The recent remake of “Ben-Hur” by Paramount Pictures was a box office flop in North America. Its fate in China was no better, generating a mere 15 million yuan ($2.2 million) in revenue during its first week.
China is currently the second-largest movie market in the world, and Hollywood films have profited here in recent years, even if they have failed at home. The second and third installments in the “Expendables” series, for instance, all took more at the Chinese box office than in North America.
Chinese audiences used to be known as omnivorous consumers of Hollywood blockbusters, but tastes are beginning to change. The failure of “Ben-Hur” is not an isolated case: Back in March, “Batman v Superman” also made a mere 60 million yuan — a paltry sum for a major superhero release. In June, “Independence Day: Resurgence” barely hit the 50 million yuan mark.
Despite the chilling market, there have still been some success stories. “Zootopia,” “Captain America: Civil War,” and “Into the Woods” all made huge profits on both sides of the Pacific. Yet it can be argued that the critical acclaim they garnered ensured their resilience to the vicissitudes of the market.
The evidence indicates that the tastes of Chinese moviegoers are maturing. No longer are people willing to tolerate “inauthentic” works which privilege commercial success over artistic merit. As movie ticket prices this year have increased, audiences are becoming pickier about what they go watch.
The Chinese market is undergoing an audience-driven transformation. The bull market of the past few years put money in the pockets of good and bad filmmakers alike. Now, people are getting punished for putting out a dud — and Hollywood can sense it, too.
As they come to wield more power over the global development of the movie market, Chinese audiences are raising their demands on the cinematic experience. Earlier this year, for example, cinemagoers reacted with fury over the release of so-called fake 3-D movies.
The box office potential of 3-D movies makes them highly desirable products, and ticket prices accordingly are higher than with conventional 2-D releases, especially since Chinese audiences have welcomed 3-D in recent years. The upshot is that many movies made in Hollywood, Hong Kong, or even in mainland China are being made into 3-D editions, even when it is counterintuitive to do so. “Jason Bourne,” for example, was shot almost entirely with a low-fidelity handheld camera, yet it screened across China in 3-D. Those who went expecting a retro-style masterpiece were left feeling disappointed, not to mention rather dizzy.
Such movies are often released as a “special Chinese 3-D edition,” which runs counter to how the projects are originally conceived. Of the top 25 films at the Chinese box office so far this year, 20 have been released in 3-D. Twelve of those were imported films.
Following the panning of “Jason Bourne” by critics and audiences alike, its distributor, Universal Studios, released a statement saying: “Different forms of cinematic experience have sparked widespread debate among audiences. As film producers, we fully understand and respect our audiences’ demands, and truly hope that every customer in the market is able to choose a film format that corresponds to their viewing preferences.” This should be a wake-up call for producers to pay more heed to the tastes of Chinese audiences. If not, cinemagoers will simply vote with their feet.
Hollywood films have gained a large degree of access to China, but conversely, China needs to be represented better in Hollywood as well. Previously, audiences used to be excited by the presence of Chinese product placement in Hollywood blockbusters, such as the Yili low-lactose milk and China Construction Bank advertisements in the third and fourth “Transformers” films. Similarly, the casting of Chinese actors in Hollywood films furthered the impression that the country’s star was on the rise.
Now, however, audiences are beginning to suspect that Hollywood broadly sees Chinese actors as stepping stones into the country’s vast market. This claim is given weight by the fleeting cameos given to Chinese stars: Fan Bingbing, for example, appears only in the Chinese release of “Iron Man 3,” while Yang Ying’s role in “Independence Day: Resurgence” bears no real relevance to the story. As these movies morph into ever more thinly veiled moneymaking exercises, they have also become less satisfying artistically. Chinese viewers can therefore be forgiven for feeling that Hollywood — once a watermark of quality for most filmgoers — has given up trying to understand what they want to watch.
The Chinese film industry still has its sights trained on growing past the 100 billion yuan mark, but the speed of this process is going to be slower than last year. The size of the market is unquestionable, and it is anticipated that it will become the world’s largest movie sector in three to four years. Hollywood producers, whose eyes once lit up at this still-untapped market, must now ride out the transition away from narrow commercial gain and toward releases of real merit. As the only ones whose opinions truly count, audiences will be key to the process of uncovering films that are sincere and of high quality.
While it goes without saying that Hollywood will continue to make money in China, it won’t be as easy as before. In the same way that major brands were forced to localize their products over a decade ago, moviemakers will have to carefully consider what they offer the Chinese. Hollywood must combine its expansion into the market with good business sense. For this to happen, its most pressing task will be to understand the changing demands of its audiences.
(Header image: People watch a movie at a cinema in Shenyang, Liaoning province, March 1, 2014. Shen Ying/Sixth Tone)