China wakes up to Hollywood movies

Transformers: The Last Knight earned US$69 million (S$95 million) during its first five days in American theatres last month; in China, it earned US$123 million during the same period.
Transformers: The Last Knight earned US$69 million (S$95 million) during its first five days in American theatres last month; in China, it earned US$123 million during the same period.PHOTO: PARAMOUNT PICTURES

It certainly looked like a bomb.

Transformers: The Last Knight, which cost Paramount Pictures more than US$350 million (S$484 million) to make and market, earned a lame US$69 million during its first five days in American theatres in the middle of last month.

Paramount executives could overlook that performance because in China, where the Transformers series has enjoyed a decade of wild popularity, the film earned more than US$123 million during the same period.

But the time when Hollywood film-makers can count on Chinese viewers to rescue them from disaster may be coming to an end.

The world's second-biggest movie market (and soon to be its biggest), China has bailed out Hollywood's box-office bombs for years. The list of examples is long, led by the first four Transformers films, all of which have been massive hits in China despite generally poor reviews elsewhere.

It's easy to see why too. To this day, Chinese films can't match the technical and artistic standards found in Hollywood productions, even the clunkers (a state of affairs acknowledged by China's best film-makers). Government censorship worsens the problem.

In 2007, the first Transformers film was China's top-grossing movie. (In the United States, it was No. 3.) That was quite an accomplishment: The Chinese authorities limit foreign theatrical releases to very limited runs, ideally at times they won't compete against strong Chinese films.

Pirated DVDs reached many more Chinese who couldn't see the movie in theatres and its 2009 sequel doubled the first film's gross, becoming China's second-biggest film of the year (just behind 2012, another Hollywood schlockfest).

Since then, the audience for the Transformers series has grown roughly at the same rate as China's box office, giving executives at Paramount and other studios good reason to believe that Chinese audiences had an inexhaustible appetite for nonsensical, humourless storylines about battling alien robots.

Indeed, earlier this year, even the abysmal xXx: Return Of Xander Cage earned 47 per cent of its US$346 million gross in China (the US contributed a mere 13 per cent).

Two years ago, after a string of American flops did particularly well in China, articles complained that the country had become a Hollywood "dumping ground".

China's otherwise patriotic social media users largely dismissed the criticism, noting that "bad Chinese films are worse".

The opening for Transformers: The Last Knight would seem to confirm the pattern. But the numbers tell a different story.

Although the movie's China gross is expected to hit US$250 million, that would be 17 per cent less than its 2014 predecessor - at a time when China's box office has grown 80 per cent.

That's a warning that China's tastes are changing for the better and Hollywood isn't ready. In addition to Transformers, the pirated DVD boom of the 1990s and 2000s introduced Chinese audiences to a broad range of Hollywood and other fare otherwise blocked in China.

More recently, smartphones and streaming video apps have brought an even more diverse set of entertainment options to Chinese audiences.

As a result, the Chinese are becoming more discerning about what they pay to watch and are no longer as easily seduced by Hollywood spectacle. Last summer, Chinese box-office receipts declined for the first time in five years (box-office fraud may have also played a role).

The biggest Chinese box-office surprise of this year wasn't a sci-fi adventure, but Dangal, a critically acclaimed Indian family drama in which two young women push back against traditional gender roles. The theme resonated strongly in still-conservative China and, so far, it's earned more than US$190 million - making it China's fourth-biggest film of the year so far. And, unlike The Last Knight, which has experienced precipitously falling receipts since its release, the weekly take for Dangal actually increased over much of its run.

If, as expected, China expands the quota for foreign films, big Hollywood productions will face competition from smaller and more sophisticated American dramas too. And it's not just American and Indian movies that'll tempt viewers. Chinese films continue to improve, with locally produced fare now successfully competing against Hollywood's best (and worst).

Last year, The Mermaid, a Hong Kong-Chinese romantic comedy, earned the biggest box office in Chinese history, while other local comedies are regularly outselling the Hollywood competition.

That hardly means that Hollywood doesn't have a future in China. Diverse, character-oriented action films such as the Fast And Furious series continue to do well on the mainland and special-effects blockbusters will always be popular anywhere in the world.

But the days of Hollywood being able to assume that its worst efforts will see their best returns in China may be numbered.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2017, with the headline 'China wakes up to Hollywood movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe