China is fast becoming lucrative market for American movies—the number of middle class leisure-seekers is multiplying, as are the nation’s cineplexes. Financial backing now often comes directly from Chinese investors, and studios are increasingly willing to bend over backwards to make sure their films fly with the People’s Republic’s censors. The nation must be portrayed in a positive light, for one, and no villains can resemble Mao Zedong. And no time travel. Most of the time.
The New York Times just investigated that opaque and capricious process—deals must often be cut directly with state officials to ensure that an expensive film will pass muster. So it got me thinking—are we going to be seeing more Chinese product placement in American films? Are we already?
The notion arose mostly because I'd finally gotten around to watching Looper the other day, and I was kind of shocked by how positively—nay, glowingly—the film portrays China vis a vis the U.S.. I mean, sure, it fits the profile for the near future as currently envisioned by the paranoid American punditry's consensus: America is crumbling, crime-ridden, falling behind, while China is leapfrogging us, becoming a posh and advanced.
Watch those future-China scenes in Looper again, and you’ll see what I mean. Those set pieces with the aged Levitt depict a luxurious, exciting world of glamorous nightclubs and spacious modern homes. And America is a hell-hole. So, with that Times piece in mind, it occurred to me that there may have been a whole slew of slogans and brand name-checking slid into the club or Bruce-Willis-at-home scenes. Some product placement that flew entirely over our American eyes.
Turns out, I was only half-right: The whole China plot was product placement, so to speak. It turns out that Looper's studio reportedly cut a deal with Chinese production company to prominently feature Chinese locales and to do so in a positive light, in exchange for investment funds, solid distribution and a primo release date.
The Chinese blog TeaLeafNation covered the story back in October:
The film secured the coveted release date of September 28 in China, the same opening day in the U.S. and immediately before a weeklong holiday in China, because its Hollywood studio partnered with DMG Entertainment, a China-based production company, and rewrote the script to set significant parts of the movie in China.
In fact, as you might already be aware, in a play to make the film appeal more specifically to a Chinese audience, the studio shot some “China-only” scenes and replaced them with American scenes in the release there. TeaLeafNation says the gambit backfired, as Chinese microbloggers complained about losing out on the original footage, and that ticket sales were lower than expected.
Still, it’s a pretty bizarre arrangement that we can probably expect to see more of. Write China into your script, make it look good, win solid distribution and a free pass with the censors. China hawks will no doubt cite this as yet another example of the economically ascendant nation commanding favors from the U.S., but it’s really just another example of the kind of backroom dealing that pads most Hollywood releases—it just involves appeasing an ostensibly communist cinematic palate.