Spotlight on Chinese actors in Hollywood films

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Fan Bingbing had only one line in X-Men: Days of Future Past.

It was yet another example of a new Hollywood ritual—finding Chinese actors to cast in U.S. films to try to appeal to audiences in China, which is on track to become the world’s largest box office in the next couple of years.

The tactic has yielded mixed results.

Chinese audiences cheer homegrown actors who secure meaningful roles in Hollywood blockbusters, such as Shanghai-born actress and pop singer Angelababy did when she played a fighter pilot in “Independence Day: Resurgence” this summer. But quick cameos that come across as a ploy to win Chinese fans tend to fall flat.

When Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing starred in 2014’s “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” she had one line: “Time’s up.” Beijing Daily, a state-run local newspaper, said in a 2014 article that her earlier cameo in the Chinese version of “Iron Man 3” was “quite embarrassing.” Though her part in “X-Men” was more significant, it still “triggered controversy after it is released here.”

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“X-Men” studio Twentieth Century Fox declined to comment.

Chinese moviegoers even have a term to describe actresses who serve as little more than props in Western films: “flower vases.”

“That’s where people have struggled a bit—not acting like the person is product placement, like the way you would find a beer can in a movie,” said Rob Moore, vice chairman at Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures. China is the world’s second-largest movie market, with $5 billion worth of tickets sold so far this year, according to EntGroup Inc., compared with $8.1 billion in the U.S. After years of strong growth, ticket sales in China have stalled this year, though it is still expected to overtake the U.S. in the next few years.

So far this year, nearly 57% of China’s total box-office receipts were from Chinese films. But ticket sales for the first half of 2016 show a trend that has Hollywood worried: Imported movies accounted for 46.9% of ticket sales for those six months, compared with last year’s 53.5%. More Chinese movies are driving Chinese consumers to the multiplex, ratcheting up the need for Hollywood to find new ways to get them into seats.

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Tina Yu, a Beijing-based consultant, said she wouldn’t watch a film just because it featured a Chinese actor. “Most of these Chinese stars, especially actresses, simply feature in a film as a ‘flower vase’ or just as a bystander,” she said. “For me, I watch a film for its story.”

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