Chinese Directors on Winning Global Box Office: 'Attacking Hollywood Is the Best Way'

China Dragons Illustration - P 2014
Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

China Dragons Illustration - P 2014

At the Shanghai Film Festival's most popular forum, leading local film figures debate whether Hollywood is friend or foe.

The rapid transformation of the Chinese film business from international obscurity into a $3.6 billion box office story -- and with the government still maintaining a quota system that restricts the import of Hollywood movies to just 34 per year -- has prompted a major bout of soul-searching at the world’s second largest film festival.

Against this backdrop, the most hotly contested panel at the Shanghai International Film Festival was called “Chinese stories vs Hollywood.”

PHOTOS: Beijing Film Fest Brings Out Chinese, Hollywood Stars

Hollywood’s importance in China is hard to play down. At the Shanghai festival, Nicole Kidman received an outstanding contribution award from Hugh Grant and John Woo at the opening ceremony, while artist Qin Yi honored Jiang Wen with the Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Film Award.

Arguing the merits of Hollywood's presence in China were Xu Zheng, an actor and director, Fang Li from Laurel Films, producers Ma Ke and Wang Haifeng, Zhao Fang, general manager of Wanda Media and the writer Tian Xia Ba Wang. The event was hosted by the critic Zhou Liming.

Fang Li said he does not see Hollywood as the enemy.

“I would like to shake hands with Hollywood. We are all professionals in the same industry. I welcome Hollywood. I think if Hollywood wants to take root in China for a long time, they also need Chinese partners and to make Chinese films. Just like McDonald’s and KFC have started selling soy milk and you tiao (dough sticks). It doesn’t matter if they are Chinese films or Hollywood films. They go with each other in the end. The audience decides everything,” said Fang.

EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Johnny Depp's First Trip to China

Hollywood’s box office track record this year is impressive. Warner Bros’ and Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla took $37 million in its opening weekend, while Tom Cruise’s Edge of Tomorrow took $24.67 million in its first full week to bring its cume to $50.57 million, and 20th Century Fox tentpole X-Men: Days of Future Past has taken nearly $115 million after 24 days in China.

This is all before Transformers: Age of Extinction and Maleficent, which are both still to come during the first month of summer.

But the biggest movies in China are now Chinese movies, such as the various adaptations of the Journey to the West legend, which have dominated the local market in recent years

Xu Zheng said he believes the best form of defense is frontal attack.

“The people who watch films are very important and I trust them. Chinese audiences have a real need to watch the stories about themselves, and their needs are not being satisfied -- I think it will be a long time before we can satisfy them,” said Xu.

He added that he dislikes the word “versus.”

PHOTOS: China Box Office 2013: The Top 10 Movies

“For the audience, the biggest wish is to watch a good film. It doesn't have to be a Hollywood film. If I am an audience member, I will go watch every film from Jiang Wen because it has his quality guarantee,” Xu said. “There is no shame in making a film that Chinese people like but Americans don’t like. However, I think we should prepare for our films to go overseas. If I want to make a film for abroad, we have to do some research on the American and European audience. After I do that preparation, I will choose what film to make,” he said.

Wang Haifeng said there were various ways China might confront Hollywood.

“I think there is no point of standing up to Hollywood here. Attacking it is the best way -- entering their market and making their money,” said Wang.

“The domestic market is important, but it has to go overseas. The output of film is not just film, it is culture. American films are exporting their culture. If there is no export, the next generation will only know Spiderman, Batman and Ironman. Traditional Chinese culture will be gone. How do we preserve our own culture and at the same time make other countries understand our culture? Film export is very important,” said Wang.