Will China Change American Cinema?
Did you catch The Transporter: Refueled, The Last Witch Hunter, or Need for Speed when any of those films were in U.S. theaters? It’s okay. Most of us didn’t. Need for Speed opened to disinterested reviews from American critics and audiences alike. The movie made approximately 17.8 million in its opening weekend. Things didn’t get much better from there. The movie went on to tank at the domestic box office, pulling in just 43.6 million on a budget of 66 million.
Similar grim numbers and dismal reviews follow The Transporter: Refueled, dismissed as a meager attempt to revive a franchise, and The Last Witch Hunter, which was criticized for a terrible script and wooden acting. The best any of these movies can hope for is an unremarkable afterlife on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, or elsewhere. They exist as curiosities, but their appeal will die limited.
But in China? Jesus fucking Christ.
If you think Hollywood blockbusters are getting dumber and blander than ever, the truth of the matter is that certain types of movies aren’t really being made just for us (Americans) anymore. Or at least, we are no longer the main target audience. As far as an increasing number of major summer releases are concerned.
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Then you have that weird feeling that the summer movie season is starting earlier, and ending a lot later. With major sequels, reboots, and action epics coming out as early as March, and with the death throes shaking off for the last time in the early fall, there certainly seems to be some truth to that suspicion.
While studios have always been there to take advantage of overseas markets (and indeed, look to yield the highest possible results in various countries and territories), the whole structure has changed considerably. This is particularly true over the past decade and change. Over this time, China has grown by leaps and bounds. That means more people are going to the movies in China than ever before. There are a few reasons for this.
Tickets are cheaper in China, with the average ticket going for three full dollars less than the average U.S. ticket. China also lacks a certification system. All of the movies are edited and released for all age groups. The rapid expansion of screens is another indicator that China is likely to surpass the United States as the largest, and potentially, most influential movie-watching country in the world. That influence is already becoming apparent. China allows for only thirty-four foreign films to be released in a single year. That creates considerable competition amongst foreign companies, which is largely dominated by American film companies.
China is influencing American films on two different levels. On one hand, you have the examples illustrated above. Movies that failed in domestic markets, only to recoup the budget (and then some) in China. This issue isn’t just a question of Chinese audiences liking movies that we think are big and dumb. Movies consistently make cuts and changes, sometimes adding several minutes of additional footage, in order to appease the Chinese sensors. Cloud Atlas removed about 30 minutes of footage for China. Looper changed a location from Paris to Shanghai. X-Men: Days of Future Past added cameos and additional scenes. Poor Chow Yun Fat doesn’t even make into the Chinese cut of the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie.
And keep in mind that movies that are successful in North America can also go on to be successful in China, as well. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was a monster hit in China, with the film using Hong Kong landmarks and more, but it was also a strong performer in the U.S., too. Furious 7 would be another example.
Where is all of this going? It gives the screenwriters of would-be summer (and beyond) smashes more challenges than ever before. The old concept of movies being written by communities of individuals, rather than by one or two people, is rapidly coming back into vogue. Any movie that wants to be taken seriously as a true box office champion has to look for ways to appeal to, and sometimes appease, the Chinese film market.
Is it a bad thing? Commercially speaking, probably not. As Chinese audiences seek to surpass U.S. audiences in size and response, the companies that stand to gain the most from appealing to every party will make every effort to do so. It may not dictate from top to bottom how a movie is written, structured, shot, edited, and released, but it is clear that movies are being made with the Chinese box office in mind. Again, this is not inherently bad, although again, it may have a significant role to play in the creative death of movies.
If not death, then at least a creative coma.
From that standpoint, the timing of all this couldn’t be worse for American cinema. The rules are once again changing, particularly in terms of how films are developed and marketed. The unique and essential voices are out there, but there may not be enough of them this time. It doesn’t help film at all that television is gathering the kinds of creative minds that rescued Hollywood in the 1960s, with the release of movies like Taxi Driver or Bonnie and Clyde.
What are the odds of getting such an era of creativity in our lifetime? Not great. As more and more young writers and creators look to television or other content formats, movies are struggling to catch up. “Independent film” is alive and well, but it’s also become a commodity that seems to be getting less and less attention from audiences. The bigger movies reveal a certain measure of desperation. Companies like Disney are obviously safe, keeping Marvel, Star Wars, and other monumental properties nearby. Other studies are struggling. The results would be hilarious, if they weren’t a hell of a lot more depressing. The Legend of Tarzan immediately popped into my head, when we talk about this desperation. It isn’t going to get better. The potential for big budget movies that aspire to more than pandering is shrinking. It may disappear altogether. The problem isn’t that people in Beijing and elsewhere want to see American movies, and that’s shaping the way those movies are made, edited, and marketed.
The problem is that with so many different interests, movies can only accomplish so much. With all of those interests knocking into each other, taking up space, you aren’t left with a lot of room for originality.
When the Hollywood blockbuster concept finally collapses, and it will, it’s going to be interesting to see what that will mean for Hollywood’s ongoing relationship with China.