Up on a big screen in an underground mall in Beijing, Captain America is throttling the Red Skull, and I’m falling out of my seat. I mean that literally: My seat tilts left and right, forward and back, and I’m white-knuckling my armrests to keep from being toppled into the hydraulics. Who knew the future of filmgoing would call for seatbelts? Though prompted by an assaultive “4-D Experience”—think William Castle meets Space Mountain—this feeling of whiplash is pretty common in a country that’s lurching forward at hyperspeed.
Over the course of two weeks this fall, I traveled around Beijing and Shanghai to view China’s booming movie biz from the front rows of its cinemas. New theaters are opening all over the country, especially in the big cities, where you’ll find cineplexes like cherries atop the towering new shopping malls. Once primarily a tool for socialist propaganda, films are now a commodity, along with $5 lattes and Japanese toilets, and as such, they’re no less important to the country’s sense of itself as a model consumer society. In the current Chinese film Love On Credit, a stylish, ludicrously overheated modern romance about twin sisters with contrary opinions about love—one’s old-fashioned, the other’s a gold-digger—even the romantic one can’t resist a closet full of designer gowns (for which pop-up graphics pornographically provide sticker prices. Step down, Sex and the City).
Three years after the Olympics, the Chinese capital is still in full-on development mode. I have never seen as many steel cranes at work as I did in Beijing. (It took me almost a week to realize that certain ubiquitous two-story structures weren’t nifty modular motels but temporary housing for itinerant workers.) There’s nothing organic about such growth—the dusty, winding, honeycombed hutongs that defined the city for millennia are vanishing like so much scorched earth, briskly replaced by skyscrapers—nor about the rapid development of China’s cinema culture. From 2007 to 2011, the numbers of movie screens increased by a staggering 100 percent. (Currently at over 6,200 screens, the number is expected to double by 2015.) A state as rigorously controlled—and cash-rich—as China can reshape itself in drastic ways, repurposing land, relocating populations, and jump-starting industries. For now, supply is exceeding demand: None of the screenings I visited were more than one-quarter full. But as long as the spending class keeps swelling, and multiplexes keep multiplying where the spending class sleeps, the box office will keep growing. Though without another Avatar on the horizon, it’s doubtful that this year’s receipts will come close to 2010’s staggering 64 percent growth.
What China’s target audience wants, or at least what theater developers expect it to want, is an ultramodern “5-star” environment, technological excellence, and big-budget American movies. The first two are eagerly, even ostentatiously provided (I’d never heard of cinemas given luxury hotel ratings before; I half expected to be issued a terrycloth robe at the gleaming CGV), but there’s ambivalence about the third. China, not unlike France, regulates the number of foreign films granted a theatrical release in a given year. The magic number had been 20, but this past March the WTO demanded a loosening of that strict limit, opening the door to more Transformers and Harry Potters than ever before. Meanwhile, Western corporations such as Relativity Media and Legendary Pictures recently struck partnering deals with Chinese production companies, with plans to make films that would be considered a domestic (as well as international) product, thus skirting the quota. Last year Columbia Pictures did just that with its Karate Kid remake, which was shot in China with a largely Chinese cast and crew.
Even with caps on imports, and more Chinese-made offerings, foreign films still account for nearly 50 percent of the Chinese box office. How does the Chinese film industry protect domestic interests while still capitalizing on ticket-buyers clamoring for more Hollywood product?
Discreetly, it would seem. At nearly every theater I visited, there were an equal number of American and Chinese films on offer (and movie popcorn that was packaged in classic American cups yet reliably, and deliciously, coated with caramel). But look closer at the schedules and a pattern emerges: While The Green Lantern or Limitless would play eight times per day, Chinese domestic product like Love On Credit would screen only twice. In these instances, marquee equivalence was basically symbolic. A local film blogger alerted me to reports of a shadier tactic for protecting national pride. Earlier this year, theaters were caught printing out tickets to the propagandistic Chinese epic, Beginning of the Great Revival, when patrons had asked for Kung Fu Panda II—greatly padding the box office for a film that the Internet generation roundly mocked.
Which is not to say that there’s no market for local product: When I was in town, genre films like Mural and The Sorcerer and the White Snake (a breathless epic love story starring Jet Li) were wrapping up commendable runs, and December brings several Chinese blockbusters (though the most hotly anticipated winter release—Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War—stars Christian Bale and is reportedly half in English).