To what extent does Hollywood film distribution and exhibition strategies contribute to the Chinese martial art films?

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Introduction

The dominance of the USA in the cultural industries of the world, especially in film, has long remained uncontested. While the industry has been global since the 1920s, the early 21st century saw significant increases in the rate of importation of American film (Scott, 2002). While the concentration of talent and the economies of scale within Hollywood have been responsible for this dominance, the distribution capabilities and current systems have also played a significant part (Scott, 2002). The distribution system in Hollywood effectively limits the importation of foreign film, while ensuring the multiplication of the ability of the American film to succeed internationally (Wang & Yeh, 2005). Accompanying the resurgence of the dominance of the American film industry has been the growth of the Kung Fu industry, not only in Asia but mostly so in Hollywood. This paper argues that the success of the Kung Fu franchise has been due to the collaboration between Chinese film producers and Hollywood distribution and exhibition strategists. While the collaboration may extend to the actual production process, the distribution system of the Hollywood film makers ensures the ability of the Chinese film to successfully enter multiple country markets (Hunt & Wing-fai, 2008). The adoption of non-traditional exhibition approaches also multiplies the capability of individual films to succeed. As such, while sufficient effort is incorporated into the production process of the Chinese Kung Fu films, the measure of success relies largely on the extent to which it integrates into the Hollywood distribution and exhibition strategies.

Hollywood and the Pursuit of Asian Markets

The value of the international market to Hollywood has always existed, but in fluctuating levels over the decades. For instance, Klein (2004, p.363) elaborates that Hollywood gained about 35% of its profits from the international market in the early periods of production until the 1940s. The contribution rose to 50% in the 1960s and 70s, only to fall back to 35% later and increase once more in the 90s (Klein, 2004). Notably, the current perception of foreign audiences in Hollywood is as primary sources of income against their receiving secondary treatment. As such, the design of the Hollywood film has evolved over time to ensure it depicts a multinational against national identity, which facilitates its appeal to the international audience (Rosenbaum, 2002). However, the importance of each market differs, with some increasing in significance over time while others dwindle due to the extent of their contribution or the challenges to distribution (Klein, 2004).

One of the significant areas of market evolution for American film has been the Asian market. While the Hollywood began targeting the Asian market before the World War II, the revenue was limited by low ticket prices and the few cinema opportunities (Klein, 2004). However, in the 1990s, there was a significant spurt in growth in the importation of American film in Asian countries. Regions like Hong Kong increased their importation by more than 30% in a period of eight years, while importation in Japan grew to a significant 68% by the beginning of the 21st century (Lau, 2007). By 2000, Asia was the fastest growing market for the Hollywood films, with the marketers eyeing large population countries like China and India (Scott, 2002). Nevertheless, the markets retain limitations such as heavy regulation in China, and the popularity of local film in India (Scott, 2002).

Following the focus on the rapidly growing Asian markets, Hollywood made efforts to integrate its labour with the target countries. By the 1990s, the number of Asian borrowed talent had increased massively, ranging from actors and stars to anonymous film technicians (Hollinger, 2000 ). While there remains the argument that this exchange of talent has removed the top performing talent from Asia, it is countered by the willingness of Hollywood film makers to produce the films in these countries (Klein, 2004). Despite the limitations of cultural difference, Hollywood continually shaped its imported talent to enhance the spectacle upon which their film production thrives. Individuals like Jackie Chan have thrived in Hollywood, benefiting from the preference for a story against the emphasis on action that so characterizes the American film (Klein, 2004). Notably, however, Chan has retained his production of film in Hong Kong, as well as his films featuring strong Chinese dialogue and cultural aspects (Scott, 2002). Individuals like Chan idealize the unification of Hollywood and the Asian film, eliminating the boundaries of geographical distance and culture (Hunt & Wing-fai, 2008). This becomes a mutually beneficial situation for both industries, and thus creates the basis for the growth of Asian film both in America and at a global level.

