Over the past week, China’s efforts to use economic leverage to force the NBA to bar anyone associated with the league from expressing public support for ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has drawn a slew of headlines, with many American realizing for the first time that China’s monetary hooks are already deeply sunk into many fixtures of American culture. The truth is, China’s efforts to control the way other nations perceive them have been ongoing for years, and in a number of ways, have already been highly successful — and nowhere is that more apparent than in Hollywood.
Let’s be honest with each other — an engaging plot isn’t the first thing we think of when we’re headed to the theaters for the latest big-budget blockbuster, but it’s hard to deny that many of our summer “hits” in recent years haven’t turned out to be quite the hit that the studios would have hoped here in the United States. The reasons for the slumping success of movies like “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Geostorm” are pretty easy to assess: the films use mad-libs style plot points that rely on your familiarity with trope to justify rather than story progression, the dialogue is often forced and awkward, and the high profile stars often seem to be openly phoning their performances in. Here in the United States, these films have consistently underperformed, often failing to recoup their production costs during their domestic theatrical runs. When I was a kid, we called these movie bombs, but today, they are widely hailed as financial successes.
How can this be? It’s simple. They were never really intended to be smash hits in America.
China has rapidly become the second-largest movie market in the world, forcing a shift in the way big-budget films are made to allow for the broadest possible appeal in both American and Chinese markets. Because these two nations have different languages, cultural touchstones and regulations pertaining to what type of content can be released, most studios recognize that the easiest way to make a buck when writing a story for two distinctly different markets is to keep the dialogue and plot points extremely simple, and to keep the focus placed squarely on the effects-driven action. You may have to sub new dialogue over Dwayne Johnson’s mouth for a Chinese release, but explosions don’t need translators.
For those who aren’t movie geeks, let’s break down what it takes to consider a movie a “success” financially. In most cases, the cost of production sets the metric for the film’s success: if the movie costs $30 million to make and it grosses $100 million on its opening weekend, it’s a hit. If it costs $200 million to make it grosses $25 million in its opening weekend, it’s widely considered to be a flop despite the fact that it still has weeks to make money throughout its theatrical run. Why can we slam the gavel and judge a movie’s success so quickly? Two rules of thumb come into play (and I call them that because there have obviously been exceptions): the first is that all movies see a dramatic drop off in sales the week after their opening weekend (in fact, that drop off is often also used a metric for a film’s success, especially in smaller films that rely on word of mouth). In plain English, a movie is never going to make more money in a weekend than it does during its opening.
The second metric is the way profits are split between studios and theaters. While the timelines vary from movie to movie, most theaters have to pay the majority of their ticket revenue to the studios in the early weeks of the film’s run. Then, after a set amount of time, the ratio shifts in favor of the theater. The longer a film is in theaters, the greater the percentage of each ticket the theater gets to retain — which is why you sometimes see big movies remaining in small-town theaters for months. So for a film to be a success, it needs to recoup its production (and oft-unreported marketing) costs within the first few weeks of its theatrical run, and the vast majority of that money needs to come on opening weekend.
So let’s consider some of last year’s big-budget flicks that didn’t even come close to breaking even here in the States, but managed to be successful in the international market, made up primarily by China:
- “The Great Wall” cost $150 million to make, made only $45 million in the United States and netted another $289 million internationally.
- “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” cost a whopping $225.9 million to produce, made only $41 million in the U.S. before grossing an additional $184 million internationally.
- “The Foreigner” was almost a success in America, with a production cost of $35 million and a box office draw of $34.4 million. It went on to make $106 million internationally.
- “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” was filmed for only $40 million, but amassed only $26 million domestically. It went on to make $285 million overseas.
- “Geostorm” cost $120 million to make, made only $33 million in America, then amassed another $175 million overseas.
- “Transformers: The Last Knight” had a budget of $217 million, made $130 million in the U.S., then made $475 million internationally.
That list could go on and on. This year, Dwayne Johson’s “Rampage,” the new “Tomb Raider,” “Pacific Rim Uprising” and “Ready Player One” all saw bigger opening weekends in China than they did in the United States. Two of the movies on the list above, it’s worth noting, were made with Chinese markets specifically in mind: “The Great Wall” and “The Foreigner,” starring Jackie Chan — an outspoken member of China’s governmental advisory body. This shift toward making films that get by in America and then make the majority of their money overseas (primarily in the Chinese market) has two specific and troubling cultural effects.
