If you’re an action movie buff, you may have noticed an unusual trend over the past few years. Scripts that were once relegated to the “B-movie” drawers of Hollywood offices are suddenly getting the big budget treatment, complete with splashy special effects, massive marketing campaigns, and usually, a star like Dwayne Johnson. Got a fresh rehash of a mildly popular ’90s video game? Perfect. Want to pour black paint and CGI on Tom Hardy? Done deal. Six more Transformers movies? Just what the doctor ordered!
Movies like “Rampage,” “Skyscraper,” “Venom,” and “Jurassic World” all have at least two things in common: they were panned by moviegoers and critics alike, and they made a fortune. Based on historical precedent, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. Sure, these flicks all brought star power and CGI to the table, but all of them failed to truly connect to American audiences. Repackaged tropes masquerading as plot points fill quiet moments between explosions, but without any real story to speak of, most Americans found their entertainment elsewhere. Under normal circumstances, this sort of trend would be self-corrected by our unwillingness to pay studios for crappy films — but things have changed. These movies aren’t made for us anymore.
If you’ve ever been a teenage boy, chances are good that you were excited about a movie based on the Marvel character, Venom. That excitement only grew when Tom Hardy was cast as Eddie Brock, a massive step up from Topher Grace’s portrayal in the ill-fated “Spider-Man 3.” But when it finally hit theaters, movie goers found this extension of the Spider-verse underwhelming at best. It only went on to gross around $200 million in the American box offices, likely not even recouping its combined production and marketing budgets. Yet, if you check last year’s global box office standings, you’ll find Sony’s symbiote-crap heap standing tall at No. 6 worldwide. “Venom” may have failed to find a strong audience in the U.S., but China loved it. Before it ended its run on foreign screens, “Venom” racked up more than $600 million more dollars.
That’s right, it made three times more in the international market.
“Rampage,” a movie about Dwayne Johnson and his giant, white gorilla, failed to even recoup its production costs in the states, where the movie raked in around $100 million against a $140 million budget. Not that the Rock is fretting. It went on to triple its money in China as well. Even the utterly plot-less “Jurassic World,” which made a respectable $400 million or so domestically against a $150 million(ish) budget, doubled that money in the foreign market — again, with China to thank for the vast majority of that haul.
Beginning to notice a trend? Hollywood has. Filmmakers are quickly realizing that a movie doesn’t need to be good to make boatloads of money, it just needs to be visually exciting, easy to translate (in other words, bereft of nuance), and most importantly, it needs to paint China in a positive light.
While we rely on the (notably corrupt) MPAA to provide our films with ratings for the domestic market, it’s important to note that the government itself doesn’t play a role in censoring American films. The MPAA is a civilian organization Hollywood holds itself accountable to, but there’s no law requiring it. China, as should come as no surprise, doesn’t work that way. The Chinese government determines what movies are appropriate for release in its markets — and they’re not above demanding changes to a new film in order to allow it be shown. Studios, well aware of how much money is at stake, are more than happy to make these changes. What sort of changes? You’d be surprised.
Marvel’s “Dr. Strange” replaced the traditionally Tibetan character of The Ancient One with white actress Tilda Swinton, not because Hollywood likes to whitewash characters, but because they wanted to please Chinese sensors. Likewise with the traditionally-Chinese character Mandarin in “Iron Man 3,” who was changed to a plucky white guy for Chinese censors. “Looper” changed the entire plot of the film to move a large portion of the movie out of Paris and into China for the sake of Chinese markets. The “Red Dawn” remake had to sacrifice any realism the plot could have had by going back in and changing the nationality of the invading army from Chinese to North Korean in post production. The list goes on and on. Chinese markets are where the money is made, so studios are willing to play ball with China in order to keep their access to that market.
What does that mean for us? It means the guarantee of movies that paint China as the hero (“Pacific Rim 2”), or those that shoehorn in Chinese products or actors in order to shore up Chinese support. Even the latest Captain America movie saw all of its actors carrying blatantly visible Vivo phones that weren’t even available for sale in the United States. Guess where you could find them? That’s right: China.
If you’re thinking, “So, what?” you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately. With new stories breaking at a cyclical rate about Russian influence campaigns in the United States, Americans are becomingly increasingly aware of malicious efforts to skew American perceptions in ways that benefit foreign governments, but for some reason, everyone is still ignoring China’s efforts to do the same. Why? Well, because it’s so damn profitable.
Americans aren’t going to speak out against Chinese influence campaigns because they come disguised as bags full of money. Russian trolls are easy to vilify, but it’s harder to explain away the billions of dollars China has invested into Hollywood. The enemy isn’t at the gate. Increasingly, the enemy owns the gate, and they’re already charging us rent to use it.
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