Hitting the Sweet Spot Between Asia and Hollywood

Last year, a research report by Ersnt & Young revealed how China is set to dominate the global movie industry by as soon as 2020, with growth far overtaking Hollywood at a staggering 17% a year.

The disparity between the two countries has caught wild-eyed investors in the headlights. What is popular in Asia, and what is popular in the US, seldom meet in the middle – this has been highlighted by the very rare global success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi adaptation, a movie with so many false starts due to its ‘unfilmable’ source material that it was expected by many to bomb domestically, let alone anywhere else. As such, it was a total surprise that it became a box office smash on both sides of the Pacific.

The reason?

Because Lee is rightfully heralded as a hero in China as well as his native Taiwan.

Flying the Flag for Asia

That’s not to say The Life of Pi isn’t deserving of its success on merit, because it’s a fantastic film. And the brutal touring and promotional schedule conducted by Ang Lee certainly helped, two – as well as Asia, the movie performed well in Germany, Mexico and India, all places which Lee visited in the run-up to release.

But with nearly $100 million of its $564m box office takings (at the time of writing) having come from ticket sales in China, it’s very hard to imagine it would have done quite so well if it weren’t for Ang Lee being at the helm.

Diversity Pays

Hollywood is notoriously lacking when it comes to gender equality, with only 5% of women directing the top grossing films and less than 14% writing them – despite the fact that there is no proven link between gender and profitability.

But there is a link between racial diversity and profitability, it seems, and that’s something which has got Hollywood paying very close attention (especially in the wake of Ang Lee’s killer success). Pirates of the Caribbean producer Jerry Bruckheimer recently commented “We can no longer risk making an expensive film with a star who isn’t popular in Asia.”

Somewhat paradoxically, the popularity (or lack thereof) of Hollywood films without Asian cast members bears absolutely no correlation to the popularity of A-list Western actors.

The demand for all-American sex symbols in Asia is so feverent that Scarlet Johannson and Leo DiCaprio can command stellar fees just for appearing in commercials in the Far East, the kind of money they wouldn’t dream of selling out for to appear in a similar domestic gig. Indeed, George Clooney has gone on record as saying he could do a single overseas ad every year and retire happy.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Alas, the ven diagram depicting American and Asian interests is a very complex one. What’s more, investors view China warily, given the country’s strict censorship policies and limits on the length of theatrical runs.

But one surefire way of appealing to both audiences, and at least getting part of the way there, would be to address the lack of Asian actors being placed in Hollywood films – both to appeal to the East and to introduce the West to the plethora of otherwise unheard of talent. Not at the expense of putting American actors out of jobs, and not at the risk of alienating audiences on both sides of the Pacific, either…

… imagine something along the lines of a big-budget movie with Zhao Wei in the female lead opposite Tom Hardy?

An unlikely example perhaps, but that’s the kind of crossover of talent which would massively benefit audiences (and the industry in general). Along with more bloggers talking about diversity issues, the extraordinary talent coming out of the New York Film Academy (NYFA) and its counterpart institutions overseas should be able to turn things round for the global good.

We shouldn’t live in a world where the majority of Western theater-goers struggle to name ten famous Asian actors.

Indeed, Hollywood can’t afford it.

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