Chinese Promise - Censorship isn’t the only barrier
Once a scourge of the film industry for its wide-scale bootleg DVD piracy, the Chinese film market is now Hollywood’s biggest foreign film market. It’s not much of a secret anymore, with titles such as Looper being an early example of Chinese collaboration; the film took $20 million US dollars, a sum initially perceived as much larger until the penny dropped that Chinese yuan isn’t quite the same as US dollars. Even so, it isn’t a bad sum for an indie - but it’s a little way off from breaking into China’s highest grossing films.
Nevertheless, it paved the way for Chinese collaboration. The last installment of the Michael Bay Transformers series, Age of Extinction, was partly funded by the Chinese Movie Channel and online distribution service Jiaflix, with terms dictating that it must be filmed in part in China, Chinese actors were to be cast, and post production work was to take place in China. In China alone, it grossed over 1.97 billion yuan ($290 million estimate). Interestingly, old cold war foes Russia helped with a $45 million box office spend.
On the verge of overtaking the US theatre sales, one might think that aiming for the Chinese market would be the way to go to get a handsome return; unfortunately, it’s not as clear cut as that. There is still a lot of red tape, not limited to cultural laws that prevent certain themes being shown. Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters fell foul for containing content that promotes a supernatural and superstitious nature, even in spite of how silly the film is. But this particular regulation is somewhat incongruent; China’s fifth highest grossing film to date, Mojin the Lost Legend (trailer here), is about a trio of grave robbers who disturb the underworld, based on the adventure novel, Ghost Blows Out The Light. So, unless they have a particular aversion to ghosts made of mucus, the line between acceptable and unacceptable is a bit of a mystery.
It would seem that a ban in China would be the death knell to what may have saved the Ghostbusters after making a disappointing domestic and foreign gross profit that scuppered confidence in making a sequel. This is especially true when compared to domestic flopsicle Warcraft which Chinese audience-goers flocked to see, raking in over $220 million in China, trouncing its domestic gross of $47 million. While reviews for Ghostbusters were mixed, Warcraft was universally pounded - the film scored a meta score of 32 on Metacritic, low by all estimates. Even though both are franchises with built-in audiences, even if Ghostbusters had got the go ahead to screen in China, it’s first two films did not have much of a following there. World of Warcraft is one of the best selling games ever, with a particularly sizable fandom in China.
More favourably for the blockbuster, there are films that have failed to be released there that have still made a pretty return. Deadpool was denied a release in China but still made $363 million plus, becoming the highest grossing R-rated film to date. Deadpool was denied release on the grounds that it was too grotesque and violent yet,interestingly, China has no particular age restrictions on film releases at cinemas and kids can see films that would receive adult ratings in the US or Britain.
Censorship isn’t the only barrier. China has in place a cap of 34 imported titles per annum that can be screened. That’s a low number, even if it were exclusive to American titles. Collaboration is a means of bypassing this though, as Looper and Transformers 4 have done. Whilst a means to get around the cap, there is a degree of film dilution that looks false and, at times, as though it’s pandering. Transformers 4 has even being accused of being unpatriotic, or patriotic for China. It’s understandable why some would feel upset; Hollywood is America’s number one export, after weapons, and what it exports is its cultural ideologies, its confidence and the American Dream. But what matters most in Hollywood, ultimately, is money and it will be interesting to see how more and more films may start to treat China as their target audience. By what means and what gets a thumbs up will probably require a lot of diplomacy.