What do cultural diplomacy and Kung Fu Panda 3 have in common? It’s not a set-up to a bad joke: it’s a lesson that public diplomacy should take note of in the blockbuster series about a bumbling panda in China learning to become a martial arts master.
In recent years, Hollywood has made successful but obvious moves to appeal to Chinese audiences, such as setting the movie in China or Hong Kong, using massive Chinese branding, and casting recognizable Chinese actors in roles. Furious 7 and Transformers: Age of Extinction followed this model. But at the end of the day, Americans were still the ones telling the story with no Chinese input.
Kung Fu Panda 3 is a radical change from that model. The story has always had obvious Chinese elements, but this time around, DreamWorks Studios used their new Chinese production company, Oriental DreamWorks, to collaborate on producing two separate versions of the movie: one in English, and one entirely in Mandarin.
With over 200 employees working from Shanghai, the Chinese version of the movie is a completely new redesign. The script was rewritten in Mandarin, the characters’ lips were painstakingly reanimated to match the new dialogue, their movements and reactions were recreated in culturally appropriate ways, and notable Chinese actors were casted to re-voice the main characters. Jackie Chan, for example, took over from Jack Black as the panda main character.
This kind of collaboration has never been seen in any type of American movie before. By trying to more personally appeal to Chinese audiences to make a bigger profit, the movie has also shown how genuine collaboration, even under the government’s strict censorship rules, shines through. The state-controlled media has even strongly praised the film for its comprehensive use of Chinese literature and cultural references.
The collaboration also paid off at the box office. Kung Fu Panda 3 made $51.3 million in its opening weekend in China, the largest ever for an animated movie there. It’s also grossed over $142 million in the three weeks since its release in Chinese theaters, more than what the most recent Mission Impossible movie made last year. In other words: the Chinese public is responding as positively as a movie executive could hope for.
As China is set to become the world’s largest movie market within two years, soon enough, the U.S. will not always be dictating what the world sees in movies. In one scenario, this situation can lead to many high-octane, predictable action movies that everyone everywhere can enjoy. With inspiration from Kung Fu Panda, more original and creative films can filter through.
Not every film is going to be able to collaborate on the same level as the panda franchise, but creating better networks of creative partnerships could be the difference between a flop and a blockbuster.
It’s more important than ever to make sure audiences connect to the movies they’re watching as global movie theater attendance is at its lowest levels in almost 20 years. In a country like China where censors dominate what is shown and when people see it, cultural diplomacy through collaboration could offer a saving grace to the industry.