Seeing the development of the Asian market’s importance to Hollywood, it becomes essential to identify the infusion of the Kung Fu film into Hollywood. This background will facilitate determining the degree to which distribution, exhibition, and marketing practices influence the success of this genre globally.

Kung-Fu Movies in Hollywood

Su (2012, p.141) elaborates the history of Chinese Martial Arts film and the periods of popularity that they have undergone. The film originated in China in the 1920s, undergoing a ban in 1934 and re-emerging in Hong Kong in the 1950s (Su, 2012). The film was, once again, revived in China in the 1980s, upon which its distribution gained the genre international attention. The role of Hong-Kong is especially difficult to overlook in the process of making Kung-Fu the international circulatory element it is today. While the last years of the century saw the industry decline in Hong Kong, its producers and ideologies were essential to its development internationally (Morris, 2004). The debut of Kung Fu films on the international markets occurred alongside the relatively modern Chinese martial arts actors such as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan in the 1990s (Su, 2012). Oriental film gained true popularity in the international market in the early 21st century, with the 10 Chinese box office receipts in the period between 2002 and 2008 being martial arts films (Su, 2010). Despite the strong elements of traditional that characterise the Chinese martial arts film, it has superseded boundaries gain popularity in the international field.

While the contemporary Kung Fu film maintains strong elements of Chinese culture, it focuses on incorporating Hollywood acting and production techniques. The Chinese film industry both competes and learns from the Hollywood contributors to martial arts film (De Kloet, 2007). As such, while the films may use traditional or historical events, they increase the ability to captivate the audience through enhancing the imaginative and fictional quality (Hunt & Wing-fai, 2008). These elements are visible in Hero, the award winning film by Zhang Yimou (Su, 2010). The film includes interesting fighting scenes, qualities of Confucianism like brotherhood and sacrifice, the value of family, and loyalty. At the same time, however, their production displays structurally Hollywood elements like extravagant budgets and the presence of famous stars in the industries (Su, 2012). As such, Chinese films in Hollywood often demonstrate how production companies and individuals can converge in interests around a single film or genre.

As such, unlike relatively traditional films in Kung Fu, the films in Hollywood in the 21st century have made deliberate attempts to target the multi-cultural international market. This element has proved challenging to accomplish, with reception differing in Asian countries as compared to the Western market. For instance, Crouching Tiger has been deemed as focusing on drawing international sensation against the display of authentic elements (Guo, 2001). The Asian market viewers criticize the film on being typical of the Hong Kong film, with fighting scenes and battles on rooftops being non-unique elements for them (Fong, 2001). At the same time, the speaking scenes, the romance, and the unlikely outcomes of the fighting is dismissed as deliberately appealing to the exotic audiences (Fong, 2001). This element has emerged as a cost-benefit balance that the Hollywood focus on Kung Fu demands, amid accusations of the same diminishing the Chinese culture (Guo, 2001).

Evidently, the induction of martial arts films in Hollywood has not only facilitated access to the local American market, but also resulted in the ascension to the international market. While the success of film in Hollywood is prevalent, it remains clear that specific elements in distribution, exhibition, and marketing have been at the root of the success of this particular film type.

The Role of Hollywood Distribution and Exhibition in the Success of Martial Arts Film

Before embarking on the delimitation of the role that Hollywood plays in the production and distribution of Asian, especially Chinese, martial arts films, it is critical to acknowledge the complex interaction of these film types (Pickowicz, 2007). While it is easier to treat the films as existing in two different spectrums, Pickowicz (2007, p.45) argues that the Chinese and American cinema is largely all mixed up against the popular binary conceptualization. This regard of the film industries eliminates the supposition that the Chinese films would be less of an industry competitor in comparison to Hollywood productions (Pearson, 2002). In order to demonstrate this hegemony in the various roles played by Hollywood in popularizing the martial arts film genre, the focus of the analysis is on two main films. These will feature the Crouching Tiger and Hero, both of which have been the target of massive interest from a scholarly and industrial perspective since their release.

