Since its release 4 weeks ago, Transformers: Age of Extinction, has racked up over $850 million in the global box office, breaking the record in China where it grossed over $280 million - 65 million more than in the US, where it drew $215 million.
This is not the first time that the Chinese box office has beaten the North American one. Last year, The People’s Republic saved sci-fi Pacific Rim, which had cost $190 million to make, from a certain commercial failure, infusing its coffers with a much needed $111 million, after it had eked out only $101 million Stateside. Impressed by the movie’s triumph at the Chinese box office, Warner Bros, the producing studio, decided to make a sequel, with production due to commence next year. Evidently, the potential commercial success of a project in China and in other foreign markets is increasingly becoming a factor in green-lighting films in Hollywood, regardless of their projected performance in the US market.
Indeed, in the last few years, international markets have surpassed the North American market, making up over 70% of the total global box office gross, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Consequently, this commercial reversal has precipitated a fundamental change in the movie-making business in Hollywood.
In the past, studio bosses relied on their gut feelings and the feedback of their development departments to green-light a project. Recently, however, development executives have ceded some of that decision-making power to the international marketing and publicity departments, who have taken center stage in green-lighting projects, based, not only on creative or artistic merit, but on the potential for commercial profitability in major international markets, such as China, Russia, Latin America and the rest of Asia.
This shift has lead to a surge in production of big-budget, special-effects driven blockbusters, that are filled with superheroes and monsters, and to a palpable decline in making dramas and comedies, prompting cinema critics and filmmakers to charge Hollywood with dumbing the masses with its superficial movies that lack substance and artistic integrity.
The problem, Hollywood executives say, is that dramas and comedies rely heavily on dialogue, which doesn’t translate well in non-English speaking markets, hence their feeble box office performance often fails to cover their production cost. In contrast, the stories of the big blockbusters are told with extravagant action and digital effects, which transcend the boundaries of language, nationality and culture.
In pursuit of luring the broadest audience overseas, Hollywood also endeavors to feature foreign characters, played by international actors. Hence, these days, we often see Chinese, Indian, Russian and other Asian characters in major roles that don’t conform to the negative stereotypes of the past, when the good guys were invariably Westerners and foreigners filled in for the bad guys. In fact, Hollywood has become so sensitive to Chinese sentiment that it doesn’t dare show Chinese characters in negative light and responds swiftly to Chinese concerns, even if that entails changing the film’s story. Last year, the antagonists in Red Dawn were digitally altered from Chinese to Northern Korean following a protest in the Chinese media.
In addition, blockbusters are increasingly being speckled with further Chinese elements, such as merchandise and story subplots, even when they are completely irrelevant to the movie, in order to pique the interest of the Chinese audience. Last year, a Chinese space station was featured in the Oscar-winning Gravity. And the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 received an extra subplot featuring a Chinese doctor treating Iron Man with acupuncture. Both films swept the box office there.
Speaking at San Francisco International Film Festival last year, director Steven Soderbergh argued that Hollywood was not making cinema anymore but producing commercial movies for public consumption, because “cinema is a specificity of vision, and isn’t made by a committee, by a company or by the audience.
Granted, but one should not overlook the positives in this new development, because it’s undeniable that these days Hollywood films have acquired a more cosmopolitan look and outlook. The world’s principal movie factory is becoming more of an international hub where all nations, races and cultures are respectfully and fairly presented and where negative stereotypes of the “others” are fading away, thanks to the producers’ efforts to study and understand the cultures featured in their movies before they embark on making them, lest they hurt anyone’s feelings and consequently lose their box office tickets. One could counter-argue that Hollywood is actually being enlightened rather than dumbed down.
In spite of these noble efforts, Hollywood is still struggling to penetrate a fiercely protectionist market such as China, which takes steps to safeguard its local productions by the permitting only 32 foreign movies to be exhibited there in one year and by giving them unpalatable release slots. Hence Hollywood studios have resorted to forming partnerships with local companies and filming in China itself, as the director of Transformers, Michael Bay, did, shooting parts of the picture in Hong Kong, casting Chinese star Li Bingbing in a key role and partnering with the country’s largest distributor and film promoter, China Movie Media Group.
One studio, DreamWorks animation, was able to pave its way into the Chinese market, thanks to its business savvy and politically-connected chairman, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who announced three months ago the opening of DreamWorks Oriental in Shanghai. Having been monitoring the explosion of the Chinese market in the last decade, Katzenberg is confident that it will overtake the US market in the very near future. “It’s obvious,” he enthuses. “They have 1.5 billion consumers, which is 1.2 billion more than the US, so you can’t take these figures lightly. Of course, we want to be there. The Chinese people love Hollywood movies and we will cater to their need.”
In fact, there is a broad agreement in Hollywood that China will take the lead in the global market within less than 5 years, which should not be a surprise, considering that 13 cinemas are being opened every day there. It is not inconceivable that we could see a Chinese superhero in a Hollywood blockbusters in the near future.
Sam Hunam Asi