James Cameron’s ‘The Way of Water’ continues the pattern of Hollywood blockbusters – but not Chinese tentpoles – struggling in the Middle Kingdom
“We may never know how the second Pandora image would have performed in China had it been opened under non-COVID circumstances,” attorney Stephen Saltzman said. The head of the international entertainment group at law firm Fieldfisher noted that the film’s opening weekend came shortly after COVID-specific restrictions were lifted and infections spiked.
Whatever the reasons for the weaker than expected performance, the result is just continuing a trend. After the past few years, Hollywood, as TheWrap previously reported, is once again treating the Chinese box office as mere luxury.
Asian studies professor Deepak Sarma of Case Western Reserve University noted that “China’s financial appeal is waning and Hollywood is a step behind.” He noted that tech companies are “moving from China to Vietnam to diversify their manufacturing capabilities.”
As previously reported, Hollywood’s share of the Chinese box office has fallen from a peak of $3.3 billion in 2017 to a likely finish of over/under $500 million in 2022, the number of films non-Chinese allowed there having fallen from a high of 73 in 2018 to under 30 this year. Fewer movies are entering, and those that do (with rare exceptions like “Godzilla vs. Kong,” which grossed $188 million in 2021) are earning less compared to pre-COVID times.
Meanwhile, Hollywood giants like “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” ($965 million without China) or “Minions: The Rise of Gru” ($37 million in China out of $935 million worldwide ) win as usual everywhere else. while Chinese tentpoles like “The Eight Hundred” ($460 million in 2020) or “Hi, Mom” ($835 million in 2021) are attracting pre-COVID level businesses in China.
Saltzman reminded TheWrap that “the idea of China saving failed Hollywood tent poles was mostly a myth.” Indeed, even in the 2010s, movies like “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” grossing $164 million in China out of $385 million worldwide or “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” grossing $159 million in China and $312 million worldwide are an exception to the rule. Most of the big Hollywood movies that broke in China were the same MCU movies, “Jurassic” sequels, and “Fast Saga” movies that broke around the world.
Former DMG chairman Chris Fenton explained to TheWrap that “everything that comes out of Hollywood is now, more than at any time in the last decade, explicitly considered by Beijing to be propaganda from Hollywood. ‘West”. The author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business” further noted that even American “soft power” propaganda in the face like Tom Cruise’s “Top Gun” sequel and seemingly innocuous novels – Coms like “Crazy Rich Asians” (which show people living in relative wealth and freedom and behaving in ways they couldn’t in China) are often viewed with stronger governmental or cultural disapproval.
“For example,” Fenton said, “Canadian-born James Cameron – who has done everything over the past two decades to endear himself to China – and his latest sequel ‘Avatar’ is currently too much of America in the eyes of from Beijing.”
“You play by the rules, look at the riches you’ll have,” Fenton noted, implicitly describing the unspoken agreement between the two cinematic superpowers over the previous decade. He also claimed that “Beijing feels that they just don’t need Hollywood anymore, because now they have a thriving industry and keep all the local movie revenue.”
Thus, even an overall decline in theater revenue (the first half of 2022 in China was down, in terms of overall theater revenue, by 38% compared to 2021) can be considered an acceptable price for the Chinese government to pay. to maintain cultural supremacy. and prioritize their own tentpoles.
Some of the implicit quid pro quo was in China using Hollywood’s interest in learning the tools of the filmmaker’s trade. For nearly a decade, China has been releasing its own culturally specific, big-budget, high-production, crowd-pleasing products. The success of “Wolf Warrior II” ($854 million in 2017) arguably signaled that China could do it on its own, which is also the implicit subtext of “Chinese government agent saves the world.” Africa of Genocidal Arms Dealers Without America’s Help” by Wu Jing. spectacular action.
While some of these films were widespread enough globally to act as potential cultural ambassadors, a shift in priorities (and heightened tensions between America and China under President Donald Trump) led China to emphasize national patriotism rather than global proselytism.
“Using cinema to project a culturally specific image beyond its borders is no longer the same priority as before,” Saltzman explained. That could mean less conventional/globally traditional Chinese tentpoles like Jackie Chan’s “Kung Fu Yoga” or Yi-Mou Zhang’s “The Great Wall” – starring Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal – and more formulaic quasi-propaganda warfare nationalist (but generally not chauvinistic). epics like the two-part “Battle of Changjin Lake” shot in IMAX which grossed $910 million in 2021 and $610 million in 2022.
The coming new normal could be one of mutually assured indifference. However, the worldwide box office success (so far) of “Avatar: The Way of the Water” with an alleged total of less than $100 million from China again shows that, especially when conditions improve, China’s theater industry may need Hollywood blockbusters more than Tinseltown needs China’s box office. This, by focusing solely on the theatrical sector, could ensure that no industry unduly influences the other.
“I want [Hollywood] be a success, be a bastion of free speech and American/Western values, and it will be again,” Fenton said. He often expresses mixed feelings about his key role in bringing Hollywood, including the MCU, to China after helping “Iron Man 3” become a trendsetter in the summer of 2013. “It’s important that our films resonate in China, but not at the expense of our own cultural values.
This article has been updated to reflect most of Disney’s current worldwide box office totals.
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