Anghus Houvouras on the attention being paid to the Chinese cut of Iron Man 3 and the subsequent online reaction (warning – major Iron Man 3 spoilers ahead)…
If it wasn’t already painfully clear, the success and/or failure of any Hollywood blockbuster is completely dependent on its worldwide gross. Just check the figures. There isn’t a big budget event movie that isn’t reliant on every single territory to get itself into potential profit. The ‘domestic’ (i.e. American) box office is becoming just another piece to the financial puzzle.
Even fledgling franchises like G.I. Joe could not justify their existence without the foreign component. $130 million budgeted against a domestic return of $112 million. Internationally, the film has almost doubled that number with $212 million in the bank. There’s a lot of films saved by a healthier international presence. Last year’s most debated film, Prometheus, would have been a massive loss based on the domestic take.
A $130 million budget. $126 million in America. $276 million internationally. The overseas box office was healthy enough for Fox to consider a sequel.
This is a lot of verbiage to basically state the obvious: the American theatrical box office is no longer the definition of success for major studio pictures.
With the globalization of the film market, new partnerships and new perspectives are required. Such was the case when Disney/Marvel partnered with Chinese company DMG to produce Iron Man 3. These new alliances are helping shape the ever expanding international market where Western films are still scrutinized and censored. Every studio knows there’s money to made in these emerging markets and looking for the most effective way to capitalize on them. They don’t call it ‘show business’ for nothing.
There’s been a lot of speculation online about the Chinese version of Iron Man 3 containing additional footage featuring Wang Xuqei and Fan Bingbang. And last week the The Hollywood Reporter ran a piece about the criticism of these roles being almost non-existent in versions outside of China. Much of this criticism came from Chinese bloggers who have seen the non-Chinese version of the film.
Am I the only one who thinks this is a non-issue on both sides of the story?
Is there any reason to find offense in a region specific version of a particular film? Much like Rian Johnson did with Looper last year after Chinese financiers asked that scenes be filmed in Shanghai. Additional scenes were added to the Chinese version of the film showcasing the region. It was a decision motivated by business, but lets be honest – would you even have noticed if the media hadn’t brought attention to it? The same holds true for Iron Man 3. The only reason we know about the additional scenes is because of the reporting. I’m just trying to figure out where the story is here.
Region specific screenings feel like a natural progression of the industry. Especially as Asian markets emerge and the markets widen. Studios already re-cut movies to meet individual country’s ratings and standards. What’s wrong with stocking the pond with additional regional talent to help market the film more to a specific country?
Is the indignation more based on the fact that it’s China, where the film industry is state controlled? That statement feels more on the nose. It’s not that people are against the idea of teaming up with Chinese financiers, it’s that the studios are making concessions so that the Chinese censors make exceptions to make sure the films are able to be released.
Just recently Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained was pulled from theaters just prior to release by Chinese censors demanding more cuts, reportedly more due to nudity than violence. This kind of thing never sits well with American media, in spite of our wonderful levels of hypocrisy when it comes to film ratings. Don’t get me started on that one. That is an article unto itself.
The subject of Chinese partnerships came up again when director Joss Whedon mentioned that this kind of arrangement might impact the forthcoming Avengers sequel. He said: “I’m working on the script right now, and if someone came to me and said, ‘We’re looking into doing a chunk of this in China’—well, I’d have to think about it,”
Whedon’s frank breakdown of the reality of China’s box office influence makes people uncomfortable. But he’s right.
The reality is that China is a rapidly growing economy and will continue to be more and more important to the studio’s bottom line. More partnerships like this will be forged, and studios will jump through whatever hoops are presented to them to make sure they are getting a healthy percentage of those ticket sales. Whether that means expanded roles for Chinese actors, region specific releases, or censored edits at the behest of the Chinese Government.
The other side of the argument is equally hollow. Why do these Chinese film bloggers seem so put out by the reduced roles of these actors in other regions? Everyone knows that this kind of region specific release is, in essence, pandering. Marvel and DMG are throwing in known Chinese actors to make the film more marketable to China. The fact that they aren’t included in other regions shouldn’t be all that shocking or troubling. It’s a very clear and very public acknowledgement that studios are willing to alter content in order to maximize box office potential. Again, this is the reality of studio filmmaking.
Here’s where things get tricky. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Fans were happy when Sir Ben Kingsley was cast as The Mandarin, the most iconic of Tony Stark’s rogues. But the finished film reveals that Mandarin isn’t actually the villain but an actor hired to portray a terrorist by businessman Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce). It’s an interesting twist, but it begs the question:
Did Marvel go this route to avoid offending their Chinese partners? Would the movie have been able to be released in China if they had gone with the more traditional portrayal of The Mandarin?
This one feels more complicated. Because it takes us into uncomfortable territory. Are decisions being made at the creative level to make sure these films are inoffensive to emerging markets? Is this another situation like the Red Dawn remake where Chinese villains are changed to North Korean to avoid friction? Is the censorship not just happening in the editing bay but the pre-production meetings?
Iron Man fans finally got The Mandarin, but instead he’s merely a pawn of Aldrich Killian.
All of this is idle speculation, but there’s a part of me that wonders if a movie with a more comic-book accurate portrayal of The Mandarin ever would have made it past the censors and been released in China.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those comic purists who believes everything has to be adapted verbatim from the source material. Most of my favorite comic book films are the ones that deviate from tradition. I didn’t need to see a Mandarin that is Chinese or wears ten alien rings. I didn’t need the Fu Manchu mustache. Hell, I didn’t even need The Mandarin in this movie at all. Still, part of this whole twist seems like it was very carefully constructed to appease both the fans of the financiers.
And to me, that’s where it gets interesting.
Anghus Houvouras is a North Carolina based writer and filmmaker. His latest work, the graphic novel EXE: Executable File, is available from Lulu.com.