In 1957 Mao Zedong proclaimed the "hundred flowers movement," encouraging writers, artists, and intellectuals to express their views on how the People's Republic should deal with its problems. Thousands spoke out, many calling for an end to the Communist regime. As the criticisms mounted, Mao ordered the most vociferous critics silenced, leaving many to conclude that the whole exercise had been a ruse to draw out and destroy the opposition.
China saw a similar blooming in the 1980s, with the rise of the so-called Fifth Generation of independent film makers, people like Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, whose best films—Yellow Earth (1984), Red Sorghum (1987), Raise the Red Lantern (1991), and Farewell, My Concubine (1993)—dared to treat forbidden topics such as the Cultural Revolution. Today, these artists are not silenced, they are co-opted. Zhang directed the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Summer Olympics, and both he and Chen have joined a state-sponsored campaign to produce blockbuster films as big and impressive as those of Hollywood.*
Why does China want to produce blockbusters? One motive is profit. The eye-popping blockbuster, laden with special effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI), is Hollywood's chief source of revenue—more than two thirds of it generated overseas. Indeed, without the global dominance of its blockbusters, Hollywood in its present form would cease to exist.
Another motive is ideological competition with America. In every country of the world, including China, people flock to see films like Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), the Disney franchise that now includes four blockbuster films (and counting) and a treasure chest of merchandise, from theme park rides to books to action figures to video games. To some, the success of these U.S. entertainment products represents soft power. To others, it represents cultural hegemony—or imperialism. Either way, that success is coveted by China. Along with shaping the harmonious society at home, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) dreams of using Chinese culture to influence others.
Yet as long as American culture dominates, China is caught in a bind. On the one hand, its desire for profit motivates it to open its doors to Hollywood blockbusters, because a large chunk of the earnings goes to the state-owned distributor. On the other hand, the Party is perturbed to see large numbers of Chinese, especially educated youth, enthralled with non-Chinese cultural products. No wonder the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) spends so much time deliberating about which 20 foreign films to admit each year. And no wonder the propaganda and "thought work" departments have called for what amounts to a Hundred Blockbusters Campaign aimed at producing films that will profit only China while also furthering the Party's ideological aims both at home and abroad.
In the short term, what provoked the campaign was the global success of a $15 million U.S.-Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production called Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Directed by Ang Lee and released in 2000, Crouching Tiger grossed $214 million worldwide. Galled by the success of a movie set in the Qing Dynasty but produced outside the People's Republic, Beijing commissioned Chen, Zhang, and others to copy those aspects of Crouching Tiger judged most commercially appealing: wuxia, or heroic martial arts, enhanced by CGI and practiced by women as well as men; and a gorgeous, eye-candy version of the fabled Chinese past.
The result was a series of blockbusters—Chen's The Promise (2005); and Zhang's Hero (2004), The House of Flying Daggers (2006), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2008)—that have not exactly busted the block. Hero grossed $177 million worldwide; The Promise trailed at $30 million; The House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower grossed $93 million and $78 million respectively. The campaign got a boost in 2008-09, when China released Red Cliff, a two-part war saga directed by John Woo, a Hong Kong director highly regarded in Hollywood. Red Cliff grossed a total of $248 million worldwide, exceeding the record of Crouching Tiger but falling far short of Avatar ($2.8 billion), Titanic ($1.8 billion), and the latest Harry Potter ($1.3 billion).
Yet many believe that, given its vast resources, it is only a matter of time before China's Hundred Blockbusters Campaign is successful. This belief is especially strong in academic circles, where the critique of mass culture bequeathed by the Frankfurt School defines the blockbuster as a product of the late-capitalist consciousness industry designed to pacify the masses with consumerism and nationalism.
A similar view is held in China, where a professor of "media axiology" defined his field for me as "the study of how the media construct social values." A student translator was more candid: "researching how to make the Chinese people happy about the changes." A group of seniors at a top university told me they'd been reading Frankfurt School theory—but not as critique. Instead, they'd been reading it as prescription, a set of instructions on how to build a Chinese consciousness industry even bigger and better than America's.
