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China’s Hollywood Influence Expands with Spielberg’s New Deal

It’s a scene you’re sure to be familiar with: teens loiter around the lobby while the latest action stars gaze haughtily down from their film posters; fresh popcorn being made behind the counter sounds off rapidly. But closer inspection reveals some unfamiliarities. That’s not a photo booth in the corner - it’s for a quick karaoke session. And is that dried squid beside the candy bars? This movie theater in Beijing is a little different from what you may be used to, but it’s exactly like the over 70 thousand screens spread across China that are changing what you watch.

With box office receipts of over $9 billion USD in 2018, it’s a market too large for Hollywood to ignore - but getting American movies on Chinese screens requires them to be approved by stringent government censors. Yet, studios seem more than willing to comply. For example, a Tibetan mystic in 2016’s Dr. Strange becomes Celtic, Sandra Bullock finds refuge in the Chinese space station in 2013’s Gravity and a Taiwanese patch disappears from Maverick’s jacket in the upcoming Top Gun sequel. While these changes may seem inconsequential, they’re part of a broader picture of China’s growing global influence.

This pattern was demonstrated last Thursday with the joint announcement that Steven Spielberg’s production company Amblin Partners and Alibaba Pictures would enter a strategic partnership to produce and finance films. The deal also includes marketing, distribution, and merchandising collaboration for Amblin films in China; Alibaba will also take a 20% stake in Spielberg’s company.

Chinese billionaire Jack Ma’s Alibaba is one of the nation’s most powerful companies, and Amblin serves to gain exposure to Alibaba Group’s over 500 million active users via its extensive online streaming platforms, e-commerce marketplaces and digital marketing and online ticketing services. Furthermore, all future Amblin films will be co-produced by a Chinese company – a key factor to being permitted access to the lucrative Chinese market.

Alibaba Pictures meanwhile gains access to insights (and profits) from one of Hollywood’s most prolific production companies. Spielberg himself is the highest-grossing film director of all time, and Amblin has been responsible for such films as E.T., Forrest Gump, and the Jurassic Park series.

Shao Xiaofeng, Chairman of Alibaba Pictures, said: “This partnership is the first of its kind for both Amblin Partners and Alibaba Pictures and marks an important milestone in our globalization strategy to reach Chinese and global audiences alike. We will also leverage Alibaba Group’s ecosystem as a channel for Amblin Partners’ films to reach hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers.”

As China’s global importance continues to grow, Western consumers and studios will have to come to terms with the inherent connection between Chinese business and Chinese politics. China’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic has surpassed many countries, and its box office has become the largest in the world for 2020, grossing $1.99 billion USD so far. Meanwhile, the North American market lags with 1.94 billion USD, and Europe trails even further at just $1.16 billion USD.

Hollywood serves as another example of the complicated, interconnected and sometimes rivalrous relationship between the U.S. and China. If tensions continue to escalate, studios may find themselves caught between markets. In the meantime, don’t stop enjoying your movie date nights – just don’t be surprised if it’s China that swoops in to save the day.

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