The recent Hollywood movie The Meg stars a gigantic shark, English actor Jason Statham and Chinese actress Li Bingbing. A decade ago, only one of those characters might have seemed out of place.
While Hollywood is no stranger to casting English action heroes or supernatural man-eating beasts in summer action blockbusters, it is only of late that it has started featuring Chinese stars so prominently.
In the past, Li’s role in The Meg would likely have gone to a well-endowed blonde woman.
And Li, 45, is only the latest star from China in recent years to snag a major role in a Hollywood blockbuster.
She follows the likes of actress Jing Tian in Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) and Kong: Skull Island (2017), singer-actor Kris Wu in Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets (2017) and model-actress Angelababy in Independence Day: Resurgence (2016).
And that is even before taking into account Crazy Rich Asians – the first big budget Hollywood film anchored by a predominantly Asian cast.
Of course, this is all good news in the name of diversity, especially when the roles are more than token parts.
But Hollywood studios are increasingly looking to cast Chinese actors in their films for much more practical motivations – money.
As American cinema attendance continues to shrink year on year – the power centre of the United States’ entertainment industry appears to be shifting from movies to television – it only makes sense for Hollywood studios to look beyond domestic shores to bulk up box office takings.
And China, one of the fastest-growing film markets in the world, makes sense as a bankable target market.
Putting a familiar Chinese face or featuring a Chinese location in the film, then, would help make it appeal to the average Chinese moviegoer.
Branching out for higher box office takings is especially necessary for expensive popcorn movies such as The Meg, given the staggering amount of money invested in it.
Reportedly, the thriller, centred on a terrifying prehistoric mega shark, cost about US$150mil (RM617mil) to produce and another US$140mil (RM576mil) to advertise.
Since it opened in the US, The Meg surpassed estimates to swim to the top of the box office there, with a huge US$45mil (RM185mil) opening weekend. But thanks to Chinese moviegoers, the film’s boxoffice takings have already doubled as it has earned more than US$50.1mil (RM206mil) in China so far.
Meanwhile, other Hollywood films that have underperformed or even flopped in the US are rescued by the Chinese box office.
Now You See Me 2 (2016), for example, made a mediocre US$64mil (RM263mil) in the American domestic market, but took in more than US$97mil (RM400mil) in China.
The makers of the caper thriller movie, involving a group of magicians led by Jesse Eisenberg, had shot scenes in Macau for the sequel and included Taiwanese Mandopop superstar Jay Chou, who is well known in the Chinese-speaking world.
Dwayne Johnson’s recent movie Skyscraper, a thriller about a burning building tower in Hong Kong, collapsed at the American box office with a dismal US$25mil (RM103mil) opening weekend. In China, however, the film – which also stars Chou’s wife, Hannah Quinlivan – opened to a hefty US$48mil (RM198mil).
If this formula appears to work, why not just make the entire cast Chinese then?
As University Of Southern California professor Stanley Rosen, who has research interests in China’s soft power, points out, these films still require a big Hollywood name to succeed on a truly global scale.
He said: “Hollywood prefers having a famous Chinese star (in its films), so long as the top-billed star is an international name, such as Jason Statham or Matt Damon.
“China is just one market, no matter how big, and since blockbusters get as much as 70% or more of their box office from overseas, they need the big international star for it to succeed outside China.”
Still, the seduction of China is hard to ignore, which is why, even without obvious casting decisions, some Hollywood producers go so far as to alter details in their films to pander to the Chinese market.
Reportedly, Brad Pitt’s World War Z (2013) pre-empted Chinese film censors by changing the origin of a zombie virus from China, in the 2006 novel of the same name that it is based on, to an unknown location in the film. Looper (2012), the sci-fi time travel film starring Bruce Willis, had a sequence set in Paris, but it was changed to Shanghai.
Marvel superhero movie Iron Man 3 (2013) even added an extra four-minute sequence, for release exclusively in China, which features Chinese stars, including actress Fan Bingbing, more prominently.
It is no wonder then that Hong Kong action superstar Jackie Chan, with years of experience in both the US and China, would notice Hollywood’s shift in focus to the East.
In an interview last year, he was quoted as saying: “When China was not the market, you just followed the American ways ... But these days, they ask me, ‘Do you think the China audience will like it?’
“All the writers, producers, they think about China. Now, China is the centre of everything.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network