Distribution

According to Scott (2002, p,969), the success of the production of Hollywood heavily relies on the extensiveness of its distribution. The system composes of distribution offices that are present in the USA and abroad, which in turn enable equally immense publication of content. These sentiments are upheld by other scholars, who note that the inability of other film sectors from countries globally diminish their capability for competition with the USA (Brunet & Gornostaeva, 2006). Even more critically is the impossibility with which foreign productions have to contend while attempting to sell in the American market.

The distribution strategies adopted for specific films like Crouching Tiger and Hero demonstrate the effectiveness of these in ensuring the success of the martial arts film in the global context. The controlling rights for Crouching Tiger are held by Sony Picture Classics, with the film having made about $128 million sales (Chung, 2007). At the same time, the distribution of Hero was undertaken by Miramax, which resulted in 80% of the sales being derived from the international market (Su, 2010). The sales of these films were especially profitable, with returns exceeding 17 times the costs of production and distribution (Schamus, 2000). Their popularity also stems from the relatively lower production costs, compared to the high priced films from Hollywood (Chung, 2007).

It is essential to note the relative caution with which distributors in Hollywood treat the Chinese film, relative to their treatment of the Hollywood productions. For instance, while Hollywood films apply pre-planned strategies for marketing and advertising, there is a tendency to insist on low-cost strategies for these martial arts films. Chung (2007) indicates that while Sony acquired the distribution rights of Crouching Tiger sufficiently early, their distribution to 43 countries only took place after its winning the film awards. At the same time, Miramax generated the hype around Hero years before its release using low cost word of mouth strategies to marketing (Chung, 2007). At the same time, the distributors of Crouching Tiger and Hero fail to employ the advertising strategies that are typical of the Hollywood film. For instance, the advertisement did not reach TV or any of the mainstream media (Chung, 2007). Further, while Crouching Tiger got a video game production after its cinema run, the pre-planned strategies typically employed in Hollywood distribution and marketing were largely absent for both films (Brunet & Gornostaeva, 2006). These, clearly, are deliberate attempts to maintain distribution costs at a minimum. The strategies both ensure that, while the company engages in the distribution process, the success of the film has been predetermined and is unlikely to result in box office losses.

The implication of the argument for low cost strategies is that, historically, the international success of the Chinese martial art films is only partially dependent on the distribution of Hollywood’s companies. Ideally, it is the quality of the film that determines how much effort will be input in its distribution. The fact that Sony deliberately held back incurring costs on distribution of Crouching Tiger before the assurance of its success demonstrates the possibility that the film would never have received international acclaim had it not been nominated locally. This peripheral role of the Hollywood firm is upheld in the account by Lau (2007), who elaborates that Sony simply acquired the film from the producers and made millions in profit without effort. However, Klein (2007) counters this perspective, arguing that inattention to the details of production history has been at the root of such suppositions regarding the relationship between Hollywood and the martial arts production countries. In fact, according to Klein (2007, p.191), various divisions of Sony Max were deeply involved in the production process and its financing. The debate on this minimized role remains largely inconclusive, leaving the idea of low cost distribution strategies being applied for the martial arts films still immensely popular.

While the focus on the distribution of the Chinese martial arts film by Hollywood dwells on the cost implications on success, another perspective emerges. This perspective is the relative inability of the distribution strategies to garner sufficient market power in the Asian markets (Teo, 1997). Once more, the production and distribution of Crouching Tiger brings into question whether the role of Hollywood is completely effective in ensuring the success of this film genre in all the international markets. While this film received international acclaim, it was unable to sell sufficiently in Hong Kong and China, which Lau (2007) identifies as the capital of martial arts. The criticism for the film in this region includes the idea that the depiction of the content is rather unimpressive, and that the spoken language lacked the correct accents (Klein, 2007). These criticisms stem from the fact that the fighting scenes are typical of the martial arts film seen in these countries, and yet the rest of the content lacked enough authenticity to interest the local viewer (Lai, 2001). The film was dismissed as being too slow and lacking sufficient action, which generates the possibility that the intention to attract the international audience in distribution superseded the local audience (Klein, 2004). Essentially, it is a paradox that the distribution of the Chinese martial arts film can result in international market success, while failing to achieve the same effect on the local scene.