The American market will continue to decline.
Fans of American cinema that keep tabs on movie news have been hearing it for years: America’s movie ticket sales are either continuing to drop or have remained stagnant (depending on who you ask) in recent years, making the American market less of a “sure thing” than external ones that don’t demand complex things like a reasonable plot. The problem, of course, is that the fears of a collapsing American movie market are self-fulfilling — as studios increasingly make films that are tailored toward international distribution with less concern for the American moviegoer, Americans go to the movies less and less. Whether it’s Mark Wahlberg exclaiming clichés in front of a green screen intermixed with shots of giant robots, or Dwayne Johnson shouting the same clichés intermixed with shots of giant gorillas, the result is the same: limited interest from the American public.
In effect, American studios keep making films for Chinese theaters, then blaming America’s stagnating ticket sales on the market, rather than their content. The lapse in their logic, of course, is demonstrated clearly by the immense success of Disney helmed films in the United States like the both the Marvel and Star Wars franchises — but their success may not be enough to convince studios to try to make good movies Americans can enjoy in the language they’re filmed in, rather than exports that simply package America into digestible tropes for foreign markets.
This shift will help the Chinese government define how young Americans see their nation.
Thus far, this discussion has been little more than an exploration in contemporary movie culture — but here’s where it shifts into a foreign policy concern. Here in the United States, we rely on the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to provide ratings for our films. It’s a non-governmental agency that’s riddled with problems and politics (they actually invented the PG-13 rating because Steven Spielberg just asked them to) and many filmmakers rail against the level of power they can exercise over a film’s success. Rated R movies, for instance, almost invariably gross less than PG-13 movies, simply because kids can’t pay to get in.
In China, on the other hand, determining what movies are allowed to be seen by whom is a governmental affair, and it involves a great deal more than combing for curse worse or stray nipples. The Chinese government screens the films and decides which ones are allowed to be released in their country. That means no movie makes it to the Chinese market without a governmental stamp of approval — and with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, studios are forced to succumb to the government’s demands in order to turn a profit. China, then, is able to exercise a great deal of influence over a film’s content — forcing studios to change scenes that they believe show their nation in a less-than-positive light.
In “Iron Man 3,” the Mandarin (traditionally a Chinese character) was played by a white man presenting himself as vaguely Middle Eastern – specifically, because Marvel knew a Chinese villain would see their film banned.
“Looper” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction” were both re-written to film heavily in China after government-sponsored companies invested heavily into their production. Those companies were then able to exert a great deal of influence over how China was represented on film, reportedly demanding that shots in China present it as very clean and modern. In the case of transformers, time travel elements that were initially featured heavily in the plot were underplayed, because Chinese government censors see time travel as a “subversive concept.” No movies based on time travel are permitted to be released within the nation.
The 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” spent a fortune late in production to change all of the Chinese flags shown throughout the film to North Korean ones, shifting the entire premise of the film as a result of Chinese censors claiming that they would not allow a movie that presented China as the aggressor in a world war to be released within their market.
All references to China were removed in the movie “World War Z” as a result of pressure from Chinese censors who would not permit discussion of China’s government failing during a zombie apocalypse.
In Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” the Ancient One, traditionally a Tibetan character, was played by the notably not Tibetan Tilda Swinton. The studio was accused of white-washing the role as a result of this casting decision, but they chose not to defend themselves publicly by disclosing the fact that China would not permit the release of the film in their nation if it featured a hero from Tibet.
While far from an exhaustive list, these changes — some subtle, some substantial — all speak to the power the Chinese government wields over the films we see here in America. Popular culture, for better or worse, informs our perceptions of the world beyond our line of sight: many Americans have never been to China, leaving their exposure to the nation through movies and TV as their only glimpse into the burgeoning world power. As China positions itself to counter American militarily and diplomatically, it’s also exercising its ability to ensure the American public see them in as positive a light as possible.
The results of this are clear: while in defense circles, China is widely seen as the most significant threat to American security since the Soviet Union, the American public remains steadfast in its fear of Russia — despite its comparably small military budget and lack of diplomatic leverage. Russia, of course, poses a threat worth attending to — but it’s China that seeks to remove America from its position as a global leader.