Who's betting big on China's growing box office

Hollywood sign
Axella/Bauer-Griffin | GC Images | Getty Images

China and Hollywood have been frenemies for years. The industry pre-sells movies in foreign markets, including Asia, to help bankroll domestic production. A Chinese investor might also foot a chunk of the budget in exchange for Chinese product placements in story lines. There are exhaustive blog posts devoted to dissecting the incongruous placement of Chinese goods in American films. For example, why does actor Jack Reynor drink a Chinese Red Bull in Texas in the latest "Transformers" installment?

"Is it even available there?" one writer asks.

But the courtship between wealthy Chinese investors and the American film industry is only intensifying.

More Chinese money is flowing into American entertainment. Chinese investment in U.S. entertainment, including film, has grown to around $2.7 billion from 2000 to the second quarter of this year, according to the Rhodium Group, which tracks Chinese direct investment in the U.S. And in the third quarter, there's already been a pickup in Chinese film and media companies opening U.S. shops.

Read MoreWhy Chinese money is flooding American markets

The populous nation's middle class—with many experiencing movie theaters for the first time—is fueling China's appetite for Hollywood fare. By 2022, McKinsey forecasts more than 75 percent of China's urban households will join the middle class, compared to just 4 percent in 2000.

While the threat of pirated content and proliferation of media consumption on mobile devices looms large, there's a desire among Chinese consumers to sit in movie theaters and enjoy middle-class trappings.

Many Chinese elements were used in Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which became the top-grossing movie of all time in China.
Source: Transformers: Age of Extinction
Many Chinese elements were used in Paramount's "Transformers: Age of Extinction," which became the top-grossing movie of all time in China.

China's box-office receipts in 2013 grew 27 percent year-over-year to $3.6 billion, or roughly 10 percent of total global sales, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. While the U.S. and Canada pocketed 30.4 percent of the global box office—a modest 1 percent annual gain—China is just getting started.

Spending at Chinese box offices is likely to surge 88.5 percent, to $5.9 billion by 2018 from $3.13 billion in 2013, according to PwC's global entertainment and media outlook report.

"It's a huge, relatively untapped market," said Christopher Spicer, a Chinese film industry expert. "There's an upper-middle-class population that hasn't had a lot of movie screens," said Spicer, also a visiting assistant professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Looking ahead, the question won't be just about how much Western media China will consume or how many Chinese products can be stuffed in a two-hour film. The larger issue is whether more Chinese investors will cross the transom and become producers and content creators who drive major production and distribution decisions in Hollywood. Already pieces of such a new Hollywood machine—funded by Chinese money—is emerging.

And not all of China's wealthy are dabbling in film as a short-term place to park cash beyond luxury real estate or cases of Bordeaux.

Read MoreHow China is transforming the Bordeaux market

More wealthy investors have long-term entertainment ambitions, with hundreds of millions to spend. "The money we're seeing coming from China in U.S. entertainment, they're pursuing it like a business," said Tom Nunan, founder of Bull's Eye Entertainment, an independent film and TV production company.

Chasing China's box office

More deals between China and Hollywood have been inked in recent years. In 2012, China's Dalian Wanda Group and AMC Entertainment announced a $2.6 billion deal to take over the U.S. theater group.

China, in fact, is enamored with movie theaters.

To better grasp how China's sheer size is altering the global entertainment landscape, consider that China has more than 400 cities with populations of 100,000 or more. More of the nation's newly minted middle class in these so-called second-tier cities are enjoying the box-office experience. China has about 15,000 screens—a small number for a nation of 1.3 billion, according to PwC's media report. That's compared to roughly 40,000 screens in the U.S., which has a population of about 316 million.

It's that kind of potential market share that's pushing producers and filmmakers to consider altering story lines to pass China's censors. That issue remains a risk to the region's film growth, along with China's quota system, which restricts foreign movie imports.

Got a Chinese villain in your script? Why not make the bad guy ... North Korean? Cracking the Chinese film market and how to navigate censors are common questions fielded by Bull's Eye's Nunan, also a former studio film and television executive.

Only a few years ago, the U.S. entertainment industry's attitude about China was, "If we make it, you'll buy it and you'll love it," Nunan said. "There was no two-way conversation," he said. With so much money and growth at stake, conversations today are more nuanced. And Hollywood is morphing to accommodate new players with global aspirations.

New players, new studios

Former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov has launched Studio 8 with investment from a Chinese conglomerate.
Ryan Miller | Getty Images
Former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov has launched Studio 8 with investment from a Chinese conglomerate.

Some players already have made major bets on the Chinese box office, and on a new Hollywood structure that includes upstart studios. This, as U.S. box-office receipts decline and studios struggle with costs, piracy and falling DVD sales.

Former Warner Bros. executive Jeff Robinov has launched Studio 8 with a deep-pocketed partner—Fosun International, a Chinese conglomerate. Sony Pictures Entertainment will distribute the new studio's films. And while Chinese investments may look like easy money, Robinov boasts relationships with Sony, and filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Alfonso Cuaron, which in combination lifted Robinov's deal-making prospects.

In Hollywood there's also intense curiosity surrounding producer Robert Simonds and an unnamed "next generation" film studio. They're backed by TPG Growth, a middle-market and growth-equity investment platform of TPG and Hony Capital, a leading private equity firm in China. The studio expects to invest more than $1 billion in new film production during the next five years. The venture last week also named Adam Fogelson, former Universal Pictures chairman, as the new studio's motion-picture lead.

"It's like the Manhattan Project or something. We're wondering what's going on over there," said Nunan of Bull's Eye.

Also this month, Beijing-based studio Huayi Brothers Media announced plans to expand into the United States. And Japan's SoftBank—which owns more than a third of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding and is sitting on a pile of cash after the IPO—has been circling Hollywood studios, according to various media reports, including The Hollywood Reporter.

And if you don't have millions to invest or a banker on speed dial, no problem. For a small investment, consumers can pretend to be movie moguls and dabble in productions.

Baidu, China's top search engine, has set up a film funding unit for small investors to back movie productions. The platform allows investors to foot as little as 10 yuan, or under two bucks, to earn yields linked to box-office performance, according to Baidu. Investors may also pocket bonuses such as exclusive videos. It's unclear if the low entry point onto the platform is a riff on crowdfunding, which increasingly is being used as a cheap marketing tool to test and generate traction for content and products.

Read MoreHow equity crowdfunding just might upend film financing

The future

As Chinese investment in the film complex grows, the larger question is whether China can lead on content creation. "Will China ever be able to innovate and lead culturally the way the United States has?" asked Nunan of Bull's Eye.

On the flip side, Chinese audiences enjoy plenty of Western content, including TV shows. One of the most popular American TV shows in China is "The Big Bang Theory" with its scientist characters, said Duncan Cork, head of product for start-up NeonGrid, which wants to become the IMDb/LinkedIn for creative content, including online video—its bite into the global, dizzying array of digital offerings and emerging distribution channels. Now a free service, NeonGrid plans to roll out premium features.

Ultimately, China as global storytellers and cultural arbiters may come down to a broad cultural shift that values writers, art directors and designers—along with lawyers, engineers and doctors, Cork said.

For now, the high-profile partnership between China and Hollywood is only growing. "China is getting involved in our movie finance and distribution structure in the U.S.," said Nunan. "We're trying to figure out how to enter China with our content on our own and take advantage of their giant population."

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.

CNBC's Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.