This perspective suggests the possibility that the low cost strategies, indeed, play a minor role in determining the success of these films. Instead, their success relies mostly on their quality as perceived by individual markets, and Hollywood only maximizes on these features to enhance international reception.

Exhibition

The collaboration between the Chinese film industry and Hollywood in martial arts production implies the potential for a shift in the approach to exhibition. Other than the traditional exhibition approaches, such as the use of film festivals, Chung (2007) is quick to note the move to wide release film exhibition for the Chinese martial arts films in Hollywood. A look into the manner of exhibition for Crouching Tiger and Hero reveals the capability to either fully apply wide releases, or use a combination of both in enhancing the reception of the film in both the local and international markets.

The Chinese film in the non-Hollywood production context may be restricted to traditional approaches to exhibition. While production financing enables the accomplishment of quality film, limitations such as internet restrictions in China may make the effectiveness of exhibition limited. However, Crouching Tiger was exhibited in Hollywood using the wide-release approach (Fong, 2001). This was the first instance of its application on this kind of film, with 2027 playdates ensuring its showing generated massive returns. Notably, the wide release was not adopted at once, but began as an art showing and gradually expanded the range of theatre showings (Chung, 2007). The first month for Crouching Tiger employed the limited release approach, but in the second month showings were increased to 693 from the initial 16 (Lo, 2005). For the final 112 days of its showing, Sony Max maintained the wide release approach, having peaked at 2027 showings in the third month (Chung, 2007).

The approach employed for Hero, compared to that used in Crouching Tiger, reflects the effect of the distribution and marketing approaches on the outcomes of exhibition. Hero applied a wide release strategy since the first showing, and maintained the same over the forty-five playdates of exhibition (Berry & Farquhar, 2006). The initial 23 days of exhibition had Hero showing in theatres exceeding 2000, and only fell to about 1200 by the 44th exhibition date (Chung, 2007). Due to the prior approaches used in marketing, building hype around it before its release, the first month of the local exhibition earned 96% of the income the film gained in the USA (De Kloet, 2007).

The choice exhibition approaches, other than depending on the available technologies and finances, seek to address the majority issues that will influence the size of the targeted audience. For instance, Crouching Tiger’s application of multiple release approaches enables its covering the many audiences that the film anticipated (Iwabuchi, 2002). The art house crowd and the main theatre lovers were included in this exhibition, and the build-up over time responded to the shifts in the distinct crowds (Pham, 2004). However, like in distribution, the choice of exhibition is trumped by the quality of the film as perceived by the audience (Bordwell, 2000). Crouching Tiger has multiple themes, romance, martial arts action, and traditional Chinese stories. As such, this appeal to multiple audiences lies in the production, and the exhibition only serves to ensure that their preferences are available at their choice time and location (Brunet & Gornostaeva, 2006). This argument, however, is not as resounding as that against Hollywood distribution playing a very major role in the success of the Chinese martial arts film.

The adoption of non-traditional exhibition strategies for the Chinese martial arts film seems to impact more soundly on the success of the genre than the distribution. This, however, is not to say that its effect is more significant than the degree to which the films would perform depending on their quality. The ability to hook large American and international audiences is not created exclusively by the marketing and exhibition strategies, but these only influence the publicity with which they are received. Multicultural movie enthusiasts would probably still enjoy Hero and Crouching Tiger even if the Hollywood companies had not undertaken their exhibition. Nevertheless, one must accept that awareness and access would have been less intensive, implying the diminished capability to create the profitability levels they accomplished.

