Need To Send Matt Damon Food On Mars? Save Ironman? Call China!

In their eagerness to appeal to the increasingly important Chinese market and its gatekeepers, Hollywood’s filmmakers and marketing executives have recently embraced a new approach with their movies: put China into the story and make it look great, preferably by having the Chinese government come to the hero’s rescue.

The filmmakers’ goals are twofold: to give their films an edge in securing distribution approval by appeasing China’s governmental film authorities; and to win over Chinese moviegoers.

With several hundred American movies vying for only 34 Chinese import quota slots each year, and big potential box office returns at stake, filmmakers are falling all over themselves to ingratiate their pictures with China’s communist leaders.

As Stephen Colbert slyly put it in his late night show this week, “I’m in show business, and clearly the future is getting the Chinese government to let you in to their market. And I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get a piece of that sweet (and sour) renminbi.” Colbert continued with a bitingly satirical skit called “Pander Express” that extolled the virtues of China’s culture while berating its enemies, including the “villainous” Dalai Lama and “decadent” Americans.

Colbert’s piece nicely underscored the 3 basic prongs of the Hollywood strategy of kowtowing to China:

1. Self-censor to prevent any possible offense to China’s government, culture, or people. Chinese movie characters are never portrayed as evil.

2. Show China to be the clean, modern, technologically advanced utopia that its Communist leaders have so carefully and lovingly created.

3. Present Chinese individuals, and particularly Chinese government officials, as valiant saviors, the equivalent of the U.S. cavalry in old western movies. No matter how ridiculously the plotting has to stretch to put them there.

Here are several examples of this brand of movie flattery:

  • In 2012, humanity is rescued because the Chinese government had brilliantly and presciently built giant life-saving arks.
  • In Iron Man 3, the Chinese ethnicity of the hero’s comic book nemesis is changed, with the character played by Ben Kingsley.
  • Also in Iron Man 3, the hero’s life is saved by a Chinese doctor who performs acupuncture-aided surgery on the wounded Tony Stark, with the help of his beautiful Chinese assistant played by Fan Bingbing.
  • In Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character’s life is saved by the convenient presence of the nearby Chinese space station.
  • In The Martian, Matt Damon is saved from certain starvation on the Red Planet by the head of China’s CNSA (the equivalent of America’s NASA ) who sacrifices his multi-billion dollar Taiyang Shen exploration program by diverting it to send supplies to the American. The movie thoroughly sanitizes the doubts, laments and political struggles the Chinese administration experienced in the book upon which the movie is based.

Every one of these scenes is fairly ridiculous and illogical, but no matter, it’s all in the service of making money in China. All of these movies have received import authorization from China’s film authorities, who must be thrilled. They couldn’t hope for a better mouthpiece for their propaganda than the giant American media conglomerates with their vast global reach.

How the Chinese moviegoing audience responds to this pandering is another matter. The Hollywood trade paper Variety opined that The Martian “should do particularly well when it launches in China. The country’s space program plays a key role in the film, a plot point that should help it attract crowds in the People’s Republic.”

While I also expect The Martian to do well in China, it will be in spite of, and not because of, the CNSA plot point. It’s unlikely that a single ticket buyer there will be motivated to show up for the film just because it includes one absurd scene about China heroically stepping in to save Matt Damon. Chinese audiences howled in derision at the tacked-on Iron Man 3 surgery sequence, and they’ll likely do the same with The Martian, a film that asks them to believe that 1) The head of CNSA (played by Hong Kong’s Eddie Ko) has no idea that his most important space mission is classified; 2) That he would instantly make the decision to sacrifice years of work and a fortune in government spending to save the life of a single foreigner; and 3) That he would have the ability to make such a decision unilaterally, and on the spot.

While the Communist Party may welcome such pandering, Chinese audiences are sensitive to it and want no part of it. Hollywood will need to become much more sophisticated in its efforts to appeal to China if it intends to keep attracting its moviegoers.

The Martian is scheduled to release in theaters across China on November 15th.

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