Thursday, May 5, 2016

HOLLYWOOD'S SOFT POWER IS HARD TO COPY

                                                                                                                                                                                     

















 







(First published in China-US Focus, January 19, 2016)



By PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

At first glance, China’s latest Hollywood deal, Wanda Group’s

purchase of Legendary Entertainment, is a hardware-software 

match made in box-office heaven. The news that Wang Jianlin,

China’s richest man, is snapping up a Hollywood blockbuster 

production house is at once breathtaking and utterly 

predictable. It compliments a theatrical empire that includes 
thousands of screens on both sides of the Pacific and meshes 
nicely with plans for the world’s biggest studio.
The acquisition of Legendary can be understood as a leavening 
agent in Wang Jianlin’s quixotic quest to conjure up an instant, 
prefab Hollywood on the rocky shores of Shandong Province.
For such a large-scale studio to justify its existence, it needs 
heaps of creative talent and lots of know-how, especially in the 
art of cranking out action films that play well across territories. 
Thomas Tull’s Legendary has a decent track record in this 
genre, having produced a slate of crowd-pleasing action films—
mostly with formulaic plots involving superheroes, rogue robots, 
and reptilian monsters—that pander to mass market tastes in 
China and abroad.
Recent Legendary releases such as Godzilla and Pacific Rim 
have achieved decent Asian box office, but Angelina Jolie’s 
"Unbroken" stalled for a year, not in China, but in Japan 
due to political resistance about its recounting of history. 
It's lackluster release was delayed until February, a potent 
reminder that market sensitivities differ across borders and 
time.
Wang Jianlin controls vast holdings in theaters and 
cinemaplexes, not just in China, but in the USA as well, where 
Wanda’s purchase of AMC added another 2000 screens in one 
fell swoop. Adding a sprinkle of Hollywood pixy dust to 
Wanda’s seething cauldron of real estate greed and ambition 
seems inspired enough; what could possibly go wrong?
It begs the question--Can a “Hollywood East” in Shandong be 
conjured up and brought into existence through mergers and 
moneymen alone?
China’s phenomenal growth in recent years reflects, at least in 
part, a willingness to think big, to tread where others dare not 
tread, to copy, co-opt, and take big chances.
Take China’s space program for example. Initially dismissed by 
Western commentators, it is moving forward with scientific 
achievement at a time when NASA, faced with funding cuts and 
changing priorities, lacks the means to send men into space 
without a boost from the Russians. Space flight requires bold 
thinking, human risk and tons of cash, but it has a lyrical 
appeal as well, as a continuation of the heroic project pioneered 
by Americans and Russians “for all mankind.”
A bit more down to earth, China built a high-speed rail system 
that was viewed skeptically at first, only to become the largest 
comprehensive high-speed rail network on the planet and the 
envy of many a nation.
The question remains, can a cultural efflorescence such as 
cinematic achievement be programmed and brought to fruition 
like an industrial-strength infrastructure project?
China President Xi Jinping has stated that China needs to do a 
better job of presenting itself to the world. Along comes Wang 
Jianlin, heeding the call, with a grandiose plan to make China 
a major film power by fiat and deep-pocketed investment.
Problem is, what works for rockets and trains may not work for
movies.
Creative success is quirky, subject to shifting tastes and 
capricious audience receptivity. More fundamentally, it is 
rooted in the exercise of free expression.
Film is a fickle business. It is hard to think of a moneymaking 
realm where money is more at risk. Grounded in the nuances 
of human nature and human spirit, art is hard to harness and 
quantify. Cold cash cannot begin to pin the creative genie down.
Hollywood success reflects a century of organic entrepreneurial 
growth, a series of resourceful hits and misses, bouts of film 
code censorship  and outpouring of outright titillation, tireless 
trial and error, constant experimentation and unplanned, 
random growth. It was born of a democratic substrate in which 
directors had the freedom to be foolish, to be irreverent, and to
be wrong—and often all three.
To take on Hollywood—and to keep China’s booming box office
revenue in Chinese coffers—Wang Jianlin seeks vertical 
integration; combining control of software and hardware, 
production facilities and distribution venues. It’s natural that 
men of such ambition should be drawn to the prestige-making 
magic of film. But those who think that industrial muscle alone 
will suffice to punch out patriotic product that people want to 
see will be in for a let-down.
The marriage of Wanda and Legendary may indeed boost the 
fortunes of both companies, especially if investor excitement 
reaches the threshold of a feverish stock listing in Hong Kong 
or Shenzhen. Legendary has been keen on the China market for 
quite some time now, its ambitions best expressed in the 
long-delayed but evocatively titled film being produced by its 
China spin-off production arm, Legendary East.
“The Great Wall” helmed by the iconic Zhang Yimou is due for 
release later this year. It’s not immediately clear how an action 
picture starring America’s Matt Damon going to battle with 
computer-generated dragons against the backdrop of a mock 
Great Wall will contribute to boosting contemporary China’s 
standing in the world, but the mechanics and muscle behind 
the flick will ensure massive publicity and a wide in opening 
in Wanda theatres everywhere.
Exhibiting films is both simple and utterly opaque. Theatres 
thrive selling tickets and popcorn, but what makes people want 
to go to a movie?
The film business is fickle and inconstant but crudely democratic. 
Moviegoers vote with their feet. If people like a film, it “has legs
but if it’s a bore, it goes nowhere. Aggressive advertising, limits 
on competition, control of release dates and monopolization of 
distribution venues can game the system to some extent, but at 
the end of the day filmgoers like what they like. It’s a top-down 
business subversively governed from the bottom up.
Hollywood is so ruthless in rewarding success and punishing 
failure that even the best directors are only as good as their 
last film. Today’s toast-of-the-town is only a flop away from 
losing all cachet.
Theatre ownership is certainly no guarantee of box office 
success and quotas are no guarantee of quality. Yet Wang 
Jianlin is a savvy businessman, so it would be premature to 
suggest that he has bitten off a bit more than he can chew. 
Inasmuch as the Wanda empire of screens and its vast 
purpose-built studio dominion are basically real estate 
ventures, the core business may be economically viable 
but the creative juice that animates all good art can't be 
turned on and off like a spigot.
It is the rare film, such as Star Wars, or Titanic or Avatar that 
soars in every available market. But it is also worth noting 
that the above films—currently the three best selling films of all
time—reflect the indelible creative stamp of stubborn, rugged 
individualists. George Lucas and James Cameron have long 
been Hollywood rebels with a cause, possessed of 
considerable pluck and and lucky beyond belief. The esteemed 
directors paradoxically won over the market by rejecting 
decisions hammered out by market research committees and 
instead stubbornly insisted on clinging to unique whimsical 
visions.
Such films are the box-office standards to beat, their success 
a given, but hard to emulate. If Wanda can crack the code and 
produce mass-market films worthy of solitary genius, China 
would indeed gain prestige and be a force to be reckoned with 
in global cinema.
Yet even Hollywood, for all its rich history, has not figured out 
how to produce a successful movie on command. No one really 
knows how a film will do until the moment the theatre lights 
first dim, and anyone who tells you otherwise is in the PR 
department.


Jan 19, 2016