Can a Christian Film Play in China?

Last fall, filmmaker Jon Erwin (October Baby, Mom’s Night Out, Woodlawn) issued a video challenge to the church to embrace filmmaking as the new Roman Road – a new way to reach the world with the Gospel. The video was well-made, and hit on many important issues for Christians to consider as we move ahead with our attempts to impact culture with our cinematic art. You can watch the video below, and pay attention to Erwin’s arguments at 1:54.

 

One of the questions this video raises, “Can a Christian film play in China?” grabbed me for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve lived in China for the past four years, and while here I’ve enjoyed several Hollywood blockbusters on the big screen. Second, I’ve learned about the incredibly stringent guidelines that China places on the western films it allows to be shown in domestic cinemas.

Bottom line? A Christian blockbuster, as Erwin proposes, would have an incredibly difficult time showing up on a Chinese screen for a multitude of reasons. And considering that China is set to be the biggest film market by 2020, this is something that Christian filmmakers need to be considering as we become more and more serious about the films we are producing.

Which brings me to the point of this blog post. Considering China’s enormous untapped film market, and considering that Christians typically want their films to be a positive force in the world for the sake of the Gospel, what can filmmakers of faith do to try and ensure that their film stands at least a chance, however small, of being seen on Chinese screens?

I have three ideas, and unfortunately, none of them are easy.

1. We need to create true blockbusters.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Transformers 4: The number two highest grossing foreign film in China history.

Here’s where Erwin and I agree. Christian filmmakers, producers, investors, all need to be purposeful about creating real, true blockbusters, and this is not an enterprise to enter lightly. China typically only accepts blockbusters in the list of 34 foreign films that they permit to be shown each year, and the foreign movies that have done well in China share the following qualities of a blockbuster: they are four-quadrant, they have lots of big action set pieces (films aren’t typically dubbed into Mandarin, so the action has to keep the audience’s attention), they star big name actors and/or directors, they are parts of successful franchises, they have eye-popping SFX, and…

well… muscle cars and giant fighting robots are always a plus.

The typical small Christian-made dramas will not make a dent in things in China when produced as foreign-made films. In fact, they would never get chosen.

And so, we do need to attempt our own blockbusters, if we want our films to play onscreen in China.

Of course, the argument could be made that attempting a Christian-made blockbuster could very easily lead to our own Christian version of Battlefield Earth (one of the most horrid films ever made, in John Travolta’s attempt to make a Scientology blockbuster), but if done well, it could be also be pretty amazing.

If done well.

2) We Need To Take the “Christian” out of “Christian Blockbuster”.

Yeah, I know. This would be a deal-breaker to many Christian investors. I can hear the rich Christian businessman now: “What’s the use in dropping millions into a picture that won’t have a Gospel message?”

1-20My response to that question would be simple: Romans 1:20.

God reveals Himself in the artistry of creation. Why can’t we attempt to reveal Him in the artistry of our creation, too? There may be a time for being obvious, but as Jesus proved in his parables, there is also a time for just telling good stories and trusting God to do the rest, to make the audience work for their dinner – as Andrew Stanton said about storytelling.

For a film made by Christians to be big in China, the message would need to be shifted from preachy to artistry, or it would it would never be accepted. Christian filmmakers need to become more skilled in the use of imagery to convey our messages: metaphor, imagination, beauty, awe, wonder… these are aspects of artistry that are consistently missing from our films. Learning how to use these tools could not only make the films agreeable to the censors in China, but possibly to the unchurched in America as well.

Can you imagine a non-didactic film made by Christians that people around the world wanted to see because of the excellent storytelling and artistry? In fact, I posit that if we were to do this well, trying to make a film that would play in China could actually help save Christian filmmaking from itself.

[Just a note: Noah and Exodus, two very mainstream Hollywood Bible epics, weren’t accepted as one of the 34 foreign films allowed in China during the year they were produced. And these were big movies with big names made by big studios. But they didn’t stand a chance. Why? Because they were too biblical.]

3) We Need To Find Partners

Having said there is no place for the small dramas, another way to get the opportunity to tell our stories in China is by partnering in co-productions with Chinese companies. Any film producer who is truly interested in learning how to take advantage of the growing Chinese market should be in Hong Kong and/or the Mainland forging alliances and friendships with filmmakers, producers, and investors. The good thing about these sorts of films is that they can be smaller, which might help take care of the problem that making blockbusters is the only solution. Such films might not get the same financial returns, but they stand a better chance of actually being made, and would have the added benefit of getting the filmmaker’s feet in the door.

Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 3.59.51 PM

British actor Joseph Fiennes (R) and Chinese actor Dou Xiao attend the press conference of the movie “The Last Race” in Tianjin, north China, June 24, 2015.

A perfect example of this can be seen in an upcoming film, The Last Race, an unofficial sequel to the Academy Award winning film, Chariots of Fire. The film, which is due to be released this year, tells the true story of Eric Liddell (played by Joseph Fiennes of the upcoming Risen), the Olympic runner who went to China as a missionary after the 1924 Olympics and who died in a Japanese internment camp in 1945.

The Last Race was written and directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Stephen Shin, produced by Canadian Michael Parker, and distributed by Hong Kong powerhouse Alibaba Pictures Group (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation). It’s hard to say how much the film will bring out Liddell’s faith story, but it seems to be a step in the right direction.
So, what do you say, Christians filmmakers, producers, writers, investors? Are you serious about making films that can have a worldwide impact or are you just satisfied to see your name on a marquee at the local cineplex after your church rented the space for the night?
Screen Shot 2016-01-02 at 4.15.35 PMAre you willing to undertake the hard work, step out of your area of comfort, and for many of you – risk everything to try? Yes, you may fail. Unless your name is Spielberg or Cruise, you probably will fail. After all, as Erwin says in the video quoting an unnamed filmmaker, “If we knew how to make hit films that’s all we’d make,” and so even making the attempt is a gamble of epic proportions.
But this sounds like what filmmakers all around the world do every day.
So why not go for it?
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8 thoughts on “Can a Christian Film Play in China?

  1. Another great post with solid insight! Got an extra bed for a rising producer with a dream create the kind of films you’ve discussed here who also needs to connect with local investors, filmmakers and studios? There needs to be a gathering of Christians from both countries who are looking to work together to make this happen!

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  3. I’m a Christian filmmaker, and I would agree that most Christian films made today aren’t made very well and the message always supersedes the production quality. That’s as far as we agree, a lot of the rest of this article was garbage. You’re basically saying that we need to take Christ out of the films, in fact you’re not basically saying that, you’re literally saying that, in those exact words. Good thinking! – Just remove the only reason a Christian would make the film in the first place, and add all of the elements we see in other successful blockbusters, and bingo! If you want to make a wordly movie, just go make one of those!

    A true challenging article would have been to pose this: How can we KEEP the gospel in the film and still make it great? Notice I didn’t say “blockbuster”, because he who has many friends comes to ruin, and friendship with the world is enmity with God. Those passages remind us that the world will NEVER love us, or accept us.

    If you’ve got a rebuttal, please use scripture instead of your own vein philosophies. Am I being rude? No, I just have little tolerance for when people speak for Christianity without knowing what they’re talking about.

    • I think you misunderstood the point of the article. I was addressing what a Christian filmmaker needs to do to have his or her film play in China, which is soon to be the largest film audience in the world. The fact of the matter is that an overtly Christian film will not be able to play in China because of the standards set by the Chinese government. This is a fact.

      This means that Christian filmmakers are not reaching the Chinese market, and they won’t, unless they think in a more strategic way to make their films.

      No “vein philosophies” here. Just statements of fact.

      John 8:32.

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  5. Thanks for sharing Jon Erwin’s message, but your suggestion of filmmakers reaching out to the Chinese production partner for Christian films is misguided. Can you share your research on this topic? How did you come to this conclusion outside of the general fact that Chinese cinema is booming? The content that thrives in and out of that country, and the countries faith, and the climate of religion in the country is key, and our genre films do not play well there, we rarely have a film that penetrates their box office, and is many regions of China they persecute Christians. This article is unfortunately very flawed and is not coming from a place of research or understanding of the global film market. As a faith-based filmmaker, I urge you to research and study when talking the business of film, so you don’t steer anyone in the wrong way.

    • Can you be more clear on how it’s flawed or misguided? It’s based on living in China for the past four years, and being very aware of what’s going on here with regards to movies that get picked to be shown and movies that don’t stand a chance. I’ve watched many big Hollywood players setting up partnerships with Chinese production companies to do exactly what my article talks about doing (The Russos, Mel Gibson, Spielberg, and many, many others), and I even gave an example of one with the only “faith-based” film that has played here. Not sure what was wrong or misguided in that bit of advice.

      Regarding sources, there are several great articles on http://www.chinalawblog.com/ that I’ve read over the years that speak to this very issue, which inspired the arguments made in the post.

      I may not be an expert in the global film market, but I think I have a basic understanding of what the market is doing right now with regards to China. Again, please explain how the article is flawed or misguided – with sources, please – and I’ll gladly do some revision.

      Cheers,
      Nate

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