Why Hollywood Film Talent Is Flocking to China
Chinese stars once dreamed of crossing over to Hollywood, but now the Middle Kingdom's booming box office means local producers can afford to lure A-list talent from abroad: "The world is turning the other way."
The Hollywood Reporter
Michael Douglas in Chinese thriller 'Animal World' Photo Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
Throughout most of movie history, major success for foreign filmmakers meant crossing over to Hollywood. As of late, however, the trade winds of the global film industry have begun to blow the other way. As with so many other areas of international trade, it is China's growing market power — in the form of its soaring box office returns — that's driving the change.
Once the biggest stars of the Chinese-language industry — from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, John Woo to Ang Lee — went west to bring their careers to the next level, moving from the relative backwater of their home territories to the much larger industry pond of Southern California. Now it's much more common to see Hollywood talent head east, seeking opportunity in Beijing's booming film business.
For a timely example, look no further than Animal World, the colorful, youth-oriented thriller from Beijing-based studio Enlight Media currently on top of China's box office. The film, an adaptation of a Japanese comic book, opened to $38 million over the weekend, kicking off China's summer blockbuster season. The film features two-time Oscar winner Michael Douglas deploying his signature menace as the mysterious villain, an overseer in an elaborate underground game of chance. Chinese critics have heaped praise on the 73-year-old American actor's performance.
But Douglas isn't the only Hollywood star willing to play a supporting role in the Chinese movie boom. Hollywood stars have appeared in big Chinese-themed films before — most notably Christian Bale in Zhang Yimou's period action-drama Flowers of War and Matt Damon in Legendary Entertainment's now-legendary flop, The Great Wall. But in those films, both U.S.-China co-productions initiated by American producers in the hopes of bridging the world's two biggest markets, the Hollywood casting was justified as a necessary ingredient to help the films win an audience outside of China. In the new wave of crossover castings, the blockbusters are targeting Chinese audiences exclusively, with U.S. stars picked for their skills or their appeal to fans in Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou.
Producers say rising budgets are a reflection both of the growth of the Chinese box office, which hit $8.6 billion last year and is expected to surpass that of North America by around 2020, and the Chinese audience's growing demand for world-class quality from their domestic features. The growing budgets have also rendered Hollywood actors newly affordable. It's also helped that the U.S. studios, focused on making fewer, bigger tentpole films, have sharply reduced the number of these "mid-budget" titles they produce. China is beginning to step into that gap.
Christian Bale in Zhang Yimou's spectacular period action-drama Flowers of War about Nanking Massacre, based on the book titled, 13 Flowers of Nanking.
The real boom in West-to-East talent transfer, however, is technical or professional involvement from Hollywood.
"I really felt like the lone wolf in the beginning," says former Hollywood director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger), who came to Beijing four years ago to direct the Jackie Chan action film Skiptrace and never left. "But now it's not uncommon at all to run into Hollywood cinematographers, production designers or VFX supervisors in Beijing."
After Skiptrace earned $141 million in 2016, delivering Harlin his first hit in a decade, the Finnish director decided to fully relocate from Los Angeles to the Chinese capital. He has since directed two more Chinese features — Legend of the Ancient Sword for Alibaba; Bodies at Rest for Wanda — both due for release later this year.
Other A-list international directors, such as Alfonso Cuaron, have expressed interest in making Chinese films. Veteran animators including Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) and Oscar winner Glen Keane (Dear Basketball, Aladdin) are currently developing projects for the country's emerging animation studios.
As any Hollywood film worker — aspiring or established — will attest, there are fewer opportunities on large-scale theatrical films in Los Angeles than ever before. With television, streaming platforms and mobile entertainment presenting unprecedented competition for audience attention, the U.S. movie landscape has largely bifurcated between huge-budget tentpoles and small-budget comedies and horror films, along with the increasingly scarce assortment of indies (the proposed absorption of 20th Century Fox by Disney will only accelerate the process).
Harlin notes: "Some veteran professionals from Hollywood have realized that if they still want to see their work on the big screen, China is one of the few great options."