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."
Those kind of box-office numbers get the attention of US moviemakers. They ensure that the studios will increasingly take into account not only what will fly with China's middle-class audience but also with Beijing censors, who must approve every film.
Disney learns the hard way
Disney learned the hard way that media minders in Beijing watch for anything, anywhere, that questions China's unity and the supremacy of the Communist Party. In 1997, Disney, whose interests in China extend to publishing, merchandising, and theme parks, upset Beijing by releasing director Martin Scorsese's "Kundun," a film about the current Dalai Lama's exile to India after the People's Liberation Army's occupation of Tibet. Though it was never intended for release in China, insiders say Disney's initiatives in China were stalled for years afterward.
Beyond political considerations, US filmmakers are also trying to engage Chinese audiences more directly, instead of assuming that what plays well in New York will also be snapped up by filmgoers in Shanghai.
Fox International Productions recently made two Mandarin-language films that it distributed via Beijing-based partners Huayi Brothers Media. The romantic comedy "Hot Summer Days," which FIP made for $2 million, grossed roughly $22 million. FIP then got Hollywood hitmaker Doug Liman, director of "The Bourne Identity," to boost a martial-arts comedy, "The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman," at the Pusan International Film Festival in South Korea last October.