Uncharmed: why Chinese film fans are shunning Hollywood

Show caption Matt William Knowles visiting China before the pandemic. Photograph: Matt William Knowles Film Uncharmed: why Chinese film fans are shunning Hollywood Even the worldwide smash Encanto failed to satisfy millions of cinemagoers who now demand homemade fare Vincent Ni Sun 27 Feb 2022 06.15 GMT Share on Facebook

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Matt William Knowles, a 36-year-old Hollywood actor, has been packing for a forthcoming trip to China in the past week. He’s looking forward to his first China visit since the pandemic. “The last time I was in China was late 2019 when I served as the honorary mayor for a village in southern China.”

While his career in Hollywood continues to blossom, finding work in China hasn’t been easy these past few years for Knowles. The pandemic changed the film industry, and the deteriorating diplomatic relations between America and China sandwiched individuals like him who straddle both nations. For a period of time in 2019, amid a souring trade war between the two countries, Chinese studios put an informal ban on American actors.

“China is now all about protecting Chinese interests. It’s China First,” he told the Observer, jokingly referencing former president Donald Trump’s favourite political mantra “America First”. “They put Chinese interests first and Chinese people first. But what they don’t have is the films that can appeal to the whole world.”

For many years before the South Carolina native returned home, Knowles was an unlikely rising star in China. The former American football player has a matinee-star look that, together with his impeccable Mandarin skills after years of living in Beijing, have won him millions of fans. In America, he was known as “the Chris Hemsworth of China”.

When Knowles first arrived in China as a volunteer in the summer of 2009, Hollywood movies were ubiquitous – but mostly in the form of pirated DVDs. In fact, Hollywood films were one of the earliest imports from the west after the post-Mao economic reforms in the late 1970s.

Beijing has always understood the power of Hollywood in shaping its citizens’ minds. As a result, protectionist measures such as quotas and restrictions on the screening periods of Hollywood films in China, have led to the rapid growth of domestic films in the last two decades or so, said Dr How Wee Ng, lecturer in Chinese studies at the University of Westminster. “Increased living standards, national confidence, patriotic education alongside a growing demand for self-representation as resistance to western takes on Chinese culture such as Kung Fu Panda and Mulan have been crucial to the building of Chinese audiences and taste for domestic films,” Ng said.

A still from Kung Fu Panda, a very western take on Chinese culture. Photograph: Dreamworks/Sportsphoto/Allstar

The attitude shift became more evident in 2017, when Knowles left China after years living and working there. That October, China’s president, Xi Jinping, declared: “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world and to make a greater contribution to humankind,” and that China was “standing tall and firm in the east”. Around the same time as that speech made international headlines, a slickly made nationalistic blockbuster called Wolf Warrior 2 made $870m at the box office. The plot of the film – where a selfless heroic Chinese soldier defended African workers and defeated an American aggressor – also coincided with the sharp rise of nationalism in China. So much so that the phrase “wolf warrior” has become the phrase synonymous with Beijing’s confrontational style of diplomacy.

Beijing allows 34 foreign films to be imported every year. Yet, over the last decade, the share of non-Chinese films – Hollywood ones included – in box office sales has seen a downward trend, particularly since 2017, according to ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment. Among the top 10 most profitable films on Maoyan in 2021, only two films, F9: The Fast Saga and Godzilla vs. Kong were non-Chinese. A decade ago, it was six.

In the last few years, as China’s diplomatic relations with the west – and in particular the US – plummeted, the preferences of Chinese audiences changed, too. And this “has had a huge impact on Hollywood”, said Erich Schwartzel, author of Red Carpet: Hollywood, China, and the Global Battle for Cultural Supremacy.

Schwartzel said that Chinese movie-goers are gradually walking away from Hollywood films. “Several years ago, just being a big-budget Hollywood movie might be enough in the Chinese market, but now you don’t just need good production but also a story that appeals to more discerning Chinese audiences.”

This explains why Disney’s recent animated movie Encanto disappointed many Chinese observers, with a modest box office take of $3.7m in China, the world’s largest billion-dollar movie market. Globally, Encanto took $240m. Critics pointed out that the storyline did not resonate with a local Chinese audience.

Encanto took only £3.7m at the Chinese box office. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

The improvement in domestic film-making did not come as a coincidence, Schwartzel noted, but as a result of a decade-long effort. In 2008, the success of Hollywood blockbuster Kung Fu Panda shocked China’s ruling Communist party. It sparked soul-searching among Chinese political elites and film producers. “They asked themselves: how could a quintessential Chinese film achieve such a success with American Hollywood?”

The turning point was marked by Beijing’s homemade sci-fi movie, Wandering Earth in 2019. The $50m-budget film grossed nearly $700m worldwide. US magazine Hollywood Reporter called it: “China’s first full-scale interstellar spectacular”. Netflix came knocking on the door for global streaming rights.

“It tells you that Beijing’s ambition to commercialise and develop its domestic film industry is working,” said Schwartzel. “Chinese audiences are more and more turning to domestic cultural products – reflecting also Beijing’s desire to turn Chinese people to look inward [in recent years].”

The confluence of factors alarmed Hollywood studios, and as Sino-American relations deteriorate, there has been more uncertainty surrounding the future of American films in the world’s largest market. Since last year, films such as Shang-Chi, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow have yet to be released in mainland China. No official explanations were given. Instead, the patriotic war flick The Battle at Lake Changjin grossed more than $910m globally.

“Just as American films and television programmes were welcomed in China as they played a pivotal role in the warming of Sino-American ties back in the 1970s, the reverse is happening today, when they can suffer from bans and censorship during times of global tension,” Ng said.

For Knowles, the short period of discomfort as a result of the US-China trade war in 2019 has receded. “But since then, the pandemic separated the world as travels became harder. Right now, if Disney wants to work with China, they’ll have to prioritise China’s domestic audience,” he said.

“China has been in a separate world living on its own. You might not like it, but it is what it is.”