As someone who has never bought into the Frankfurt School, I found this idea preposterous. But then, so did the students. Ardent fans of American popular culture, they expressed contempt for the idea that their favorite Hollywood blockbusters—Avatar (2009), Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter (2001)—had been manufactured according to ideological specifications. Some were quite critical of Hollywood, but as citizens of an authoritarian nation where all significant cultural production is controlled by the state, they understood very well the difference between blockbusters made in the West and those made in China.
Case in point: in early 2010, when Avatar opened in China, it caught the government in the precise bind noted above. Avatar was hugely profitable for both the U.S. and Chinese distributors. But the message did not seem to be getting across in the correct manner. Director James Cameron clearly intended the scene where the ruthless invaders bulldoze the idyllic planet Pandora as an allegory for the U.S. invasion of Iraq (indeed, one invader uses the phrase "shock and awe").
The PRC government had no problem with this message; indeed, for many years it has been official policy to admit Hollywood movies thought to contain anti-American messages. But as Avatar took off in China, reports began to circulate that audiences were interpreting the bulldozing scene as a reference to the forced eviction of Chinese from their homes and property by corrupt officials. As one blogger wrote, "I am wondering whether Cameron had secretly lived in China before coming up with such an idea."
Making matters worse was the threat Avatar posed to Confucius, a $22 million tribute to the revered sage scheduled to open on Chinese New Year. Based on both worries, SARFT announced in January that it was pulling Avatar from 1,600 of the country's 2,500 theaters, in order to make room for Confucius. This decision was not seen as unprofitable; by most accounts, SARFT expected Confucius to do well in low-income areas, where poor people save all year to see a film during the holiday. In the more upscale areas, where wealthy patrons can afford the high price of watching movies in 3D and IMAX, Avatar was allowed to remain. Yet even this compromise backfired. Confucius tanked everywhere, even (especially?) among the schoolchildren bused to theaters by local officials seeking to fill empty seats. And in early February SARFT let Avatar back into the theaters.
The hundred blockbusters campaign entered a new stage in 2008, when a DreamWorks Animation production called Kung Fu Panda grossed $631 million worldwide, $26 million of it in China. For a clever cartoon about an obese panda who leaves the noodle shop of his father (a kindly duck) and against all odds becomes the wuxia master who saves the Valley of Peace from an evil snow leopard, Kung Fu Panda prompted a lot of soul-searching in China. Typical was this comment from Wu Jiang, the president of the National Peking Opera Company: "The film's protagonist is China's national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn't we make such a film?"
One answer is that several individuals of Chinese background did work on Kung Fu Panda: Jackie Chan, the legendary Hong Kong actor who first combined martial arts with comedy; Chinese-American actors James Hong and Lucy Liu; art director Tang Heng; and quite a few artistic and technical crew members. But Chinese identity and knowledge of Chinese culture were not the point; the point was that the PRC was being beaten by America. So the next step was to invest $690 million in a brand-new animation facility in Tianjin, located 30 minutes from Beijing by (gulp) high-speed rail.
In June 2011 the Tianjin facility unveiled its first feature, Legend of a Rabbit, which pulls off the neat trick of slavishly imitating Kung Fu Panda while also attacking it. The hero is an obese rabbit who leaves the home of his father (a kindly cook) and against all odds becomes the wuxia master who saves China from an evil...panda. In a mocking review, Fan Huang of The Shanghaiist wrote: "Why didn't anyone think of this earlier? It sounds like it'd be a hit! ...And strangely enough, the main evil oppressive bully in the film is a panda. Huh, now why would that be?" Granted, The Shanghaiist is an English-language paper that may not reflect the views of the movie-going masses. But the latter's views were amply reflected at the box office, where Legend of a Rabbit was trounced by (you guessed it) Kung Fu Panda 2, which grossed $663 million worldwide, $92 million of it in China.
Will Tianjin's next animated feature do better? Will China get the hang of making world-pleasing blockbusters? Perhaps, but to judge by Beijing's current wooing (no pun intended) of U.S. companies, the only way forward is through a major injection of Hollywood magic. For their part, U.S. companies are eager to be wooed—indeed, the whole U.S. entertainment industry is rabid to gain access to a market that grew a staggering 60% in the last year alone. But as many U.S. businesses have learned the hard way, dealing with the PRC is a little like wuxia: they lure you in with favorable terms, then they flip you onto your back by changing those terms unilaterally.
