Filmart: Chinese Actors Say Farewell to Hollywood

Patrick Brzeski

For Chinese actors, crossing over into Hollywood isn't what it used to be.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Hong Kong's A-list talent weren't considered true superstars until they had made their mark in Hollywood. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, John Woo, Stephen Chow and others strove to transport their careers to the larger industry pond of Southern California - and often succeeded. But the growth of the Chinese industry has brought an ironic twist: U.S. studios are more interested in the Middle Kingdom's leading lights than ever before, but today's top Chinese actors aren't necessarily rushing to return the call.

Veteran Chinese casting director PoPing AuYeung (The Forbidden Kingdom, The Karate Kid) brought actor-director Jiang Wen the role of Baze Malbus for Disney's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. "He turned me down so many times," she says. "He assumed the role would be small and he just wasn't interested. I told the director [Gareth Edwards] that it was very unlikely that we'd get him." In the end, it was Jiang's son, an avid Star Wars fan, who convinced his dad to take the part.

The reasons behind Chinese stars' reluctance are many and reasonable.

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While "making it in Hollywood" used to mean a bigger payday and validation on the world stage, these days many Chinese stars are better taken care of back home. The growth of the Chinese entertainment market - where the box office has tripled in size over the past five years (from $2.07 billion in 2011 to $6.78 billion in 2016) - has led to an explosion of opportunity and a dearth of pedigreed talent to meet the new demand. With the industry short on both established A-list actors and experienced producers capable of packaging projects for new names, a feeding frenzy-like atmosphere has emerged around proven stars, as China's legions of neophyte film bosses look to lock down names that will give their investors confidence.

And for A-list actors themselves: unprecedented boom times. Last August, China Central Television reported that "China's most high-profile actors and actresses are vastly overpaid, receiving up to 100 million yuan ($15 million) for a single movie or TV series" - a number not wildly high for Hollywood, but massive in a Chinese industry where the usual budget of a major local film is still around $30 million.

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Shortly after the CCTV segment, state news outlet Xinhua reported that the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television had "pledged to direct actors' guilds and film and television production companies to formulate self-discipline on the appropriate remuneration of actors and actresses." But producers say little has changed, and market forces still reign.

"The competition for top stars is very tough," says Jerry Ye, CEO of leading local studio Huayi Brothers. "Once you do make a decision to hire a big name, you probably still need to wait at least six months to one year for them to be available. Most of the A-list is already booked through the full year."

During the European Film Market at the Berlinale in February, Ye and AuYeung spoke at a panel focused on the challenges of casting films in China today. The panel discussion was organized by Bridging the Dragon, an association connecting European and Chinese film professionals.

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Against this lucrative local backdrop, Chinese actors' Hollywood offers usually involve both a steep downgrade in pay and large opportunity costs. "If we go with a Western film, it normally requires much more time than a Chinese production [which are made much faster]," explains Jessica Chen, founder of leading Chinese talent agency Easy Entertainment, which manages Lu Han, perhaps China's most in-demand pop star-turned-actor (Time Raiders, The Great Wall and the official Chinese marketing ambassador for Star Wars: The Force Awakens).

"And in China, you can do many things at the same time - movies, commercials and a TV show," Chen adds. "If we go overseas, we must give up these other jobs, too."

Chen says all of her talent crave quality roles, and most are willing to forgo a quick payday for a great project, but Hollywood's offers have usually been creatively lacking, too. Over recent years, numerous Hollywood tentpoles have cast A-list Chinese stars in minor parts, hoping for a marketing bump in the growing mainland market. The results have usually backfired, with fans blasting the castings on social media as condescending pandering (see the response to Chinese actor Wang Xueqi's fleeting appearance in Iron Man 3 or Fan Bingbing's small role in X-Men). The actors themselves have even been subjected to some online ridicule, presenting the real risk that their "Hollywood breakthrough" is doing more harm than good in the market that actually matters to them.

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Jiang Wen and fellow Chinese star Donnie Yen's performances in Rogue One were broadly perceived as a breakthrough. Not only did the actors escape the usual scorn at home, many international critics praised their onscreen chemistry as one of the film's best qualities. But such roles remain scarce and the pay grade often insultingly low, AuYeung and Chen say.

"I keep telling American producers, you need better, more meaningful roles," says AuYeung. "In the old days, it didn't matter so much, but it's changing really quickly - the first thing any actor asks is whether it's really meaningful."

"And if you want a Chinese star just for marketing a commercial film in China," adds Chen, "please be prepared to pay for it."  

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