INTERNATIONAL - This weekend's Lunar New Year holiday ushers in blockbuster season for Chinese filmmakers.
Last year, the industry earned over $500 million over the holiday, and hopes are high that a new slate of locally produced action, comedy and animated films will strike gold again.
In 2017, China's total box office grew 30 percent in dollar terms, to $8.6 billion. Within a few years, analysts expect, it should become the world's biggest.
Yet, when it comes to movies, the Chinese government is interested in more than money. Authorities want domestic films to project Chinese culture and approved values at home and abroad.
Over the last month, they've announced a slew of initiatives to boost supposedly "patriotic" films over more frivolous fare. This isn't their first attempt -- and China's isn't the first government to promote "healthy" homegrown content onscreen. It's unlikely to succeed any better than previous tries.
In Europe, France has long subsidized filmmakers in hopes of overcoming Hollywood's advantages. In Asia, South Korea began imposing quotas on foreign films in the mid-1960s. Over the years, China has used both methods to promote local filmmakers. It still allows only 34 foreign films to be released in China annually.
There's no evidence that those restrictions are succeeding in weaning Chinese moviegoers off American movies. Despite the restrictions, the box office share for Chinese-language films and co-productions is actually in decline, from 61 percent in 2015, to 58 percent in 2016, to 53.8 percent in 2017. And those movies that do best tend to be Hollywood-style blockbusters -- marked by "celebrity-led scripts and high marketing budgets," as officials sniff -- rather than the more earnest fare the government prefers.
So film regulators have boosted their efforts. Last year, they offered a tax rebate to theaters that earned less than one-third of their grosses from Hollywood films. This week, they've limited the number of ticket subsidies that producers of big-budget productions can hand out. Even more ambitiously, the authorities also announced the establishment of 5,000 movie theaters that will form a "People's Cinema Line" to screen patriotic films. The cinemas will be free to offer generous group discounts.
Even cheap tickets aren't likely to put bodies into seats, however. For one thing, most Chinese can access a nearly infinite range of more interesting movies and TV shows through streaming services on their phones. And, more importantly, Chinese have shown no appetite for agitprop. In recent years the government has resorted to forcing schools and state-owned companies to buy tickets to government-supported films, and then giving employees days off to see them (many still don't turn up).
Chinese filmgoers want what audiences everywhere want: flashy, big-budget films with visually arresting effects and reasonably well-told stories. That's why, even with the new restrictions on ticket subsidies, 94 percent of ticket sales for the first day of Chinese New Year went to three of the most expensive new blockbusters.
If authorities want to instill a sense of national pride in those moviegoers, they should learn from the success of 2017's "Wolf Warrior 2" -- a violent, Rambo-like film in which a tempermental, hard-drinking ex-soldier rescues Chinese citizens trapped in Africa. It's a well-made, Hollywood-influenced film and -- to nobody's surprise -- its returns overwhelmed those of a wooden, government-supported biopic of the People's Liberation Army that was released the same weekend. Within a few weeks "Wolf Warrior 2" had become the highest-grossing Chinese film in history.
Chinese filmgoers are only too willing to embrace patriotic themes -- if they're packaged well and can rival Hollywood production values. The best way for the government to encourage such productions is to open up the system, so that Chinese filmmakers can learn from and compete against the best. Trying to direct and coddle producers with import barriers and subsidies risks developing a generation of filmmakers who can create only risk-averse entertainment with limited appeal.
Step one should be to eliminate -- or at least raise -- the cap on foreign films. Chinese audiences know what they want better than the regulators, and they're the ones who will ultimately determine the fate of local productions. And, as "Wolf Warrior 2" showed, Chinese filmmakers are up to the challenge.