If you're not Chinese or co-financing franchises -- you probably haven't yet heard of the world's next big female global mega movie star, Li Bingbing. In the world's second biggest movie market, she is Angelina Jolie (sans Brad Pitt), and that market, China, is going to become the biggest audience in the world -- surpassing North America -- by 2020. You may have seen her in her first studio role when she was cast in Milla Jovovich's franchise, Resident Evil: Retribution, where it was expected that Milla, who is a huge Russian star, would again kick butt in the third biggest market, so that franchise had 2&3 cleverly covered. Now that Paramount is co-financing the fourth installment of its franchise with China, don't expect to see Gwyneth Paltrow. Li Bingbing is co-starring with Mark Wahlberg in Transformers 4. This is simply the most interesting piece of casting to happen in the last 10 years.
Some of the implications of this new world of casting are weird, some are potentially wonderful. For one thing, we won't be seeing many Russian or Chinese bad guys in the next decade, so viva la North Koreans and rogue terrorists. And Li Bingbing and her contemporary's have a global career trajectory that no other Asian actors -- besides a few martial arts star-sidekicks like Jackie Chan -- ever could have dreamed of.
We have always welcomed Australians, Brits, and French into our cloistered casting universe. That was about chops and talent and Mel Gibson being really handsome during the Mad Max era, and Marion Cotillard being very beautiful, and the Brits just being better actors. But now because of the truly global nature of our business, and the economics of the business changing so dramatically in the wake of the DVD collapse, the survival of our profit margin is dependent on international markets, and driving 1.2 billion newly minted capitalists into their brand new theaters. Since the beginning of the movie business, we exported our movies stars, and we still do. But now, the Chinese want to see their own movie stars in our big pictures. So we will have truly global stars, originating elsewhere. This is a new paradigm.
With the quota of foreign movies raised recently from 20 foreign movies to 34 (and those additional ones have to be in IMAX or 3D) -- the studios are going to make what these theaters will play: the movies that fit those parameters, i.e. special effects driven blockbusters. Even though the studios only make 17 percent of their profits, and are subject to censorship, special cuts, blackout periods during the precious summer, and cases of their most commercial product competing against each other on the same day, it's still such a vast population,and that it is the primary force driving what is getting green lit now.
So how do the studios penetrate what is going to be for a very long time the most profitable market in the world, without being subject to caps on their profits, bad release dates, arbitrary black-outs and the like? They need to negotiate with this country on some kind of more equal footing than "Master, May I" as it has the potential to help erase the disaster caused by the end of the DVD profits that had fueled the industry during its glory days. So how do they do that?
Li Bingbing! They are becoming "partners" as opposed to exporters. The race to initiate Chinese-American co-productions has begun in a fire hose of intensity. When a studio like Paramount co-finances Transformers with China, It is not subject to the quota, nor to the arbitrary whims of release. Last year, China released The Amazing Spiderman and The Dark Knight Rises on the same weekend, which was obviously bad for both pictures. But when China is your partner, they are not inclined to give themselves a bad release date! So everyone can see Li Bingbing and Mark Wahlberg save the world from the Decepticons.
Another aperture into Li's and our mutual future comes from China's first generation of movie moguls. Newly minted Chinese Billionaires like Bruno Wu, with close to a billion dollar fund -- are deeply plugged into the opaque/baroque Chinese film bureaucracy, so they can understand the nuances and sensitivities that incite the censors that we Americans are lost trying to navigate. He is making content deals, as a studio would: with Asian American director Justin Lin of the eminently impressive Fast & Furious franchise and with former Marvel head Avi Arad. Each is a big "American" piece of talent -- except that one is Chinese American and one is Israeli. So what is American anyway? We are one gigantic melting pot of international talent, creating global content. This is a new template for a global development sensibility.
Meanwhile Li Bingbing, and her compatriot Fan Bingbing, who had smaller parts in Iron Man 3 and is in the new X-Men, are our new Angelina and Jen Aniston. Let's see which one gets the Brad.
One hopes it can bring more than fresh new pages to our tabloids, huge profits to the already rich few, but something bigger than that. A famous economist once said, converging technologies create converging ideologies. Perhaps converging movie stars creates the converging compatibility.