If Chloé Zhao nabs any of the Academy Awards she is nominated for on Sunday night, she will make history as the first Chinese woman to break into the upper echelons of Hollywood.
Nomadland, her film about adrift Amazon warehouse workers in middle America, is widely viewed as the frontrunner for the most coveted prize: best picture. Beijing-born Zhao in February became the first Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for best director, and would break further records with an Oscar under her belt.
But her ascent has drawn fire from nationalists in China, after commentators dug up a 2013 interview in which Zhao described the country as a place where “there are lies everywhere”. Marketing for Nomadland, released by Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures, has been scant on Chinese social media since then.
The Chinese government has told local media to tamp down coverage of the Oscars this year, according to Bloomberg, after the controversy over Zhao, and the nomination of a documentary about the Hong Kong protests. Some Chinese cinemas contacted by the Financial Times said they had cancelled previously announced screenings of Nomadland, which was set for an art house release on Friday.
The frostiness illustrates how the world’s two most important movie markets, after years of joint ventures and co-investments, are diverging.
China has improved at making films, as a result of a decade-long effort to create its own slickly produced blockbusters. American moviegoing has been declining for decades, leaving the Hollywood studios more reliant than ever on China’s nascent market for revenue. But they are increasingly failing to strike a chord with Chinese audiences.
The decoupling is part of the broader rupture in US-China relations in recent years, with costly implications for companies caught in the middle. Disney, for instance, is one of a growing list of multinationals that have struggled to navigate the ethical and political minefield around China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims.
At stake for Hollywood is the $9bn a year generated at the Chinese box office before the pandemic — more valuable than ever as streaming, which earns them less money, becomes the chief focus for the largest entertainment groups.
“It looks more and more that [the box office] will be a supplemental income to streaming,” said Jeff Bock, analyst at Exhibitor Relations. “China will be the number one marketplace.”
But Tinseltown can no longer take it for granted that Chinese cinemagoers will prefer its offerings.
“In a few years, we will be able to present films with similar production value to the US. By that time, I don’t think the major studios can still be as powerful in the Chinese market,” forecasts Shawn Xiang Yue, who produced the Detective Chinatown films, a popular slapstick comedy franchise by Wanda Pictures.
China last year toppled the US to become the biggest film market in the world by revenue. This was in part due to Covid-19, which left US cinemas empty for much of 2020, while Chinese theatres reopened sooner.
The results are stark. All eight of the films nominated for the best picture 2020 Oscar combined made a paltry $35m at the box office, down from $700m the year before. China, meanwhile, made $3bn in movie ticket sales in 2020.
China’s ascent over the US had been widely anticipated. The Chinese film industry reached an “inflection point” around 2016, when its technology and storytelling skills became as competitive as those of Hollywood, says Aynne Kokas, a Chinese cinema expert at the University of Virginia.
Chinese producers put it more bluntly. “This is a booming market. We are pretty confident in five years [China] will definitely be the biggest market with or without the pandemic impact,” said Yue.
“When Donald Trump came into office, we all saw the arrogance, and at the same time we saw the arrogance of Hollywood studios,” Yue said, declining to specify which companies he was referring to. “They pay attention to Chinese money. But they don’t pay attention to what the audience wants. The audience is pissed off.”
Yue has been hiring US production staff, reaping the expertise of Hollywood’s well-honed talent pool, which is vast and cheaper than that of China. The US has been making movies for a century, while China only began allowing private producers to lead films on their own in 2003, leaving the industry playing catch-up over the past decade.
He filmed Detective Chinatown 2 in New York City, hiring US actors and 600 local camera workers. The film went on to make $544m in 2018.
“The financial incentives are there [in China] to do bigger and bigger things, to make their own Star Wars or Avengers,” said Namit Malhotra, chief executive of DNEG, a London-based special effects company that has won Oscars for movies such as Inception and Blade Runner. DNEG worked on The Eight Hundred, a Chinese production about the Battle of Shanghai that was the world’s highest grossing movie of 2020. It was the first Chinese movie shot entirely on Imax cameras.
“We’re in the middle of a conversation about a couple of Chinese projects that could be as good, if not bigger, than some of the projects in the west,” said Malhotra, pointing to big budget sci-fi productions that were “as high-end as any Hollywood studio would ask of us”.
Over the past decade, Hollywood blockbusters have gone from dominating China’s box office top 10 to having to fight for a spot alongside local productions.
According to China’s national film industry development special fund management commission, imported films accounted for under 16 per cent of the total box office in 2020, down from 36 per cent in 2019.
Some big Hollywood films have notably bombed in China recently, such as Mulan, the live action movie Disney spent several years preparing to aim towards Chinese audiences, spending $200m to shoot in China and New Zealand. The movie was met by a nationalist backlash in China and ultimately made only $40m in the country. Wonder Woman: 1984, the sequel to the hit film starring Gal Gadot, made $25m in China, less than a third of the $90m its 2017 predecessor brought in.
Some executives expect US blockbusters will continue to generate large returns in China, once Hollywood studios release their films again as the pandemic eases. Godzilla vs Kong, a Warner Bros epic, has made a respectable $165m in China since its release on March 26, an encouraging sign.
Rich Gelfond, chief executive of Imax, expected there would “still be tremendous appetite for Hollywood movies” in China. “An analogy I’d say is: people still want to go to restaurants even though they didn't leave their kitchens last year,” he said. “It's hard to generalise about anything last year.”
Hollywood has always faced state-imposed limits on its ability to reach and profit from Chinese audiences. Beijing’s film industry regulator maintains a quota of 34 imported films per year, and importers only get to keep 25 per cent of box office revenues — remaining income goes to state-owned China Film Group or Huaxia Film.
But under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese government has revved up its censorship demands of US films, according to a report last year by PEN America, a non-profit group that advocates for freedom of expression.
“Hollywood’s decision makers are increasingly envisioning the desires of the CCP [Chinese Communist party) censor when deciding what film projects to greenlight, what content these films contain, who should work on the films and what messages the films should implicitly or explicitly contain”, PEN warned.
At the same time, Xi has repeatedly called for Chinese cinema to be a confident expression of the country’s culture, history and society — as interpreted by the Chinese Communist party. “To raise national cultural soft power, we must make efforts to spread . . . the values of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he said in a speech in 2014.
China has long regarded the Oscar awards as the apex of American culture, said Kokas. “When [the South Korean film] Parasite won the Oscar [last year], Chinese media was asking: why hasn’t there been a Chinese film-maker winning an Oscar?”
“This is a central challenge the Chinese film market faces. You can make films that fit with government guidelines, and you can make films that are creative,” she added. “It’s very difficult to make one that meets both of those requirements.”