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Hefty China presence in latest 'Transformers' film is part of delicate Hollywood balancing act

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BEIJING, China - Dazzling special effects, Optimus Prime ... and Beijing. The latest "Transformers" movie has all three, mixing Texas-based action with scenes in China's capital and a heavy dose of Hong Kong in an attempt to straddle the world's two biggest movie-going audiences.

The fourth installment of the Michael Bay-directed franchise has gone all-out to woo China's audience with Chinese locations, talent and even a reality TV show. "Transformers: Age of Extinction" illustrates the delicate balancing game of Hollywood studios trying to work out what the Chinese market wants while simultaneously catering to Americans.

If such films aren't handled properly, they risk alienating both audiences, said Michael Keane, an expert on China's creative industries at the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia. In China, the core movie-going group of 19-to-25-year-olds already like Western films, he said.

"They would like 'Transformers,' and as soon as you start stuffing in Chinese elements, they can see through it, and you may shoot yourself in the foot by doing it," Keane said.

Western studios are adding Chinese elements to increase their appeal in China, where films earned $3.6 billion in ticket sales last year. "Skyfall" was partly set in Shanghai and Macau. Chinese actress Fan Bingbing played one of the mutant superheroes in "X-Men: Day of Future Past," which has earned $114 million in China — almost a quarter of the movie's total international box office.

But the sprinkling of Chinese elements in "Transformers: Age of Extinction," opening in China and North America on Friday, has gone further than many recent Hollywood movies.

More than half an hour of its action takes place in Hong Kong and the crew filmed in three other Chinese cities. Chinese star Li Bingbing has a fairly major role and boy band singer-turned-actor Han Geng has a one-liner. A reality TV show was held a year before the movie's debut to choose four people to play roles.

In one scene a billboard stretches across most of the screen, advertising a Chinese liquor. In another product placement, Stanley Tucci's character takes a break on a roof and drinks from a carton of Chinese milk.

Online film critic Zheng Kunjie said the number of Chinese elements in the film was "unprecedented" in a Hollywood import. The familiar scenes and brands make the "Transformers" movie more realistic to a Chinese audience than one that employs a Western stereotype of "a classically beautiful China" like in "Skyfall," she said. While these will make Chinese moviegoers amused and interested in the film, the Chinese elements don't affect the development of the story, she said.

Florian Fettweis of Beijing-based media consultancy CMM-I said too many Chinese elements could dilute the appeal to U.S. movie-goers.

Western movies that have contained a more China-specific narrative have tended to fare badly at the box office, such as last year's directorial debut by Keanu Reeves, "Man of Tai Chi," set in Beijing and centring around Chinese martial arts.

Unlike the latest "Transformers" movie, "Man of Tai Chi" had official co-production status in China. To be classed as such by Chinese authorities, at least a third of their main creative talent must be Chinese, 30 per cent of its film budget must come from China, some production must take place in China and the film must include a certain amount of undefined Chinese elements.

Officially designated co-productions benefit both sides. For Hollywood, they earn an automatic exemption from China's quota on foreign movies and allow a larger share of the country's box office. China's filmmaking industry, meanwhile, is keen to acquire more skills and technological know-how.

Last year, there were 49 official co-productions in China, the majority of which were with Hong Kong and Taiwanese companies, according to leading entertainment consultancy EntGroup. China counts productions in the self-governing island of Taiwan as being Chinese.

There were three China-U.S. co-productions, including "Cloud Atlas."

A flurry of recent co-operation agreements between Hollywood studios and Chinese players suggests more co-productions are on the way.

In April, Paramount and state-owned China Film Group signed a deal to co-produce fantasy-action movie "Marco Polo" based on the 14th century European explorer who travelled to China. He is a positive figure in Chinese history and workable fodder for a Chinese-inspired script.

He Xuefeng, a Film Bureau official, said it was too early to say whether "Marco Polo" would be given co-production status.

On Monday, Chinese private investor Fosun International Ltd. announced that it would invest in Studio 8 — a company founded by former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov. Also this month, Hollywood film financier and Chinese producer Relativity Media and Jiangsu Broadcasting Corp. announced an agreement to co-produce, co-finance and distribute film and television content for both the international and Chinese markets.

"Transformers: Age of Extinction" is not an official co-production, but Hollywood-based Paramount worked with China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises to make the film. Paramount is not thought to have applied for the official co-production status, although it did not respond to requests for comment, and was likely assured of being chosen among this year's quota of imports because of its blockbuster brand and Chinese elements.

Hollywood coming to China isn't "necessarily a good thing for creative freedom" because screenwriters will avoid topics sensitive to Beijing such as the Dalai Lama or the Falun Gong spiritual group, said Keane, the expert at Queensland University of Technology.

"It's going to mean a kind of dumbing down in terms of people will self-censor," Keane said. "They're going to make stories that are neutral or even positive towards China in order to get into the marketplace."

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