Why you should care

Film’s a battlefield of ideas.

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You’ve probably already heard the plot. Matt Damon is stuck on Mars, he plants some potatoes and then he’s rescued by the team that deserted him (whoops, spoilers; at least we didn’t say Jessica Chastain ends up grabbing him in a tense moment, free-floating through space. Oh, wait.). But if you haven’t seen The Martian you probably don’t know that his rescue would have been impossible without the benevolent assistance of China.

China — savior of American movies? The prospect is not so strange anymore. From Poughkeepsie to Beverly Hills, moviegoers flocking to the latest blockbuster are catching more than a glimpse of the Other Superpower and its billion-plus people. On the silver screens before them, they might see James Bond swimming in an Olympic-size pool on a Shanghai rooftop. Or American and Chinese fighters teaming up to hold off the dastardly car-people in Transformers: Age of Extinction. Screen goddess Fan Bingbing has a bit part in X-Men: Days of Future Past. And who could forget Gravity, in which Sandra Bullock uses China’s space station to get back to her home planet. Thank goodness for China’s space program, amirite?

The reasons behind China’s star turn in American cinema vary, from Hollywood diversity drives to the maturation of China’s own film industry, but the bottom line, observers say, is the bottom line.“There’s a very strong economic incentive” to portray China positively in Hollywood movies, says Aynne Kokas, a University of Virginia scholar and author of the forthcoming Hollywood: Made in China. That might sound obvious when you think about the 1.3 billion people who live there and have ever more disposable income to spend, but the numbers are huge. China’s screen count is ever increasing, now exceeding 30,000, according to market-research firm IHS. Along with those big screens come very big bucks, so big that by 2018 China is expected to surpass the U.S. in box-office spending.

Some observers liken on-screen overtures to China as kowtowing to censorship.

But it’s not so easy to break into that market. China is epically picky with the movies it allows to show within its borders. A single state agency determines which international movies are distributed in China, and there are only 34 slots for them a year. That’s recently up from 20. That may explain why China and the U.S. are becoming more entangled in film production. Wanda Media, a Chinese distributor, for instance, recently acquired Legendary Entertainment in a multibillion-dollar deal. For an American production company, partnering with a Chinese firm can be worth millions and millions of dollars.

It all adds up to a huge switch from eras past. Especially in the first half of the 20th century, East Asians were villains, says Mark Sachleben, author of two books about film and international politics. Even decades after World War II, Hollywood depictions of “Orientals” tended toward the grotesque: Think of Mickey Rooney as an irascible, shouty Japanese-American, yellow face and all, in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Today, such insensitive portrayals, are not only unpalatable, but also hurt “your bottom line,” Sachleben points out.

Of course, not every country these days gets the same on-screen love as China does — so don’t go thinking Hollywood has gotten all kumbaya. Consider the portrayal of Russians. Even by 2015, Hollywood depictions tended toward the anachronistic, with Pawn Sacrifice and Bridge of Spies both featuring Russian communist villains out to destroy capitalism, baseball and apple pie. (Note to Hollywood: The Cold War ended 25 years ago.) Meanwhile, The Interview caused quite the ruckus for its depiction of North Korea even before it was released on Netflix. Then there’s Team America: World Police, which took down Kim Jong-Il a little more than a decade ago.

There are also critics, of course. Some observers liken on-screen overtures to China as kowtowing to censorship. A report from Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review commission states: “With an eye toward distribution in China, American filmmakers increasingly edit films in anticipation of Chinese censors’ many potential sensitivities.” Reportedly, pro-U.S. themes in Captain Phillips led China to decline to distribute; such “chilling effects” have in at least one case resulted in film on the cutting room floor. Reuters reported that a scene showing an attack on the Great Wall was taken out of Pixels so that it could be distributed in China. Representatives of Sony declined to comment. Meanwhile, posters of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in China altered the scale of each character, diminishing the size of the Black lead and pushing him off to the side, though a Chinese state-run newspaper reported that the changes had “nothing to do with racism,” according to local analysts.

To be sure, not every movie in Hollywood is adding a plotline that favors a Chinese audience and appeals to censors. American cinema still has plenty of propagandistic tendencies intact — think Zero Dark Thirty or Pearl Harbor — and many films capably make global bank without any help from China. Even China-friendly movies contain hints of jingoistic superiority. For instance, in The Martian, the creative genius who figures out how to get Matt Damon home is American.

Still, The Martian opened in China to more than $50 million at the box office. Transformers: Age of Extinction made nearly 80 percent of its $1.1 billion haul in worldwide sales. How’s that for teamwork?

This story has been updated to correct a reporting error on the number of screens in China.

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