There's also the issue of piracy—not the kind depicted in Pirates of the Caribbean, but the kind that in the PRC amounts to a massive second-tier distribution system, which if not openly sanctioned by the state is certainly tolerated by it. Hollywood has railed about piracy for years, but it is not clear that Beijing can stop it. According to one official I met, the central government is reluctant to intervene because piracy is a source of jobs and revenue for headstrong provincial bosses. Be that as it may, piracy is also a Chinese version of samizdat. As one member of the so-called Sixth Generation of independent film makers explained to me, "Piracy is a sword with two edges." Underground film makers often deliver their master copies directly to pirate outfits, as a way of side-stepping the censor.
All of these factors make it tricky to see the difference between 21st-century China and the West. China is an economic powerhouse that, among other things, manufactures most of our prized electronic gadgets: iPods, iPhones, iPads, and the rest. Why not blockbusters? The answer lies in the contrast between a Party member managing a factory in Guangdong Province and Steve Jobs tinkering in a California garage. The former succeeds by keeping a tight lid on his imagination, the latter by letting it run free. And Hollywood needs imaginative freedom even more than Steve Jobs did. Jobs only needed to hatch a brilliant new concept every couple of years; Hollywood needs to hatch one every day—and 90% of them are flops.
But that is the difference: tolerance for an extraordinarily high rate of failure in every American business—from film to television to book publishing—that specializes in unique cultural products. Movies, TV shows, and books are not unique in the physical sense: copies of them are mass produced and sold in large numbers, the larger the better. But they are unique in the creative sense. "You're only as good as your last picture," goes the old Hollywood saying.
As film studios, TV studios, and print publishers have become "units" in huge multinational corporations, they have been pressured to turn unique cultural products into something more steady and reliable—the cultural equivalent of durable goods. Hence the proliferation of blockbuster sequels: Moneymaker, Moneymaker 2, Moneymaker 3, and so on. In the Frankfurt School view, whether Western or Eastern, this is all there is to it. But this view is wrong, because along with tolerating a high rate of failure, commercial culture in America appreciates talent—and knows how to make room for the unruliness that accompanies talent. One participant in the Chinese debate over King Fu Panda commented that no state-sanctioned PRC director would dare to make a panda hero fat and lazy, much less give him a duck for a father.
Nor would any state-sanctioned PRC actor be permitted to unleash the antic energy of Jack Black in Kung Fu Panda, or of Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Without the comic talents of these and other unruly individuals, the mighty edifice of the Hollywood blockbuster would collapse under its own weight. Asked why he quit working on a short animated film for the Beijing Olympics, award-winning film maker Lu Chuan told a Chinese paper, "I kept receiving directions and orders on how the movie should be like. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity."
Lu did not mention humor, but humor, especially the irreverent kind, is the key to U.S. cultural hegemony. Humor is not the preferred dish of dictators building cultural castles in the air. Stalin hated it, and so did Mussolini, Hitler, Hirohito, and Mao. Hollywood, for all its faults, loves it. This was true in the early days, when the industry consisted of a few ragtag studios, and it remains true today. We may deplore the corporate imperative to turn movies into widgets, but that imperative is not new. And its power remains limited. To be fully obeyed, it would also have to apply to the audience—and, contra Frankurtian theory, delighting audiences and making them laugh is an art practiced in freedom, not a science dictated by rulers. Not just in America but around the world, the immortal words of Sol Hurok still ring true: "When people don't want to come, nothing will stop them."
* Most of the English-language films mentioned in this article are international co-productions, but they are Hollywood films because most of their financing, and all of their promotion and distribution, are controlled by the "big six" members of the Motion Picture Association of America: Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group (The Walt Disney Company), Sony Pictures Entertainment (Sony), Paramount Pictures (Viacom), 20th Century Fox (News Corporation), Universal Studios (NBC Universal), and Warner Bros. (Time Warner).