It’s hardly a well-kept secret that the booming Chinese box office is having an impact on the way Hollywood blockbusters are being made. The average film fan may be largely unaware that Hollywood’s biggest movies are being subtly reworked in order to appeal to China, a nation that will reportedly, in 2017, outstrip the U.S. to become the most lucrative moviegoing audience in the world. It’s a concerning prospect for some filmmakers—concerning enough to make it into 2015’s opening Oscar number. But should audiences actually be worried about major changes to future films? Just how much of an influence has China had on Hollywood this year? More than you probably know.
Even some of the biggest films in the world have to make some concessions to also hit a home run in China. Last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was not really angled toward Chinese audiences and, perhaps as a result, did not perform as well there as Lucasfilm might have hoped. The film—which leaned heavily on nostalgia for an original trilogy that didn’t play in China until last year—pulled in only (“only”) $124.2 million of its worldwide $2 billion gross from Chinese moviegoers. In other words, it may not be a coincidence that beloved Chinese stars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen will appear in the next installment: Rogue One. And as for generally increasing a sense of Disney nostalgia in China, the House of Mouse opened a massive theme park in Shanghai in June. The huge undertaking forced Disney to cede an unprecedented amount of control of the park and general merchandising to the communist Chinese government, but it might be worth it.
Side deals like a theme park can considerably help the chances of the select American films that get a crack at the lucrative Chinese box office. China’s import quota only allows 34 foreign films into the country every year—which means that while middle-range and small films won’t need to concern themselves with Chinese audiences, the biggest blockbusters are under even more pressure to perform overseas. In 2016, Hollywood’s attempts to appease Chinese audiences ranged from clumsy to blink-and-you’ll-miss-it fare. To paraphrase a different lucrative, Asian sensation: Did you catch them all?
DEADPOOL — FEBRUARY
China’s censorship agencies usually work with Hollywood in order to tidy up R-rated films and make them palatable for Chinese audiences. But, as you might imagine, there just was no cleaning up Deadpool without making a hash of the plot. The gleefully foulmouthed comic-book adaptation was so unwilling to compromise with China that it was banned and never screened in China.
Did it help? Deadpool exceeded all expectations to become the sixth-highest grossing film of 2016, so far. So you know what? *%&$ the Chinese box office.
DISNEY ANIMATION/PIXAR RELEASES — MARCH–JUNE
While the future success of Star Wars in China is still up in the air, Disney animation is pulling in huge numbers there. It helps that the animated creatures of The Jungle Book, Zootopia, and Finding Dory are easy to dub into Chinese language. That alone may account for why those three are 2016’s second, third, and fifth most profitable films globally so far—and all did very healthy numbers in China. (Especially Zootopia a.k.a. Crazy Animal City, which added a panda newscaster just for Chinese audiences.) It’s possible that the decision to have a rabbit and a fox—both hugely important creatures in Chinese folklore—star in Zootopia was not a coincidence, but the film’s upbeat tone is even more important. Pixar didn’t have much success with the emotionally and thematically complex Inside Out in China last year, but the cheery optimism of Dory proved to be the studio’s most financially successful Chinese venture yet. And Disney’s newly minted theme-park partner, the Chinese government, even gave Zootopia two extra weeks on its original 30-day run—an extremely rare extension for non-Chinese films.
If those sunny animated films have a complete opposite, it’s the doom and gloom of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which, during its second week in Chinese theaters, experienced a dizzying 85 percent decrease in box-office returns. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was quickly dropped by Chinese distributors. Perhaps hoping to coast on the universal appeal of its caped crusaders, the film didn’t make many concessions to China to begin with, enabling Disney’s fluffy bunnies and wily foxes to hop all over it.
