Can China’s movie industry take on Hollywood?
Hengdian, China (CNN) If you were able to ignore the movie cameras and lighting rigs you might actually think you traveled back in time.
An elderly man cries out in pain during a brutal interrogation in 1940’s China. A short stroll further on, a wife sobs outside an ancient Chinese palace. Down the steps from her an army battalion rushes into battle, and just around the corner, a martyr is executed during the Qing Dynasty.
But in reality, you’ve just come to Hengdian World Studios, the largest studio complex in China. Dozens of movies and TV shows are produced out of its lots all year long. Most of the sets are historical replicas of times past. Think of a village in the Qing dynasty or a Hong Kong street in 1940. There is even a to-scale replica of Beijing’s famous Forbidden City.
It is movie production on a Chinese scale, which is to say it is large and ever-expanding. In 2015, Chinese-made films grossed over $4 billion, a nearly 70% jump from the year before, according to Artisan Gateway, an Asian film consultancy.
"The economy has developed and people are getting richer," said a film director who spoke to CNN while filming his latest project in Hengdian. "So they’re spending more and more money on entertainment. It’s inevitable."
Zhang, who’s directed films for 20 years, remembers when that wasn’t the case. Now, he says China’s film industry is ready to go global.
On Tuesday, Dalian Wanda Group, the Chinese real estate and entertainment giant, bought a controlling stake in Legendary Pictures, a major Hollywood studio that financed films like "Jurassic World." The deal is worth $3.5 billion dollars, and is the largest ever of its kind."
At the announcement, Wang Jianlin, the company’s chairman and China’s richest man, said the acquisition will allow greater distribution of Chinese films to international audiences. Given that Wanda also owns AMC theaters, the second largest U.S. cinema chain, it’s the kind of deal that could help introduce Chinese made films to a different audience.
"If you want to make money, you need to make people like your movies," Wang said Tuesday. "Right now Chinese-made films don’t generate enough interest in America to be shown there. For that to happen, Chinese movies will have to find ways to entertain American audiences. "
Beijing allows a limited number of foreign films into China each year. Last year, they grossed about $2.5 billion. But of the top ten highest box office earners, only three came from overseas.
"Fast and Furious 7," the latest Avengers installment "Age of Ultron, and "Jurassic World" each did well, but none grossed more in Chinese theaters than "Monster Hunt," a Chinese-made comedy.
"Hollywood is highly industrialized but it won’t be number one for long," said Zhang, the director.
But to compete with Hollywood, China will have to start exporting its films around the world. Tuesday’s deal is just the start. It will have to build up its own mega-stars and bring in "Star Wars"-like profits.
For China, at least for now, those are lofty goals that are far, far away.