Is China’s Influence on the Oscars Growing?

China hasn't had an Oscar nomination since Zhang Yimou's Hero. But that doesn't mean the country has been entirely absent from the Academy Awards

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4:34 PM HKT, Mon February 18, 2019 3 mins read

It’s been 16 years since one of China’s submissions to the Academy Awards was actually nominated for an Oscar. (It was Zhang Yimou’s Hero, which lost out to Nowhere in Africa as the Best Foreign Language Film in 2003.) But that doesn’t mean China has been entirely absent from Hollywood’s glitziest ceremony in recent years.

Although we didn’t see any Chinese filmmakers listed among the 2019 Academy Award nominations, there were nevertheless a number of films in the mix that were produced with investment from China. China’s film industry might require some more time to mature to a level where it can directly compete for a statuette on a regular basis, but in the meantime, funding from Chinese companies has become a different way to realize the “Oscar dream” — and for Chinese companies to influence the global film market.

Back in 2016, while many were cheering Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-awaited Best Actor win for The Revenant, Guangdong-based Alpha Pictures — which also co-produced 2016 film Assassin’s Creed — had some cheering of its own to do as investors in the Oscar-winning film. That same year, Best Film winner Spotlight received high praise from Wang Jianlin, the CEO of Chinese entertainment giant Wanda and a 60% stock share owner (at the time) of AMC Entertainment Holding. (Spotlight was released by Open Road Films, a film production company co-founded by AMC Entertainment Holding Inc. and Regal Entertainment Group in 2011.)

These days, Alpha Entertainment — a pan-entertainment company that owns the famous China-original animated IP Xi Yangyang and Hui Tailang (Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf) — has shifted its interest to other areas it’s more familiar with, such as creating intellectual property, building theme parks, and making toys. Wanda has dramatically reduced its AMC shareholdings in recent years, and sold off its failing film theme parks. In 2017, Open Road Films was bought by Tang Media Partners, purchased with Chinese capital from Tencent.

Overall, Tencent’s film production arm — Tencent Pictures — has fared better in Hollywood. The company co-produced Wonder Woman in 2017 alongside Wanda Media, and also contributed resources to the production of Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Venom (2018), the latter of which came with a suite of clever, China-specific ad campaigns. The next popcorn flick on the Tencent Pictures docket is the as-yet-untitled Terminator reboot, which will feature Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton reprising their roles from the iconic 1984 original.

Tencent rival iQIYI has also gotten in on the Hollywood co-production game — in 2020, iQIYI Pictures will present a new xXx film (the fourth) featuring pop star Jay Chou and TF Boys member Roy Wang alongside franchise anchor Vin Diesel. (Editor’s note: xXx 3, which starred Kris Wu and veteran Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen, pulled in three times its total North America box office on its opening night in China.)

Naturally, Tencent’s chief rival, Alibaba, has also entered the film production fray. Since 2015, Alibaba Pictures Group has invested and co-produced Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015), Star Trek Beyond (2016), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016), and Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018). The company’s latest co-production, Green Book, has been nominated for five Academy Awards this year, including a Best Actor nod for Viggo Mortensen and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Mahershala Ali.

While internet companies like Tencent, Alibaba, and Baidu-backed iQIYI become increasingly invested in the overseas film-making industry, traditional film companies face various challenges.

TIK Films, a film-focused subsidiary of Hunan Broadcasting Media Group, announced a 1.5 billion USD collaboration with Lionsgate Films in 2015, through which it has co-produced Now You See Me 2 (2016) and the Oscar-winning La La Land (2016), as well as Hacksaw Ridge (2016). Unfortunately, the collaboration seems to have been suspended after TIK CEO Long Qiuyun resigned in 2017, and was arrested for taking bribes at the beginning of 2018.

Huayi Brothers Media Group got off to a promising start with their co-production of the Academy Award-nominated Molly’s Game, before hitting a hiccup with a high-profile tax evasion scandal last summer.

If we’re focusing exclusively on the Academy’s gold statuette, then Beijing-based Perfect World Pictures is so far leading the pack. Their co-production of Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread, and Victoria & Abdul has won them several Oscars over the last two years. The company also had a hand in Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018), The Mummy (2017), and even Fifty Shades Darker (2017) as a partner of Universal Pictures since 2016.

So, is Alibaba or Perfect World winning the overseas Chinese film investment game? Will we see more Chinese co-produced popcorn flicks or Oscar bait in the year to come? Will some unknown black horses emerge victorious in the 2019 box office? Or will a 100% homemade phenomenon, like the just-released sci-fi epic Wandering Earth, prove that China’s domestic film industry can finally produce a crossover hit overseas?

We’ll keep our eyes on the silver screen all year long to find out.

Cover image: Spotlight (via Mtime)

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