Aynne Kokas Talks China’s Hollywood Connection at Paulson Institute

The Paulson Institute welcomed Sino-US media expert Aynne Kokas for a talk on film and media collaboration between Hollywood and China as part of the Institute’s Contemporary China Speaker Series at the University of Chicago. Currently an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Virginia and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Kokas’ research examines Sino-US media and technology relations. Her book, Hollywood Made in China (University of California Press, 2017), argues that Chinese investment and regulations have transformed the US commercial media industry.

Kokas began her talk by addressing the role foreign film markets play in the Chinese entertainment industry, as well as China’s complex system of film and media regulation. In order to retain its position as a global film market, Kokas explained, Hollywood has to work effectively within the Chinese market, facing regulatory concerns to gain market access, representational issues such as stars, characters and films’ narratives, and funding issues. However, in spite of these regulatory hurdles, she said, Hollywood needs the Chinese market. The amount of revenue that studio films can generate from the Chinese market is substantial and growing, and “the Hollywood dream factory is supporting the growth of the Chinese dream and the Chinese film industry.”

Kokas went on to address the process of Sino-foreign co-production, which involves a contractual arrangement between a foreign party and a Chinese party to conduct filming that must be overseen and accredited be the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (SAPPRFT) at each stage of the production process. Frequently, however, films will lose their official co-production approval for a variety of financial and political reasons, giving way to a process Kokas calls “faux-production,” by which later iterations of these films are ultimately distributed in the Chinese market due to production relationships between regulators and film-makers. Furthermore, studios aim to build long-term capital investments through “brandscapes,” or corporate value systems materialized into physical spaces, as alternative market-entry strategies. For example, around 2005, Disney’s English school program took advantage of China’s education policy by teaching English using Disney corporate intellectual property to avoid China’s highly regulated television industry.

Kokas noted that as corporate decision-making is becoming more entwined, Chinese overseas direct investment in entertainment is facing increasing resistance from both American and Chinese policymakers. From the US perspective, entertainment has become a strategic industry, with the national security implications of Chinese acquisitions of US properties now commonly under the review of government institutions including the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). From the Chinese perspective, however, entertainment and cultural security have long been issues entwined with national security, and in recent years, foreign investment in the Chinese market has become increasingly constrained.

Kokas concluded her talk with several takeaways on the current state of Sino-US media collaboration. While there is a US-China Film Agreement currently under negotiation, political sentiments show increasing antipathy towards Chinese investment in Hollywood, as well as increasing Chinese government frustration with overseas direct investment, and increasing limitations on online publishing and storage in China. Given the financial success of foreign films in China, however, Kokas notes that while it remains difficult for Hollywood studios to work within the Chinese market from a regulatory perspective, “from a financial standpoint, there’s much more incentive.”