Recognizing Issues Associated with the Hollywood Distribution and Exhibition

The role of Hollywood players in accomplishing improved strategies for distribution and exhibition of the Chinese martial arts film is undeniable. However, even as these firms significantly boost the performance of these films in the international market, some limitations are experienced. As noted earlier, the distribution approaches are ineffective where the films are yet to achieve acceptance in all the target audiences (Berry & Farquhar, 2006). The strategies, therefore, can only be effective where the quality or content of the film meets the expectations of the audiences. Similarly, the film distribution by Hollywood may tend towards impressing the multicultural audience at the expense of gaining support in the countries of origin (Hunt & Wing-fai, 2008).

Also centred on the process of production, there remains the possibility that distribution and exhibition’s role in facilitating the success of the film is overrated. Compared to the other forms of Chinese film, the martial arts film that Hollywood adopts for distribution tend to be high budget (Pham, 2004). Curse of the Golden Flower is a movie produced in China, costing about $45 million in production (Su, 2010). This film is complete with the definition of the spectacular that is characteristic of the Western film. As the traditional martial arts film is deemed politically safe, the Chinese producers have the freedom to apply immense financial amounts towards the production (Su, 2012). Consequently, the efforts in production cannot be ignored in determining the success of such films (Hunt, 2003). Even where Hollywood exerts additional efforts in distribution strategies and uses its extensive systems, these would be useless in the absence of a quality film.

Other issues, however, are evident in the use of Hollywood distribution in a bid to achieve success for the Chinese based films. While the films generate large amounts of money, the bulk of it goes to the Hollywood firms that hold their rights to distribution and exhibition (Morris, 2004). For instance, in the case of Crouching Tiger, the film’s $128 million was only gained by Sony Max pictures (Lee, 2003). The Chinese producers that had been unable to sell the content in Hong Kong and China gained none of this income (Lau, 2007). This perspective begs the question of the perception of the success of a film. While Sony Max may consider the film a success, the Chinese producing companies may dismiss the performance of the film as poor. Considering the budget that was incurred in production, and the sale of the same film at a loss, it is difficult to see elements of success. As such, the yielding of distribution rights to the Hollywood players seems to give a one-sided perspective of success (Hunt & Wing-fai, 2008). Nevertheless, without the duplicity in assessment, it is possible to accept the contribution of the distribution and exhibition strategies in increasing the success of the film.

Conclusion

The Chinese language martial arts film has emerged as a strong feature in Hollywood in the 21st century. Tracing the history of martial art film production reveals the genre to have had its periods of success and decline in Hong Kong and China, but only gained international acclaim after successfully entering Hollywood in the late 20th century. The early forms, films featuring icons like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, served to introduce the martial arts and Chinese tradition into the global cinematic scene. Nevertheless, major films that have recorded massive acclaim have been those distributed and exhibited by Hollywood, such as Crouching Tiger and Hero. These films made in excess of $100 million upon their release. The application of wide release exhibition strategies effectively ensured extensive showing of these films internationally. With the comprehensive distribution networks owned by the players in Hollywood, this feat was easy to accomplish, unlike the situation of the Chinese or Hong Kong firms. However, the poor reception of Crouching Tiger in Hong Kong and China, the martial arts capitals, calls into question the full extent of influence by the Hollywood distribution and exhibition strategies. The argument, here, becomes that the success of these films is not fully dependent on the input of Hollywood. Rather, the quality of the films and their appeal to the international and local audiences also plays a significant part. In the same way, it is difficult for the Asian producers to feel the success of these films as all the proceeds go to Hollywood. While not refuting that distribution and exhibition of the Chinese martial arts film by Hollywood has contributed to their success, this contribution is only partial. Without the contribution, the performance of the films would be largely diminished especially at the international scale. Nevertheless, their success also depends on the quality of their production and the extent to which the films appeal to their target markets.

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