the government to know the American film company is eager to participate with the Chinese in the making of the movie,” Sid Ganis, a veteran producer who is working on the project, told The Hollywood Reporter.
Such kudos can be worth a lot of money: The producers of "Iron Man 3" earned themselves the right to market their film a year in advance and to release it on one of the biggest movie-going days in the Chinese calendar – the May 1 national holiday.
The last "Transformers" movie earned $165 million at the Chinese box office, 20 percent of its international take.
But gimmicks such as extra scenes or local casting are not going to work forever, Cain cautions. “Foreign producers who want to succeed in China will have to pay more attention to what Chinese audiences want and what Chinese investors will pay for” if they are to compete with ever more sophisticated and popular Chinese films, he says.
“It will take more investment and attention and understanding than any Hollywood studio has shown so far,” he adds.