- Hollywood Made in China by Aynne Kokas
China's influence in Hollywood arose so rapidly and massively that it is sometimes hard to grasp the exact circumstances of its impact. In 2015 for example, the Matt Damon blockbuster The Martian was the object of derision for its perceived pandering to China, as suggested by the heroic role that country plays in the film's plot as well as a general proliferation of Chinese characters and settings that had become increasingly ubiquitous in American movies since the early 2000s. Ironically, though, while audiences who had seen movies like Looper, Transformers 4, Skyfall, and The Dark Knight Rises were correct in suspecting that this recent Hollywood trend for Chinese imagery has economic and political motivation, in the case of The Martian such a suspicion was wrong. The film version of The Martian merely reproduces a plot development in the original novel on which the film is based. Thus while the Chinese plot cameo in the movie may indeed have been attractive to studios and investors when the novel was optioned for cinematic adaptation, for debut sci-fi author Andy Weir, China's key role in his novel arose as part of his studied projection of future global developments, including how the nation's explosive prosperity and political ascension in the past few decades would catapult China as a leading player in global—now galactic—geopolitics.
These connections between cinematic and geopolitical Sino-US relations are the subject of Aynne Kokas's Hollywood Made in China, a superb account of how business encounters between two leading film industries demonstrate growing economic interdependency between these two superpowers. As Kokas shows, China is increasingly flexing its muscle in Hollywood and Hollywood is increasingly dependent upon Chinese revenue. These conditions structure mass culture and media content in both countries, and because media is a defining sector of developed economies like the United States it also is a telling index by which we can gauge how China both emulates and diverges from its major interlocutor. It is that latter aspect of difference and similarity, moreover, on which Kokas is particularly illuminating, as Hollywood Made in China explores how the two nations' relative prioritizing of capitalism and political ideology complicate any intersection between the two countries and industries. As Kokas puts it, while in the United States "media industries . . . drive the government," in China "government intervention drives the media industries" (p. 27).
The above-noted Hollywood embedding of Chinese cast and locations, which reflect incentivized content guidelines by which global filmmakers [End Page 70] conform in order to gain access to the lucrative mainland market, are just some of the examples that Kokas explores. Other case studies include professional forums like industry conferences and "pitch sessions" and the unique contributions of "above-the-line" and "below-the-line" workers (respectively, industry parlance for leading creative figures like talent and producers or specialized technical and service workers like grips, continuity advisors, or stunt persons). Branding is a unifying concept throughout the volume, familiar from advertising and other business discourse but which Kokas applies to nations, industries, and individual professionals as well. As Kokas explains, because "Hollywood's presence in China is about the expansion of vertically and horizontally integrated media conglomerates" (p. 5), sites of encounter range from public and private, official and unofficial, commercial and civilian forms. In chapter 2, for example, Kokas examines Disney's encroachments in China through a wide variety of ventures beyond its marquee brand manifestation in amusement parks and film and entertainment media. Tracking commercial projects that include merchandise, non-recreational infrastructure, and even English-language schools for young children, Kokas shows how the peculiarity and power of Chinese clout incites one of the world's most powerful brands to adopt local attributes, precisely because that adaption enables Disney to propagate its consumer fantasies through quasi-domesticated channels such as the young children indoctrinated in Disney...