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How China's Rise Changes Movies

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 1, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | May 1, 2015 |

Twenty years ago, Hollywood didn’t pay all that much public attention to the international grosses of films. Movies like Jurassic Park, big budget success stories, could expect about 40% of their revenue from America, and the rest internationally. But even that skews the story a bit, because that remaining 60%? Half of it was coming from the rest of the Western world anyway, and another quarter from Japan. All told, a solid three-fourths of the box office was from the rich, developed world. China? Hardly a blip. India? Not even that much.

That’s changed quite a bit, with the film industry experiencing a slow decline in America (even as revenues tend to go up slightly every year due to ticket price bumps) and an explosion in the non-Western world. February of 2015 was the first month since anyone started counting when the United States didn’t have the biggest box office. China did.

Last week, Furious 7, which is already a massive hit in the United States, had its box office total in China surpass that in the United States. The number one movie of the year at the American box office has made more in China than it has here.

China’s only got 25,000 screens to America’s 40,000, and its annual box office is a bit less than half as big as the American one, but it’s gaining quickly. Whereas American box office revenues contracted 5% last year, China’s grew by 40%. That’s sort of a large number.

The most interesting part of this is the fact that China’s growth is not happening solely on American imports. Their regulatory boards heavily restrict film imports in order to protect their domestic industry from overseas competition. So films like the atrocious looking Dragon Blade that we had fun mocking as the death of John Cusack’s career had a hundred million dollar February without being released outside of China (other than a microscopic handful of screens in five other countries). That would be good for the 7th best box office in America this year, which ain’t too shabby.

Barring a sea change in Chinese regulatory policy, Hollywood’s going to have a hard time getting more than a handful of movies into China. But this also means that the Hollywood strategy for blockbusters is going to change, if it hasn’t already. A blockbuster that can get in the door in China can just about double its revenue just by virtue of getting in. That drastically changes the calculus for planning the enormous tent poles and franchises. You play nice, you play ball, you make sure that those films don’t have a single damned thing that might trip them up getting the golden ticket.

There’s an old caveat in political economics about paying taxes. It’s tempting to just want to drop all the income taxes to zero and collect all the taxes from corporations instead. But that’s the worst thing you can do for governmental accountability, because if you thought the government was beholden to oil companies and the like now, imagine when all the tax revenue comes from those companies. The economic welfare of the public becomes the least important thing on the table.

You thought big budget Hollywood films were soulless before? That was when they still needed your ticket revenue.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.