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Kung Fu Panda 2: Hollywood works harder to win Chinese audiences

Kung Fu Panda 2, which opened May 27 in China, includes references that will be familiar to Chinese audiences – part of a broader Hollywood effort to flourish in the booming market.

Jack Black, who voices the lead character in the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ films, mugs with a mascot in New York.

Phil McCarten/Reuters

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A decade ago, as China closed in on membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO), key negotiators now say, it wasn't talk of opening a huge market to grain or machinery that threatened talks: It was haggling over movies, the ultimate soft-power export.

Today, Chinese consumer confidence has soared. That has lifted movie ticket sales, which jumped 64 percent in 2010 to $1.5 billion, thanks partly to a 3-D craze and a mushrooming of cinemas in China. But what's also grown is official wariness of the influence of foreign media, so much so that Beijing – a WTO member since 2001 – has all but ignored a March WTO deadline to open film distribution to greater foreign participation, and has refused to discuss the annual cap of 20 imported films.

In late May, taking a page out of China's 1972 playbook – when Beijing gave two rare black-and-white bears to Washington's National Zoo after Presi­dent Nixon's historic visit – envoys from DreamWorks Animation went to Sichuan Province bearing "Kung Fu Panda 2," part of DreamWorks's effort to establish a paw-hold in the globe's fastest-growing movie market. The China Film Group (CFG) released the film nationwide on May 27, dubbed into Chinese.

Their effort drew on lessons from the release of the first "Kung Fu Panda" in China right before the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Many loved it, making it the first animated feature film here to gross more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) in ticket sales. Others said DreamWorks's take on China's ancient culture fell as flat as its 2-D portrayal.

Fast-forward three years and the stakes are higher. Tickets costing as much as 120 yuan ($18.50) helped China become the No. 2 movie market after the United States for 20th Century Fox's "Avatar." After its January 2010 release, it went on to gross more than $200 million in China. Walt Disney Pictures's "Pirates of the Carib­bean 4: On Stranger Tides" recently topped the opening weekend figures for "Avatar."

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