One of America's best-known exports may soon be an import, as Hollywood heavyweights sign deals to make movies for American and world audiences that could be produced in China.
“The sleeping giant has awakened,” says “Batman” producer Michael Uslan, who told FOX411 he has inked development deals with both China’s Huace Pictures and Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, two major players in the Chinese film industry. But some caution that deals with Chinese film companies amount to signing away some of our hard-fought freedoms, and could even cost Americans jobs.
China is set to become the No. 1 film market in the world by 2017, knocking the U.S. out of the top spot for the first time ever. About 20 new movie screens are being opened in China every single day. The nation’s top film of 2016 so far, “The Mermaid,” grossed over $551 million in China. The United States’ top film in 2016 is “Zootopia,” grossing $331 million domestically.
Chinese mogul Wang Jianlin, the chairman of biggest cinema operator in China, Wanda Cinemas, said this month that his company will attempt to acquire their affiliate, Wanda Media, a Chinese film production company that owns American-based film studio Legendary Pictures, for $5.7 billion. Wanda Media purchased Legendary – known for films like “The Hangover” and “Superman Returns” -- for $3.5 billion in January.
China also boasts Hengdian World Studios, the biggest film studio in the world, sprawled over 2,500 acres of former farmland converted into the mega studio in the mid-1990s. So could Hollywood start shooting movies there instead of studio lots in Los Angeles?
“Hollywood is near panic to figure out how to get into business with China,” Uslan told FOX411. “Sitting under an umbrella in Hollywood and waiting for them (China) to come to you will never happen.”
Uslan and his producing partner, son David Uslan, began visiting China more than four years ago to begin building friendships with Chinese film leaders before ever pitching a project. It was only two-and-a-half years ago that the Uslans were able to get six of their next projects financed by Chinese companies.
While the Chinese companies do not mandate that the Uslans’ movies be shot in China, they do have a say when it comes to content.
“They are not fans of sex and nudity, or sex and violence,” said Uslan. “Filmmakers have to take those cultural sensitivities into account.”
Not everyone thinks that’s a great idea. Dan Gainor, the VP of Business and Culture at the Media Research Center, says playing into China’s “cultural sensitivities” usurps America’s creative freedom and boasts Chinese “propaganda.”
“China’s content control means companies in a free nation are ceding control to a government that has no belief in those freedoms. Look at the remake of ‘Red Dawn.’ The villains were changed from Chinese to North Koreans because China wasn’t
happy,” Gainor said. “Somehow a nation of 25 million invades a nation of 320 million – all to appease Communist Party idiots in Beijing. China is using its markets to buy propaganda into the U.S.”
Gainor said that for a Hollywood filmmaker, “it makes sense … to try to reach the Chinese market. It’s the largest in the world and can make or break the worldwide box office for a film.” But he cautions that “the problem comes as direct result of negotiating with tyrants. China is not free. Its markets are not free and the government won’t allow in anything it doesn’t approve. It’s not a deal with the dragon; it’s a deal with the devil.”
Uslan counters that if you work in the movie business, you don’t have a choice but to deal with the soon-to-be largest market for your goods and services. “If you do not engage with China in the next two years, you may run the risk of becoming a dinosaur,” he said.
While, the increased revenue from China is attractive to Hollywood, some filmmakers say dealing with the country could come at the cost of American jobs.
“Filmmaking is no different than any other industry. It’s construction and electrical work and computer graphics and drinking coffee every morning and hitting the job site. It’s going to go where the labor is cheap and the dollar goes the
farthest. China is an obvious destination,” one Hollywood filmmaker told FOX411. “This means lost jobs in the U.S. This is not a new phenomenon. Before China it was Canada, Ireland, Romania, Lithuania and other nations offering to save producers a ton of money.”
Another American producer was more optimistic. “It’s not necessarily a zero-sum situation. While there naturally could be lost production jobs on individual films that shoot in China that might otherwise be in the U.S., many of those films might not have happened at all if not for Chinese investment, and perhaps more films in total are going to be produced. Each of these films still brings jobs to the U.S. regardless of where they are shot. In this sense, there could be a net overall job gain in both countries.”
Uslan agreed those afraid Chinese productions will result in the loss of job stateside aren’t looking at the bigger picture. “Making global content will increase the number of productions and employment opportunities,” Uslan said.
FOX411 reached out to Huace Pictures, Huayi Brothers Media Corporation, and the Wanda Group but did not receive comment.