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Hollywood Searches For 'Pot Of Gold' In China


One place American moviemakers are pushing to get into is China, which is why it's a big deal that the first summer blockbuster, "Iron Man 3" will hit theaters in China this Friday, the very same day it opens here at home. Hollywood studios covet a same-day release in China. The Chinese government allows just 34 foreign films into their country each year, at a time when Hollywood is under increasing pressure to break into China's fast-growing movie market, which is now the world's second-largest.

For today's Business Bottom-Line, Kim Masters joined here at NPR West. She's been reporting on this story for the Hollywood Reporter.

Good morning.

KIM MASTERS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You've characterized Hollywood's efforts in China as desperately searching for a pot of gold. Well, how so?

MASTERS: Well, it's very hard right now. Harder than ever, I would say, for studios to find financing for their movies which, as you know, are very expensive. So there is China, now the number two market, as you said, in the world, probably going to be number one by 2020 if not sooner. And there's a lot of money to be had. The question is: How do they get at it?

MONTAGNE: Which brings us to "Iron Man 3." Obviously, it made inroads to get a same-day release in China. What else is going on there?

MASTERS: Well, so this is a film from Disney's Marvel, which brought you "The Avengers" and does these big comic book hero-type of movies. And what they did is they tried to become a co-production, and they had a Chinese investor in the movie, which was step one. And they then put in some Chinese elements into the movie. But it's not really clear what you have to do to become an official Chinese co-production. And if you can become an official Chinese co-production, you get a lot of goodies.

You get access to the marketplace and you get more of the profit. So that's the goal. Unfortunately the Chinese have not spelled out how you get to that goal. With "Iron Man 3," they initially thought that they might be able to get there and they couldn't.

MONTAGNE: But still in all, Kim, "Iron Man 3" is opening in China. And isn't that really big, in and of itself?

MASTERS: Yes. They will make a lot of money with that film. There will be some scenes in the film specifically added for the Chinese market that will not show in the rest of the world. And yes, Marvel will make a lot of money.

MONTAGNE: Now, I gather Paramount Pictures is trying something different with one of its big franchises, "Transformers 4."

MASTERS: Yes, Paramount is not going in saying, Gee, were going to be a co-production. They're going and very humbly. They're saying we're going to cooperate and all we want is a movie that will play a little bit better in China. That's all we're hoping for. Of course, they're really hoping they will be a co-production. And to that end, they're doing something kind of unusual. They're having a reality show in China.

They're going to cast four roles in this film with Chinese actors, at least four. They're expecting as many as 17,000 people or even more to apply for these roles. And, of course, this publicizes the film in China. But, at the same time, it also clasps hands with the Chinese, and shows that Paramount seriously wants to be in business in China now, with the Chinese.

MONTAGNE: Overall, given these experiences, what are Hollywood studios learning as they ratchet up their efforts to make a push into China?

MASTERS: I think they're learning just how difficult this is going to be. I think how little they know about how business is going to be done in China. And I think they're starting to learn that what China's real goal is to build China's own Hollywood. Not so much to help America come into their marketplace, but to study how Americans are doing this. When they make these co-productions, they are looking and learning.

They want to make movies like Hollywood, movies with global appeal; something that only Hollywood has been able to do so far.

MONTAGNE: Although, of course, one would think their own market is so potentially huge that would be enough for them to capture.

MASTERS: Oh, I don't know if it's enough for them, but it's very important to them. They want parity, and they do game the system against American movies. Just last year, for example, they had in China "The Amazing Spider-Man" released on the same weekend as "Dark Knight Rises," which is not what either studios behind those films would want, because they do not want those movies competing with each other. But the Chinese do it because it opens the door for their own films to do better.

MONTAGNE: Kim, thanks very much.

MASTERS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Kim Masters is host of THE BUSINESS on member station KCRW.


MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.