If you take a look at the list of the top ten highest grossing movies of 2019 so far, you’ll find a curious hodgepodge of titles. Of course, with this being February, and the first two months of the year considered a dry season for new and major releases, it’s hardly the most accurate representation of the business. There’s little chance you’ll see most of these titles on the list by December. Still, there’s much to enjoy from this insight into how international audiences work, given that most of these films are big with little to no contribution from the North American box office. There are some familiar titles here, like Glass and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, as well as a couple surprises (wait, Escape Room? And The Upside? Really?).
The most striking part is that four of the films on the list are Asian releases. There’s Extreme Job, a South Korean action comedy about a team of detectives who start a chicken restaurant as a front for a drug-busting operation but end up becoming popular chefs as a result. Pegasus, a Chinese comedy about a wannabe race car driver, has made more money than Alita: Battle Angel so far. Crazy Alien, about a monkey trainer who forms an unlikely partnership with an extra-terrestrial life-form that crash landed on Earth, is currently the third biggest movie of the year (it also stars Matthew Morrison from Glee, for some reason?) And right at the top of the list by a country mile is The Wandering Earth.
According to Variety, this sci-fi epic has made over $600m worldwide, with almost all of that money coming from China. It has already become the second highest grossing film of all time in the country. Based on the first novel in Liu Cixin’s award-winning novella of the same name, the film is part of a growing trend in the country of home-grown blockbusters that embrace Chinese values, humour and pop culture. Set in the near future where the Sun is about to burn out and the Earth has to be moved out of its orbit towards a new solar system, the film follows a group of Chinese astronauts and scientists who are leading the navigation to Alpha Centauri.
What is so striking about the trailers for The Wandering Earth is how so very Hollywood the aesthetic is. It’s an old-school SFX heavy space opera full of guns, explosions, and the cataclysmic destruction of our planet. If it weren’t for the total absence of white people and the obvious language change, you’d probably think this was another attempt by a major American studio to copy the Star Wars mould. Indeed, the industry basics behind getting this film made feel pretty standard: Take a familiar intellectual property by a big-name creator, put a sizeable budget behind it, turn it into an Event Movie, and release it at the most optimal point in the box office calendar. Liu Cixin, a Hugo Award winning author of science-fiction, is a very big deal in China and also with English speaking lovers of the genre, particularly for his most famous work, the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy.
But this film is still a unique moment in Chinese cinema. As noted by CNN, ‘authorities allowed the creators to portray the destruction of Beijing and Shanghai — the first time a Chinese-made film has been allowed to do so.’ American audiences are all too used to watching their nation’s most beloved monuments be destroyed by aliens, the weather and nuclear catastrophes, but there’s a major cultural barrier in place that has stopped the same pattern of blockbuster trope fulfilments in China, for obvious reasons. The film is also, as has been noted by many critics, nowhere near as nationalistic as many other major releases of its kind. Box office record breakers like Operation Red Sea and Wolf Warrior 2 (the latter of which is still the highest grossing film ever in China), were criticized for their politics. Wolf Warrior 2, in particular, is an unabashed piece of flag waving action movie patriotism, which, in that aspect, is not all that different from the gung-ho ‘America F*ck Yeah’ action movies of the ’80s.
China remains the golden goose of the international box office, although it has only held that title for less than a decade. The rapid growth of their entertainment industry coupled with the sheer size of their potential audiences has made Hollywood run frantically towards appeasing them. Think of how many blockbusters you’ve seen that seem to only exist for Chinese crowds, from the unfamiliar product placement in Transformers: Age of Extinction to the change of setting to places like Macau in Now You See Me 2. Sometimes this works very well and other times not so much. Venom was a major hit in China but not because of anything in the film. That came down to maybe the best advertising campaign ever, featuring Venom as your perfect boyfriend. Hollywood films must also deal with the threat of censorship and a limited schedule within which they can release their films, and as homegrown competition has increased, Chinese audiences are less inclined to accept weak pandering.
The practice of Hollywood films shoving Chinese actors into inconsequential cameos, surrounded by white actors, has been roundly criticized by Chinese audiences, and the kind of nostalgic favourites that do so well in America, like Star Wars, simply don’t hold the same sway in a country where nobody grew up obsessed with such titles. For the longest time, Hollywood was the breadwinner for big-budget blockbusters of consistent quality, but the market has dramatically grown over the past decade and China are part of that. They’re making 9-figure effects spectaculars in the same way America has done for years. Granted, that process is still one with teething problems. Last year, the fantasy epic Asura was promoted as China’s most expensive film ever, a $110m stunner that was marketed as their best way to compete with Hollywood. However, the film was quickly pulled from cinemas after a disastrous $7.1m opening weekend and slew of terrible reviews. The film-makers and studio alleged sabotage, but the damage was already done.
China’s desire to become a major international cinematic player is hampered by a number of factors: First of all, white dominated Western audiences are incredibly stubborn about watching anything with subtitles, and box office numbers are already struggling in a market where people go to see Marvel movies and very little else. Second, Hollywood studios are incredibly skeptical of the reported success of these movies in their home nation, and for good reason. There have been wide-spread reports of box office profits being fudged in favour of Chinese films and an MPAA ordered audit found that Chinese theatres were cheating Hollywood releases out of millions of dollars of revenue to make local releases look mightier in comparison. Hollywood doesn’t want to let go of its international dominance, even as profit margins get slimmer, budgets balloon and such endeavours become too big to fail.
For most of the world outside of China, The Wandering Earth will primarily be viewed as an industry-wide curiosity, something we talk about but probably won’t get a chance to see until it’s available for home viewing. Whether or not Chinese films break into the international market on a tangible level is not really the point. What scares Hollywood more is that China may eventually get to a place where they don’t need those American blockbusters anymore, at least not on the same level they used to be reliant on. The most interesting part of this evolution will be to see if international investors are keen to get in on this new field, and if primarily English-speaking audiences want to see how the rest of the world plays the Hollywood game. With more foreign language television than ever available for viewing thanks to Netflix, perhaps a new generation of viewers will be more inclined to embrace subtitled blockbusters. Let’s see someone else’s prized national monuments get blown up for a change.
Header Image Source: YouTube // China Film Group Corporation