strategy and business

The dawn of the Chinese blockbuster

In the fall of 2004, I was invited to speak about writing James Bond movies and video games at the Golden Eagle Film and TV Arts Festival in Changsha, China. Odds are you’ve never heard of the city, or the festival — just as I hadn’t, before I agreed to go. But like most things in China outside Beijing and Shanghai, the size and the wealth of Changsha, and the importance of the Golden Eagle festival, took me by surprise. Located 1,500 miles south of Beijing, Changsha was a thoroughly modern metropolis, with a population roughly the size of Houston’s, where high-end European luxury cars were not uncommon on the streets, and old industrial lofts had been turned into chic little restaurants where waiters in black Armani T-shirts served US$100 bowls of shark-fin soup. And the festival itself, an annual conference of media executives and content creators from all over China, took place in an ultramodern convention center and television broadcast facility, ringed by a condominium complex and an amusement park that would have felt right at home in Los Angeles. The keynote speaker was Viacom chair Sumner Redstone.

The night before my talk, I went to the TV broadcast of the festival’s Golden Eagle Awards ceremony, which is sort of like the American People’s Choice awards, in that the winners are chosen by popular vote across China. The TV audience that night, I’d later learn, was 304 million. I didn’t understand a word of the show. But as I sat there, watching the musical acts perform on a stage filled with lasers and pyrotechnics, I was struck by what I interpreted as a Western influence on Chinese pop culture. There was the Chinese Bruce Springsteen, a working man in construction boots and a leather vest; the Chinese Tom Jones, an aging Lothario with his shirt unbuttoned to his waist; the Chinese Spice Girls; the Chinese boy band; and the Chinese Alanis Morissette, singing of heartbreak and revenge.

It would be five years before I realized that I was wrong in my interpretation. But on that night, thinking about how much culture we shared, I decided to begin my talk the next day with a joke.

“Allow me to say that I am both ‘shaken and stirred’ by the warmth of your greeting,” I said, to a hotel ballroom filled with filmmakers and media executives. “Changsha is such a beautiful city that I hope I can come back here one day with 007, and blow half of it up. And I mean that as a great compliment.” For a moment, the response to this was dead silence. Then, as the translation sank in, a wave of laughter rolled through the audience. Clearly, I was among friends — media colleagues — who all shared the same apocalyptic sense of humor, the world over.

Following this, I showed the opening sequence from a James Bond video game I’d written. It was filled with exactly the same kind of epic stunts and incredible action pieces you’d see at the beginning of a Bond film. I explained that the

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