Hollywood Takes the Chinese Market For Granted — to its Cost
As even a glance at the box office data from China indicates the Chinese film industry is a powerful competitor for its vast domestic audience. Consider the following numbers:
* Since 2016, in spite of the difficulties for the market over the past two years, nine Chinese-made movies have broken the half billion dollar barrier.
* In the last “normal” year for moviegoing, 2019, 24 movies broke the $100 million barrier at the Chinese box office, of which 15 were Chinese productions. Of the top 10 earners (all of which broke the $200 million barrier), 7 were Chinese productions, while 5 Chinese-made movies took in over $300 million and two broke the half billion dollar barrier, with the disaster film The Wandering Earth making $690 million and the superhero movie Ne Zha taking an astonishing $703 million.
* Wolf Warrior 2, to date the highest-grossing Chinese film, took in $854 million back in 2017 — outdoing the much-crowed about global gross of the first Wonder Woman. Translating to some $945 million in 2021 dollars, this falls just short of the billion dollar mark. Think about that — a billion dollars taken in by one movie in a single country.
As all this shows the Chinese market is big enough to support the making of big budget films just for Chinese audiences, without much concern for foreign viewership — with this extending all the way to first-rank blockbusters like the $200 million The Battle at Lake Changjin, which has made almost four times that figure at the Chinese box office in a mere three weeks. And of course, Chinese filmmakers have even less difficulty making lower-cost comedies and dramas suiting local taste.
Of course, much is made of Chinese censorship, which is real enough, and perhaps getting tighter (with three Marvel movies frozen out of the market this year, perhaps costing them the proceeds from hundreds of millions in ticket sales). Still, contrary to what the entertainment press claims it is far from the whole story. Even without censorship being at issue Hollywood has shown itself consistently clueless about what will or will not be a winner with Chinese audiences, or international audiences generally — perhaps as a result of America’s culture these days making it less able to connect with foreign audiences like China’s. The slogan “Go woke, go broke” represents the grinding of an ideological axe — but the fact remains that there is no reason for foreign audiences to care about an extremely particularist identity politics, with even the successes showing this. Black Panther, for example, was a strong earner overseas, picking up $600 million (and just $105 million in China). Yet while Black Panther was #1 in the U.S. that year, it was far outdone that year by Avengers: Infinity War, taking in close to $1.4 billion ($360 million of that in China). Simply put, Black Panther was received as another Marvel superhero film, and not the major cultural moment it was made out to be in America at the time of its release (with the result that, in China certainly, Infinity War outgrossed Black Panther by a factor of over three).
And of course what went for even the hits went that much more for the disappointments, with Crazy Rich Asians exemplary. The press for the film was extremely heavy on the identity politics angle — but it was far from clear why such American concerns would make the movie a blockbuster elsewhere, and indeed they did not. (Indeed, in a China still nominally Communist, and where the social divide is enormous and people less prone to pretend obliviousness to it than in class-phobic America, audiences were likely less inclined to see a spectacle of the vulgarity and snobbery of the ultra-rich as somehow uplifting simply because the vulgar snobs happened to be Asians.)
The blind spots were even more astonishing where more action-oriented fare was concerned. In America Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was celebrated as the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead, as its promoters conveniently overlooked the story’s evocation of the vicious Yellow Peril racism that produced Fu-Manchu (an oversight the more appalling at a time of increasing anti-Asian racism, and Sinophobic fearmongering); while if they saw the casting’s not conforming to ideals of conventional physical attractiveness as a rejection of “racist” standards of appearance, they were oblivious to how Chinese filmgoers could see it as Western stereotyping of how East Asians look, and so yet another racist insult. Given what has happened with last year’s Monster Hunter after the movie’s release this could have cost the movie dearly even if it had its crack at the theaters.
Similarly reflecting that self-absorption is the place given to nostalgia in making movies for mass consumption, with again, the attempt to sell Star Wars exemplary. When Disney relaunched Star Wars Americans went to see it because they had seen Star Wars movies before, and remembered their earlier experiences in particular fondly — but this was not the case in China, which was in a very different place in 1977. And unsurprisingly the sales pitch fell flat — just as it was soon to do everywhere else, with Episode IX taking in about half of what Episode VII did, and Disney shelving its once Marvel-like plans for a mega-franchise sending two or three big Star Wars movies our every year. Now Star Wars is something people see on TV — and it remains to be seen when, and even if, Star Wars will be a big screen property again.
Altogether in this moment when Hollywood is ever more reliant on the global market it has become more national, even provincial — a fact on which few seem to care to linger these days. The question, however, is what Hollywood will do about it. Will it stop worrying about Chinese and foreign markets so much and focus on appealing to easier markets — or will it attempt to become more cosmopolitan, the better to secure as big a cut of the tickets bought by the planet’s moviegoers as possible? The latter seems to me a far more likely outcome than the former — but first it would have to admit that it is having a problem, and at least to go by the tenor of the press that moment has not yet arrived.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.