It turns out that Hollywood’s catering to China is not exactly paying out the dividends the industry had hoped, with the latest numbers revealing a dismal year in the Chinese box office for Tinseltown.
According to Variety, just two Hollywood titles earned slots among the 10 highest-grossing films of 2019, compared to last year’s five out of 10 titles. Chris Fenton, senior advisor to IDW Media Holdings and a trustee of the U.S.-Asia Institute, bluntly said that Hollywood had its worst year in China in over a decade.
“This has to be the worst performance for Hollywood in China since 2008,” said Fenton.
Only “Avengers: Endgame” and “Fast and Furious: Hobbs and Shaw” made the top 10 list in a market that is increasingly slanting toward more homegrown products. Raymond Zhou, a China-based industry consultant, attributed the trend to the “growing maturity of Chinese audiences.”
“Artisan Gateway data already show the market share of Chinese films rising from 62% in 2018 to 65% in 2019,” reported Variety. “That has come largely at the expense of Hollywood titles, which are down to 31% so far this year, compared to 34% last year. The figure could drop below 30% in the final calculation. China can no longer be expected to lap up American duds and act as a box-office safety net for tired franchises, which had been the case in recent years.”
China has increasingly expanded its creativity into a variety of genres, essentially making the American blockbuster nearly obsolete.
The locally made hits are now coming in a variety of genres, reflecting growing Chinese creativity. Also, as China continues to build more movie theaters beyond the cities, expanding into rural areas where moviegoers are less affluent, foreign titles won’t have the same market pull as do Chinese titles.
“Forecasts at the beginning of 2019 did not take into account the dark horses such as ‘Nezha,’ which is arguably the best Chinese animation film ever; ‘The Wandering Earth,’ which is a milestone for Chinese sci-fi; ‘Better Days,’ the best teenage movie in a long, long time; and even ‘My People, My Country,’ the best anthology film and a government-encouraged [patriotic] film that most resonated with the public,” said Zhou. “There is not a single Chinese franchise movie in the year’s top 10 box-office list.”
“The more screens China builds, the more the public taste will be skewed towards domestic fare, percentage-wise,” he added.
Movie studios have gone to great lengths to appeal to Chinese audiences by presenting the country as a technologically advanced superpower, as in the cases of “The Martian,” “2012,” “Gravity,” and “Looper.” Beyond that, some movies have been subjected to self-censorship, sometimes changing whole plotlines in order to break into the Chinese market.
“When the creators of ‘Pixels’ wanted to show aliens blasting a hole in the Great Wall of China, Sony executives worried that the scene might prevent the 2015 movie’s release in China, leaked studio emails show. They blew up the Taj Mahal instead,” reported The New York Times. “In the 2016 movie ‘Doctor Strange,’ the Ancient One is Celtic, played by the white actress Tilda Swinton. Moviemakers decided to change the character’s ethnicity early in the process, reportedly to avoid offending the Chinese government.”
Controversy over Hollywood’s capitulation to China reached a fever pitch this year, when it appeared that the movie “Top Gun: Maverick” might have edited Tom Cruise’s iconic patch-laden flight jacket to exclude the Japanese and Taiwanese flags.