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 movies 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.