Will China’s growing box office dominance change Hollywood forever?
Written by: Ben Child
It’s been 15 years since a China-set movie, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, broke the $100m mark at the North American box office. And yet Hollywood could be about to change forever due to cinemagoing habits in the world’s most populous nation.
Earlier this week the Hollywood Reporter predicted that the Chinese box office, already the second largest globally, will now overtake North America in 2018 – a full two years earlier than expected. Studios have moved mountains in recent years to cater to the ever-expanding passion for cinema in the region, setting up co-production deals on fantasy blockbusters such as Iron Man 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction to bypass Beijing’s strict 34 foreign movies-per-year quota system for multiplexes. Chinese stars such as Fan Bingbing have been parachuted into roles in Hollywood movies in order to keep local audiences happy, then edited out again for western viewers (much to the chagrin of some fans). Dreamworks even launched a China-based studio in 2012, partnering with local companies, which will oversee the release of animated sequel Kung Fu Panda 3. Warner Bros recently announced plans to team with the state-backed China Media Capital firm to make Chinese-language films aimed at the domestic market.
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It’s too soon to say if these partnerships will produce high-quality Chinese-language movies that could help diversify and improve the overall standards of world cinema. And there are definite negatives to the new dynamic.
Hollywood has already become reliant on Chinese cinemagoers to save its failing big-budget productions, and the bigger the local box office grows, the more studios will be forced to cater to local tastes and avoid upsetting the Chinese political establishment. According to the movies that have done well at the Chinese box office over the past few years, this means special-effects-heavy science fiction and fantasy productions with little or no racy content or politically motivated architecture which might upset the famously prudish state censors.
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If you’re a fan of movies like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, with its vision of giant alien monsters fighting gargantuan human-controlled robot fighting machines for control of the earth, or Michael Bay’s rather similarly themed but far more painfully realised Transformers films, it’s excellent news. Age of Extinction was until last year the highest-grossing movie of all time in China, and ended 2014 as the biggest movie globally largely due to Chinese yuan. Pacific Rim would never have achieved its forthcoming sequel had it not been for the film’s success in China, where it racked up 695m yuan ($108m), to $101.8m in the US and Canada. Likewise, Arnold Schwarzenegger will probably return once again as a 70-year-old T-800 Terminator at some point after weakly reviewed, poorly performing new instalment Terminator: Genisys was saved from ignominy by success in China.
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But in an era when we’re about to get the first Ghostbusters movie in more than a quarter of a century, it’s worth looking at a different, once dominant style of Hollywood blockbuster which we’re likely to see less of in future. While films like US box office 2015 summer hits such as Straight Outta Compton and Trainwreck are probably cheaply made enough to survive in the brave new world of Chinese box-office dominance, big-budget action comedy movies with just a little edgy humour to them – of the kind which reigned supreme at the box office in the 1980s and 90s – will surely find themselves under increasing scrutiny by the money men. Why make a 21st equivalent of Beverly Hills Cop, or indeed Ghostbusters, when such movies are unlikely to translate to Chinese audiences and most likely won’t pass the censors in any case? And woe betide any film-maker delivering a script that in any way upsets local sensibilities, as Brad Pitt discovered in 2013 when World War Z failed to secure a release slot despite excising a line suggesting the film’s global zombie apocalypse had originated in China.
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Steven Spielberg predicted in 2013 that cinema might divide into two radically different forms, with megabudget blockbusters costing $25 (£15) to see in the US and cheaply produced dramas such as one might find on HBO or Netflix a mere $7 (£4.50). The Hollywood titan believed the shift would be fostered by the back-to-back failure of a number of big-budget productions in one year, leading studios to demand more money from filmgoers for risky and expensive films. But China’s emergence means these big affairs are no longer risky, provided they are tame enough to get a Chinese screening slot. So Spielberg only seems to have got it half right.
The reality is that the future division faced by Hollywood could well be one of $150m blockbuster fantasies designed to get past the Beijing censor, and much cheaper non-action fare aimed at western audiences. Any movie that falls between those two stools will have little or no chance of getting the green light.