A recent MPAA study revealed that China’s $2.7 billion in 2012 ticket sales surpassed Japan’s $2.4 billion. This makes China the second largest consumer of films in the world, behind only the United States. But while America’s Box Office totals have increased by 12% over the last five years, China’s Box Office totals have increased by a whopping than 400%.
Growing Chinese markets present an opportunity for Hollywood to dramatically increase profits. The question is how can Hollywood most dramatically capitalize on this market? And how will those efforts affect the movies American audiences see in their own theaters?
Certain types of movies perform better in China.
One key to maximizing profits at the Chinese box office will be to focus on making and promoting films that have the best chance of resonating with Chinese audiences. Recent history indicates that this will mean more high-concept action and fantasy films, as well as movies based on pre-established brands. Top Chinese performers from 2012 include the “Titanic 3D” re-release, “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol,” “The Avengers,” and “Men In Black 3.”
Notably absent? American box office heavyweights “Ted” and “Lincoln.” With China strictly limiting film imports, it is impossible for movies with significant language and cultural barriers to secure screenings. Language barriers disproportionately affect comedies– the jokes are often (literally) lost in translation. Meanwhile “Lincoln,” with its focus on American History, is of little significance to foreign audiences, and of especially little importance to non-Western, non-democratic cultures.
Of course, there will always be a strong American appetite for these types of films. But as China’s importance in Hollywood’s business model continues to grow, it seems likely that the “sure money” will lie with the action and special effects heavy films that have a strong track record abroad. Movies that appeal only to American audiences will face contracted budgets and reduced studio support.
Chinese Stars in Hollywood Blockbusters
Another logical step will be inclusion of Chinese movie stars in Hollywood tentpoles. American movies starring Antonio Banderas (“The Legend of Zorro,” “Spy Kids“) make disproportionately large profits in Spain. Christoph Waltz helped make “Django Unchained,” a decidedly American historical drama, a $48 million earner in Germany. “Inception” raked in $40 million in Japan with the help of co-star and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe.
A top-billed, established Chinese actor could make even a mediocre Hollywood picture a huge international hit. Hollywood will look for a Chinese star that, like Banderas, Waltz, and Watanabe, also draws American audiences. A possible candidate? Xu Zheng, the highly regarded Chinese actor, writer, and director who ruled China’s box office in 2012 with his hit film “Lost in Thailand.”
The Role of Chinese Censorship
China’s strict censorship policy has loosened in recent years, but the guidelines are still far more stringent than those of America’s MPAA. American studios often argue against Chinese censorship of American films, but with the explosion of profits in the Chinese market in recent years, how much can studios really afford to resist?
Perhaps in an effort to please Chinese censors and expand profits, more Hollywood blockbusters will seek to avoid casting a negative light on Chinese government and culture, limit depictions of nudity and violence, and decrease on-screen use of alcohol and drugs. While Chinese censors are growing increasingly lax on these guidelines, they are still far more restrictive than the MPAA.
For a more complete description of Chinese Film Censorship, check out this spectacular IndieWire Article.