China is creating its own sci-fi franchise to rival “Transformers” and “The Hunger Games”

Grab your popcorn.
Grab your popcorn.
Image: Reuters/William Hong
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Hollywood remains the global mecca for big-budget sci-fi movies, producing global multi-part powerhouses such as The Hunger Games and Iron Man. As Chinese financing flows into Hollywood movies, China’s own fast-growing film industry wants to try its hand at building a sci-fi franchise of its own.

Chinese film studios have wrapped up production of The Three-Body Problem, an adaptation of a popular sci-fi novel about an alien invasion that takes place during the Cultural Revolution. The three-part series that it’s the first part of has sold more than a million copies in China—unusually high popularity for the genre in China. In November 2014, the first book was translated into English and published in the United States by Tor Books.

The film will be the first of a five-part series co-produced by Alibaba Pictures and Yoozoo pictures, both relatively new players in China’s film industry. Each feature is reported to have a budget of 200 million yuan (about US$32 million), and the first feature is to hit theaters in July 2016.

China’s consumers have an appetite for foreign and domestic films alike. Six out of the ten highest-grossing films in China were from Hollywood, while the remainder were produced at home.

What China’s film industry lacks is a very specific type of franchise—series that have a large narrative universe, and that rely heavily on special effects. Hollywood studios love these franchises because audiences prefer to see them in the theater rather than at home (which helps curb piracy), and they also come packed with intellectual property that’s easy to license outThe Three-Body Problem marks an early Chinese attempt to follow this model.

China’s domestic film industry remains an important part of the nation’s entertainment industry as a whole. Box office receipts hit $4.82 billion in 2014, and that figure will likely exceed the US by 2017. And with a quota of only 34 foreign films that can show in theaters each year (expected to increase by 10 movies in 2017 for art-house and Oscar-winners), Chinese movies have some advantage.

Moreover, the industry has plenty of room to grow—America has 20 movie screens per resident, while China has less than five.

The Chinese government also sees film production as a key part of its bid to improve its image abroad. It is spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to fund film production, and even offers tax breaks for malls that build movie theaters on their premises. Producing high-quality movies is seen as a way to enforce a sense of cultural pride, both at home and in other countries.

Of course, there’s a bit of a catch creatively. Xi Jinping and SAPRFT, which oversees China’s entertainment industry, provide financial incentives and lip service to the film industry. But the government expects studios to produce films that play up Chinese culture in a way that fits the reigning political narrative. Judging by comments from director Zhang Panpan, the The Three-Body Problem will likely contain a whiff of the party line on Chinese politics and history.

“I wish to present the book’s Chinese characteristics, especially our unique world views and life philosophies inherited from thousands of years of history,” the filmmaker told Xinhua.

While The Three-Body Problem might please industry bigwigs and Chinese audiences, not everyone is so excited. After pictures of the shoot hit domestic Chinese media, fans of the book expressed distress at how corny the sets looked. Some expressed skepticism that China’s film industry could pull off a straight-faced sci-fi epic with the same skill as Hollywood.

“If the alien species looks like a cosplay version of Lilo and Stitch, I’m gonna go sue Disney,” wrote one commenter on social media.