In 2011, four Chinese brands – Lenovo, Yili Milk, Metersbonwe and electronics company TCL – all paid millions of dollars to have their products featured in Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon. The film went on to take $165 million in the Chinese box office, or 15% of its worldwide takings. Two years on, Chinese audiences look like taking their affection for the Hasbro toy franchise to another level. Last week Paramount announced that it will partner with two Chinese media firms – China Movie Channel, which is run by state broadcaster CCTV, and Netflix-like streaming service Jiaflix – to produce Transformers 4.
“I am proud and honoured by how Transformers has been embraced by Chinese audiences,” says director Michael Bay. “I am looking forward to working with China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises to help reach more people here and deepen their passion for this ongoing story and its characters.”
Through the agreement, the two Chinese companies will help Bay with the “selection of filming sites within China, theatrical promotion and possible post-production activities in China, as well as casting of Chinese actors and actresses in the film.”
After the announcement, rumours spread that Chinese actors Huang Xiaoming, Chen Kun and Tong Dawei are all in talks for roles opposite Mark Wahlberg and Nicola Peltz in the latest instalment of the franchise.
Launched in 1995, China Movie Channel owns the domestic telecast rights to more than 95% of all the Chinese movies ever made, and over 80% of the international syndication rights for Chinese films. Jiaflix, meanwhile, is the brainchild of Sid Ganis, the former Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president. Ganis also brokered the deal between Paramount and China Movie Channel.
Transformers 4 isn’t scheduled for release until next summer but Paramount will be paying close attention to the box office performance of another Hollywood blockbuster in China, Iron Man 3. It will start showing later this month and also boasts a Chinese partner in Beijing-based DMG Entertainment, which previously teamed up with Sony in the production of Looper, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.
Disney, the studio behind the Iron Man franchise, has also announced that it will release a special version of Iron Man 3 that features “significant Chinese elements”, including more airtime for local actors, as well as specially tailored product placement.
This is not the first time Hollywood studios have released two versions of the same film. When Looper was shown in cinemas, Sony also made a China version that included far more China-based footage. Actress Xu Qing, who has very little screen time in the global version, was also featured far more prominently in the China edit (see WiC166).
But Disney’s dual-version plan actually represents something of a setback for Fan Bingbing, who has a minor role in Iron Man 3. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reports that Fan will be completely missing from the international version, a blow for a starlet who has been doing her best to drum up attention for her foray into Hollywood. Fan was spotted at the Oscars earlier this year squeezing her way through a total of four outfit changes during the night (see WiC183). Needless to say, she will be disappointed that her latest step towards international stardom won’t make it beyond Chinese audiences.
Studio bosses will also be hoping that Tony Stark’s latest gadgets will help lift Iron Man 3 out of the general slump that Hollywood has been experiencing in China so far this year. In the first quarter of 2013, US films saw their cumulative grosses fall by 22%, while Chinese language films surged by 128%. Chinese audiences have shifted decisively toward local products, says Robert Cain, author of China Film Biz. As a result, American films are performing at about the same level they did back in 2010, when the Chinese market was half the size that it is now.
Small wonder, then, that Robert Downey Jr was in Beijing this week to promote the film. During one press conference Downey turned on the charm. “I made it my business to pay attention to what’s happening here (in China) culturally,” he claimed, adding that he visits two practitioners of Chinese medicine when at home in the US, and that he keeps his energy levels up by practicing Wing Chun martial arts.
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