Hollywood’s paper tiger: the Chinese box office

Business correspondent examines the relationship between Hollywood and the Chinese box office

Image: yeowatzup

To deny the input, financial and otherwise, of the Chinese lm industry to the global box office and cinematic landscape would be a grave mistake. Pro t has always driven Hollywood however, as the earnings of blockbusters become more public and discussed outside the industry, it’s becoming vital that massive summer movies make headlines. Unlike during the golden age of cinema, in order to break opening and weekend records it is not domestic figures (ticket sales within America) but international box office earnings which matter; and China is vital to achieving success.

Avengers: Infinity War grossed $649 716 699 domestically, ranking 6th in the all time domestic box office (not adjusted for inflation) but internationally has grossed $1 328 331 646. It currently stands in 3rd place in the All time International Box office (not adjusted for inflation) only below the almost untouchable successes of Avatar and Titanic. China contributed $360 960 000, miles ahead of the second highest contributing country, which was the UK, providing $94 000 000. Other films have been saved by China. Transformers is one such franchise. The most recent entry Transformers: The Last Knight was commercially underwhelming. The film only grossed $130 168 683 domestically, which was the lowest entry yet for the series, however, in China the lm grossed $229 460 000. The next largest gross was in South Korea with $19 077 911. China can act as the saviour of a film or push the film into the record books, but getting released in China in the first place is difficult. There’s a quota for foreign films, to ensure that Chinese films have a 60 per cent hold over the box-office. This usually translates to a cap at 34 films, but this figure includes all international films, not only those created by Hollywood.

New laws were also introduced in 2017, where foreign films released
in China must “serve the people and socialism” and foreign filmmakers should be penalised for “damaging China’s national dignity, honour and interests, or harming social stability or hurting national feelings”. An attempt to censor the content of foreign film to protect Chinese national feeling? Or an attempt to limit the number of foreign films released in China? The intent behind these laws is not important compared to the fact that they exist. While trade talks between President Trump and Chinese premier Xi Jinping has increased the number of American films released in China, it’s unclear whether these laws will still prevent expansion. To ask whether the influence of China on Hollywood is negative is to ask whether the globalisation of Hollywood is negative. This interaction with China has meant the deliberate expansion of the film industry in content and creative influences. A greater involvement of international talent, both behind and in front of the camera is useful to create a bolder cinematic landscape. The involvement of Chinese actors such as Fan Bingbing in blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past and Disney’s live action adaptation of Mulan, are down to the need to appeal to China. So, without this appeal there would be no need to involve non-Western talent. Another positive of this relationship is that Chinese audiences do greatly enhance the earnings of American films, meaning that small, riskier projects can be funded, and while these films may never be released in China they can enhance the domestic lm industry. It is the profits from these blockbusters which fund the production of these more interesting projects.

Of course this relationship is not always positive. There are the grounds to argue that appealing to Chinese audiences also means appeasing the Chinese government. Some changes are also problematic; while advertising Star Wars: The Force Awakens, black character Finn was removed from the foreground of a piece of promotional material to the background. This was not a request of the Chinese government but a decision made by the marketing department. The justification? This was just meeting the Chinese audience’s expectations.

While we rely on Chinese profits, Hollywood is complicit in the regulation of creative thought and expression, despite what is claimed at award ceremonies. The vague- ness of the laws’ phrasing also means they are open to interpretation. Any lm could not meet the guidelines and be refused distribution. Additionally, it is not only foreign films which are subject to these regulations: internally produced films also have to adhere to the values emphasised by the government and present China in a positive light. American films can be subject to regulation through the rating system. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) can limit the distribution of a lm, as cinemas are less likely to have multiple showings of an 18 compared a PG-13, as there’s a wider audience. We should remember though that Hollywood is the aggressor here, aiming to inject itself into the Chinese market, while China is a protectionist state, guarding its values and money from Hollywood.