The director of 'Avatar,' the sci-fi sensation and biggest grossing movie of all time, may soon start work on a sequel. But James Cameron is leaving Hollwood and looking to China to explore co-production possibilities.
Two Chinese government organs, the China Film Group Corporation (CFGC), in charge of importing foreign films, and the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, in charge of media censorship, are being wooed by Cameron and Hollywood at large.
Depressed theater sales in the U.S. and bullish predictions about China's growing film market are driving U.S. directors and major studios to look across the Pacific for growth opportunities.
In April, Cameron travelled to Beijing during the city's international film festival to talk to CFGC about the possibility of co-producing his future 'Avatar' movies. China's DMG Entertainment had already previously bought into partially funding 'Iron Man 3', which will cost $1 billion to make.
Cameron and the Marvel Entertainment division of Disney certainly aren't short of money for movie development. They were offering Chinese counterparts the renown of being included into a major international blockbuster. What the Americans could get in return would be an enlarging stake in the world's fastest-growing film market.
Indeed, Hollywood movies are already incredibly successful in China, routinely beating out Chinese productions and selling out in theaters. Big movies with high-quality special effects and stunning digital animation like Titanic and Avatar are an irresistible draw for Chinese moviegoers.
Titanic 3D pulled in an astonishing $67 million within the first week of its April 10 release in China. In the U.S., it only had box office sales of $36 million over its initial 10 days.
But what must have been infuriating for U.S. film producers was that before 2012 only about 13 percent of ticket sales from their movies in China went back into their own pocket. Thanks to negotiations and lobbying from Hollywood, that figure has now been increased to 25 percent.
Xi Jinping, China's current Vice-President, but widely expected to be the next head of the country by year's end, travelled to Los Angeles in February 2012. He offered to open China's film market to 34 new foreign films per year, an increase from the previous quota of 20, but only if the new movies could be shown in 3D and Imax facilities.
In 2011, ticket revenue in Chinese theaters was still small compared to that of North America (U.S. and Canada), only $2.1 billion compared to $10.2 billion. But analysts predict that figure will more than double in only three years, reaching $5 billion by 2015. Theater revenues in China increased by 30 percent between 2010 and 2011; in the U.S. they decreased by 4 percent over the same period. China is expected to become the second-largest film-market in the world later this year, surpassing Japan.
China already had more than 6,000 movie screens by the end of 2011, and the government expects more than 20,000 by 2015. Analysts expect that the country will have 40,000 by 2040, as many as all of North America.
But all is not well in the budding Hollywood-Beijing relationship. On April 24, Western media organizations reported that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had begun investigating major Hollywood studios for paying bribes in China. If confirmed, that would amount to a direct infringement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
In 2009, 2010, and 2011, the SEC respectively charged 13, 16, and 20 cases of foreign bribery. Four cases each in 2009 and in 2011 involved illegal practices with Chinese companies or government officials.
Cameron doesn't appear to be worried and seems content on expanding his presence in China. He's even made filming future Avatar movies in China conditional on relaxed censorship for his movies. That means his not so subtle message on resisting environmental exploitation may soon be backed by money from the Chinese government.
Responding to Voice of America interviewers, Cameron said: Where are we going to get our energy? What are the consequences of unrestrained growth? And what are we going to do about it? And how do we live in a world that had limits on what Nature can provide to us, in terms of sustainable services? How are we going to do this? I think China faces those problems at least as much as North America and Europe.