Did it help? And how.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR — MAY
An incredibly prevalent product placement that may have escaped most people’s notice made it into Marvel’s latest superhero team-up. Tony Stark (and a few other Avengers) switched from LG phones to a brand called Vivo. (See this swanky commercial spot the company landed.) If you haven’t heard of it, that’s because Vivo phones aren’t available stateside—and they’re certainly not something a billionaire tech wiz would use. As Sascha Segan of PC Magazine explained to Geek.com:
Vivo is a cheap Chinese phone brand, which does not sell any products in the U.S. It’s part of a larger company called BBK, which has three brands, Oppo, Vivo, and OnePlus. Oppo is the high-end brand, Vivo is the lower-end brand, and OnePlus is the geeky-culty brand.
Even if Tony started using that phone just for fun and somehow convinced the other Avengers to follow suit, Segan says there’s zero chance the American government would let Tony—who is very much a collaborator in this movie—“use phones from an off-brand Chinese phone manufacturer, especially after the huge controversies around Huawei and ZTE and whether their phones are full of backdoors for the Chinese government.” No one ever said product placements were graceful, but they don’t usually come with quite so many plot holes.
Did it help? Did it ever.
WARCRAFT: THE BEGINNING — JUNE
The very existence of a Warcraft film could be considered a concession toward the Chinese box office. In 2011, an estimated 3.2 million of the game’s 6 million-plus players were Chinese, and the movie itself—with its parade of C.G.I.-only characters—is constructed to make dubbing for an international audience easier. Warcraft’s cast features Daniel Wu; though American audiences may know him from the AMC series Into the Badlands, his presence is indispensable in China, where he is a massive star. The charismatic actor may have been unrecognizable as the orc Gul’dan, but his enthusiastic and unflagging promotional efforts surely helped the film succeed.
Lastly, the film premiered in China during Dragon Boat Festival weekend, meaning even more moviegoers were able to rush to the cinema during the national holiday. Given how well that strategy worked for Warcraft, we may see more and more release dates pegged to Chinese holidays. Stateside, Warcraft made back $47.2 million of its $160 million production budget—but worldwide, it made $433 million. More than half of that, $220.8 million, came from China.
Did it help? Yep!
NOW YOU SEE ME 2 — JUNE
Now You See Me (2013) did alright domestically ($117 million) but if you’re scratching your head as to why it got a sequel, well, that would be the huge overseas numbers ($234 million). Knowing on which side his bread is buttered, the franchise’s new director, Jon M. Chu, cast Taiwanese star Jay Chou in the sequel and filmed a portion of the movie in the Chinese region of Macau. But Chu argued to Vulture that these decisions weren’t a direct pander:
We did want to go global, and maybe there was some marketing idea in that as well, but at least on my part, it wasn’t a conscious effort. . . . It wasn’t like we said, Oh, we have to have Jay Chou because then that gets this or that. . . . We knew the movie did well in China last time, but I wouldn’t say we were like, Where in China could we shoot this? Although I’m sure Lionsgate was happy.
Did it help? Let’s just say Lionsgate is very happy.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE — JUNE
Chinese model turned actress Angelababy plays Rain Lao, an earthling fighter pilot, in the film. And, like Captain America, Independence Day features some Chinese tech in the form of QQ, a popular instant-messaging service. When Liam Hemsworth’s call to his earthbound girlfriend is interrupted by (what else?) aliens, the screen reads: “QQ is disconnected” and “Thank you for using QQ.” And Chinese milk company Mengniu’s latest product, Moon Milk, is so prominent in the film that it drew scathing eye rolls and accusations of pandering from foreign audiences.
Did it help? You know what? It kind of did.
STAR TREK BEYOND — JULY
The decision to make John Cho’s character, Hikaru Sulu, a happily married gay man came with its own share of controversy stateside. But according to Cho, even the brief scene between Sulu and his family was cut down from a more romantic version. “There was a kiss that I think is not there anymore,” Cho told Vulture. (It’s not.) While co-writer Simon Pegg says the decision to cut the kiss was “not coy,” the resulting scene was certainly platonic enough to create plausible deniability. Thanks to interviews from members of the cast and crew, there’s no question, here in the U.S., that Sulu is gay. But China still has very strict censorship rules that mostly exclude any depiction of homosexuality on-screen. While the kiss may or may not have been cut out of deference to American values, it will certainly curry favor with Chinese censors. Star Trek Beyond (without the kiss) will premiere in China in September.
