Patriotic Films Squeeze Out Hollywood Fare as China Celebrates National Holiday

A parade of patriotic films is set to march into Chinese cineplexes this month, crowding out Hollywood fare in a display of how firmly the entertainment industry remains under the control of the government. China may be the world’s second-biggest movie market after the U.S., but as far as its Communist rulers are concerned, politics trump economics.

The National Day holiday, which extends from Oct. 1-7, is one of the country’s peak moviegoing periods, and typically marks a time when authorities impose an unofficial blackout on foreign titles so that local ones get a boost. This year, the holiday has thundered in with even greater fanfare — and censorship — because 2019 marks a key milestone for the Communist Party: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic after a bloody civil war. That has resulted in a theatrical lineup stocked with overtly nationalistic films approved by the Beijing regime and an apparently longer blackout on foreign content than last year. “It’s a governmental decision to ensure that the top big-budget ‘red’ movies will have enough space to generate good box office and prove that our viewers love this kind of film,” says the CEO of a Chinese distribution company, who declined to be named given the political climate. 

Only six foreign titles and two U.S.-China co-productions are currently scheduled to hit the mainland this month, including Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man” on Oct. 18 and Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” a week later. Both have significant Chinese investment, with Fosun Pictures, Alibaba Pictures and Tencent involved in the former and Bona in the latter. By contrast, October 2018 saw the release of 10 foreign films and one China-France co-production. 

Industry observers predict that the holiday crowds won’t be enough to revive sales amid China’s general economic slowdown. In past National Day periods, box office figures hit RMB 3 billion-4 billion ($420 million-$560 million), but ticket sales are predicted to reach only about RMB 2 billion this year, says Li Shaohong, chairwoman of the China Film Directors’ Guild and the only female helmer of one of this month’s big patriotic titles, Wanda Pictures’ war movie “Liberation,” which releases Oct. 25. “The real numbers could surpass that, but presales aren’t especially high and haven’t exceeded expectations,” Li says.

Authorities began planning subjects for this year’s slew of patriotic films in June 2018, with a government-affiliated panel asking different companies for submissions of possible topics and scripts and then deciding which ones to move forward with, Li says.

The top upcoming titles are Bona Film Group’s $60 million “The Captain,” which tells the “Sully”-like story of an emergency flight landing; “My People, My Country,” an anthology of seven stories of national progress by seven directors, including Chen Kaige and Ning Hao; and star-studded “The Climbers,” which features Jackie Chan, top-grossing leading man Wu Jing and Zhang Ziyi in a tale about summiting Mount Everest. “Get to the top. Let the world see the strength of the Chinese people,” says a line in a trailer for “The Climbers,” giving an indication of the movie’s political tenor. All three films debuted Sept. 30.

By contrast, last year’s top three National Day films had no real political subtexts. They were the materialistic comedy “Hello, Mrs. Money,” Zhang Yimou’s martial arts film “Shadow” and Hong Kong co-produced thriller “Project Gutenberg.” 

Conservative content decisions by jumpy censors have also stacked the holiday lineup with family-friendly animation. DreamWorks Animation and Pearl Studio’s yeti adventure story, “Abominable,” arrives Oct. 1, followed by “Kung Food”; “Sharp the Bull,” a local take on “Ferdinand”; and STX Entertainment’s “UglyDolls,” co-produced by Alibaba.

China has been known to artificially boost the box office of politically important films that have essentially been deemed too red to fail — for instance, by having workplaces or schools force employees or students to attend. But Chinese cinema operators say that this year’s National Day titles have enough of a draw to pull in audiences without such hanky-panky.

In television and online streaming, media officials have also gone out of their way to eliminate distractions from government-sanctioned messaging, warning social media starlets against appearing “too sexy” and ordering broadcasters to scrub their channels of “overly entertaining” content. China’s top content regulator last month declared a 100-day ban on such programming, singling out period costume dramas — seen as distorting history and glorifying pre-Communist times — and programs starring youth idols. It issued a list of 86 encouraged programs, including biopics of Communist leaders, depictions of military and scientific accomplishments and dramatizations of how the party’s policies have improved people’s lives.

“National education is important. Otherwise, no one would have a sense of national unity and pride,” says Li, the director. “Don’t Americans themselves care about that more than anyone in the world?”