Chinese Box Office: Bragging About a Rigged Game
A “different form of national pride”? Or “Rambo” with a Chinese face?
Wu Haiyun has a piece on the website Sixth Tone, which is for “Fresh Voices from Today's China,” and her point is as obvious as the headline:
Why Chinese Filmgoers Don't Buy Hollywood's Values Anymore: Well-worn Western tropes of individualism and liberalism fail to resonate with audiences embracing a different form of national pride
Quite the mouthful.
According to her bio, Wu is an editor at Sixth Tone, she has a Ph.D., and she was a visiting fellow at the Harvard-Yenching Institute. And her piece is misleading. It's so misleading it amounts to propaganda.
She begins by talking up China's role as the world's No. 1 movie market. To give perspective: This year, with the release of “Black Panther,” the domestic market in North America had a good February, grossing just over $1 billion, a record for that month. The domestic market in China? According to Wu, it grossed $1.6 billion, which would be a record for any month in North America. That China is now, or nearly is, the world's No. 1 movie market is not in dispute. Nor is it disputed that most of those new February movies in China were domestic releases: “Operation Red Sea,” “Detective Chinatown 2,” “Monster Hunt 2.”
Here's what's disputed. She writes:
In March, major Hollywood titles like “Black Panther,” “The Shape of Water,” “Tomb Raider,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” and “Ready Player One” all premiered in the country. In the absence of any major domestic releases, the monthly sales of 51.6 billion yuan were only about half of February's figure.
Right. And in the absence of Chinese New Year, too.
That's the key. Seriously, who among her readers doesn't know this? In terms of moviegoing, February in China is like summertime or Christmastime in the states. Everyone is off for a week, everyone has leisure, everyone goes to the movies. It's prime movie real estate. And it‘s not available to Hollywood movies.
During Chinese New Year, as well as the summer months, the Chinese government, for years now, has instituted what it calls “domestic film protection periods,” or what the U.S. press calls “Hollywood blackout periods.” No new foreign releases are allowed. That’s why all those Hollywood movies Wu listed above were released in March. February was off limits. You want to see a new Hollywood movie during Chinese New Year? 没有了。Go to the states.
Wu mentions this, yes, but passingly, and without specifying when such policies are in place. She brings it up to dismiss it. “These claims are overblown,” she writes. “Chinese audiences, not the Chinese government, are turning their noses up at Hollywood.”
If that's true, why have the protectionist policies in the first place? Why not allow Hollywood movies to be released during Chinese New Year, to compete with “Monster Hunt 2,” or during the summer months, to compete with “Wolf Warrior II”? Instead, China clears the field. During its most lucrative months, it runs races with just the Chinese and then brags that the Chinese won.
Wu's article is full of other misleading ideas about movies and box office. She brings up the poor Chinese performance of U.S. Oscar nominees such as “Moonlight” and “The Shape of Water,” as if this is a rejection of western values (feminism, LGBT rights), and as if these movies did boffo box office in the states. They didn‘t. Oscar nominees/winners rarely do. Serious films rarely do. Not for decades now. It’s sad but it's mostly global. People go see crap.
Hell, look at the Hollywood movies that do well in China: the “Fast and Furious” franchise; “Transformers”; and the video-game adaptation “Warcraft,” which the U.S. market rejected hugely ($47 million, domestic), but which did 很棒 in China ($230 million). What does that say about Chinese values? Do we fathom a guess? Would Wu like the answer?
The truly awful thing about the article? Wu didn't have to juke the stats. Her basic premise is correct. Chinese audiences are flocking to Chinese movies more than to Hollywood movies, and I don't think it's just because of protectionism. I think it's because Chinese production values are now at such a level as to compete with Hollywood‘s. The absolutist storylines are similar, too. The difference is the faces. It’s their faces now. It's their country and language. And who wouldn't want to see their face, their country, their language, up on the screen, in well-produced wish-fulfillment fantasy, after years of seeing only the other kind?
To me it's that simple. It's so simple only a Ph.D. could miss it.