Did it help? Too early to know.
GHOSTBUSTERS — JULY
Another potentially gay character who was toned down for general consumption was Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann. When asked if the character—who was flirty enough with her female colleagues to raise hopes among L.G.B.T. fans—was gay, director Paul Feig told the Daily Beast, “I hate to be coy about it . . . but when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing. . . . If you know Kate at all she’s this kind of pansexual beast where it’s just like everybody who’s around her falls in love with her and she’s so loving to everybody she’s around. I wanted to let that come out in this character.” But if the gay edges were rounded off Holtzmann in order to please the Chinese, it didn’t end up mattering: Ghostbusters had no shot at a Chinese release anyway, thanks to its supernatural elements. (China, it turns out, is afraid of those ghosts.) Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak suffered the same fate last year. Will studios be less inclined, in the future, to produce big-budget movies about ghosts?
Did it help? Busted.
JASON BOURNE — JULY
Audiences may not be able to guess all the reasons Matt Damon has so little to say in the new Bourne movie. “The thing about making these films,” director Paul Greengrass told The Guardian, “is that they’re not like a normal film. With a franchise movie, it’s got to turn the wheels of the industry and the studio has to have them. So you start with a release date. They say we’re going to make a new Bourne film and it comes out summer of X. Then they start on a script and invariably the script is not ready in time.” But as The Guardian also speculates, less dialogue means there’s less of a chance for things to get lost in translation.
That may be why our blockbuster heroes are getting more and more laconic. Leading men like Henry Cavill (only 43 lines in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice) and Tom Hardy (only 52 lines in Mad Max: Fury Road) are taking more and more of a backseat to the spectacle-heavy, human-light precedents set by Transformers. The latest Bourne only pulled in $60 million of its $120 million budget domestically, but it has yet to open in China.
Did it help? Too early to know.
The massive success of Warcraft is really a bellwether for what’s to come from Hollywood and China in the future. Crossover star Jackie Chan pointed out that the film’s overseas success “has scared the Americans. If we can make a film that earns [$1.3 billion], then people from all over the world who study film will learn Chinese, instead of us learning English.” Warcraft was only the first film in an ongoing partnership between Universal and Legendary, a company that has recently become a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Wanda Media Group. The pair will also collaborate on Kong: Skull Island and The Great Wall—a movie from acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou, which recently drew fire for casting a white Matt Damon to lead a Chinese story. That’s the price of trying to appeal, simultaneously, to China and Hollywood.
But Universal is far from the only film making this deal. Last fall, Warner Bros. announced a similar partnership with China Media Capital—a massive investment fund backed by the Chinese government—to create the Hong Kong–based joint venture Flagship Entertainment, which has offices in both Beijing and L.A. The company will “produce a slate of Chinese-language tentpoles.” Dreamworks was already in bed with C.M.C., which helped release the enormously successful Kung Fu Panda 3 in January of this year. (There’s a panda film that doesn’t even have to try to pander.) Meanwhile, Sony hired Sanford Panitch away from Fox to head a new international production group.
All of these international partnerships signal a move away from Chinese elements awkwardly shoehorned into American films and toward movies that feel more organically pitched toward that culture. The biggest hit in China this year, by far, was a Chinese-language film called The Mermaid, from Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle, Shaolin Soccer). “The Chinese love their culture, and they love to see it on-screen,” Bill Borden, an L.A.-based consulting producer on The Mermaid told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s why Stephen is so popular: he has a million little jokes and funny nuances in his movies that you just won’t get if you’re not Chinese. To continue to work in China in a big way, you’re going to have to be culturally sensitive.” Guess a well-placed cell phone or pandering cameo just isn’t the same.