Hollywood and the Rise of China


Hollywood and the Rise of China


As America’s appetite for brainless spectacle diminishes, China proves more than ready to pick up the slack.  


Unless you spent the last year under a rock, you’re aware that sequels, prequels and reboots have become practically endemic at the box office. Studio dictum goes that a film with a pre-existing audience, whether from TV show, YA novel or comic book, is more likely to make money and justify large expenditure. Countless think pieces have been written on how this edict is snuffing out original content- but this year, something changed in Hollywood. 2015 has been a historic year for box-office bombs, seeing franchise films like Fantastic Four and Terminator Genisys fare poorly in the United States. Oversaturation of the market means franchises which once guaranteed profits- so-called ‘tentpole films’- are no longer a sure thing.


Terminator Genisys

So what happens when a film meant to launch a franchise underperforms at the box-office? More and more, studios are capitalizing on international profits to justify follow-ups. Pacific Rim, despite an underwhelming performance in the United States, was still greenlit for a sequel based on strong international take. And while Terminator: Genisys flopped at the domestic box-office (it made just $89 million against a budget of $155 million), Skydance and Paramount ultimately recouped most of their losses in China.  


Increasingly often, blockbusters are finding their fates decided by Chinese moviegoers. This isn’t likely to change anytime soon- China has very recently overtaken its box office total from last year, coming in at $4.71 billion. According to projections from The Hollywood Reporter, this puts it on course to overtake the North American box office within three years. When it does so, it will become the largest film market in the world.


But this development has troubling implications. Besides being one of the first blockbusters to be saved by Chinese markets, Terminator provided the first indications of how conflicts between entertainment capitalism and China’s authoritarian regime could turn ugly. The Hundred Regiments Offensive, a propaganda film produced by Chinese state-owned companies, topped Terminator: Genisys at the Chinese box office at the last minute, taking $39.40 million compared to Terminator’s $26.67 million in the week of its release. Moviegoers and Chinese studio execs alike were quick to decry these numbers. Not only had Terminator screened in 250,435 theatres compared with Regiment’s 99,728, but Chinese moviegoers have uploaded photos of tickets for Regiments which appear to have been hand-altered to be used as Terminator tickets.


China Ticket Terminator Genisys

An extensive investigation by industry bible The Hollywood Reporter suggested that Chinese authorities may have booked out dummy shows, mandated box-office targets, and offered tax-incentives for cinemas to sell tickets for Regiments. All this may have contributed to what is conservatively projected to be an $11 million loss of box-office for Paramount, according cinema chain managers in Beijing. This has not been a good year for Paramount, with the big budget flop of Hot Tub Time Machine 2, but their hands are tied- the Communist Party only allows 34 foreign films to show each year, and pushing back would put future releases at risk. But as more and more big-budget releases target China, sooner or later, Hollywood will be forced to grapple with a foreign government co-opting their profits.


And that’s just the beginning of the changes we can expect to see as the east wind begins to blow. Whereas censorship of the American film industry has been unthinkable since the fall of the Hays Code, which dictated morality guidelines for Hollywood until the ‘70s, the Chinese government places tight restrictions on what can legally be shown in the People’s Republic. Not only do these censorship laws prohibit topics like sex, drug use and criticism of the Communist party, they also ban films which propagate negative outlooks on life or value systems. So while you won’t be seeing Requiem for a Dream in Beijing anytime soon, a brainless behemoth like Transformers 4 gets by the censors just fine.

But placating the censor alone is not enough. If Hollywood wants to make money in China, then it will have to win over Chinese moviegoers- who have begun to demonstrate an appetite for more than just America’s subtitled leftovers. Chinese culture, landmarks and stars have become more visible in American cinema as of late, never more prominently than in Michael Bay’s most recent Transformers venture. A pulpy action auteur with a history of fetishizing all things American, Bay is a surprising candidate for the first man in Hollywood to suck up to China.


But Transformers: Age of Extinction does just that. The military-industrial complex comes under the knife as the CIA works on behalf of greedy corporations to salvage the Autobots for parts. The White House is indecisive and inefficient. And when the film shifts to China for its third act, we see a different sort of authority- the fair, practical and decisive leadership of the Communist Party, a world apart from America’s blundering, weak-willed politicians. The film cast Chinese actress Li Bingbing and four other Chinese bit parts, chosen through a reality TV show held a year before the film’s debut, while Stanley Tucci relaxes while sipping a carton of Chinese milk.



The dividends of these decisions are clear to see. While the film made only $244 million in the US and Canada combined- $108 million less that the previous instalment- it grossed $301 million in China alone, presumably because audiences there are not yet bored of a plotless, brainless spectacle. It is clear that there is an appetite in China for films which cater to their celebrities, patriotism and culture. But is Hollywood ready to deliver?


The answer- resoundingly- is ‘yes’. Warner Bros., having suffered a rough year at the box office, recently announced a joint venture with China Media Capital into making Chinese language tentpole films. American filmgoers had better prepare themselves to become what China has long been- a secondary demographic.

As a result, this actually might help American cinema’s diversity problem- roughly 0% of big-budget releases to date have starred an East Asian leading man.  Disturbingly, this figure includes films with source material of Chinese and Japanese origin.


Ghost in the Shell Scarlett Johnassen

Hopefully, the next few years will see the ascension of the first trans-Pacific celebrity, as Chinese actors finally establish themselves as box-office draws in the United States. This development would have the potential to pave the way for more diverse casting choices in Hollywood as a whole.


America has long been in a position to comfortably consider itself the center of the world, surrounded by the cultural echo chamber of its own film and television industries. But the only thing Americans love more than America is market capitalism, and at the moment, market capitalism dictates that Americans are going to have to learn to love China, too. There will be more franchises, more sequels, and probably even less plot- but much of it will be reframed through the lens of foreign culture and values. So while China’s rise at the box-office means that familiarity is going to be the flavour of the day for a long time yet, it might also lead the way in broadening the way the world goes to the movies.




Posted by Samaria S on 2nd October 2015
Tags: Blog Tag, Film Review
Category: Review

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