Tom Jolliffe on the ever-growing Chinese interest in Hollywood…
It used to be that the success or failure of a Hollywood film rested on its domestic box office results. In fact success or failure was often established by the time the opening weekend results had come in, and even further you could say by the estimates in the week before the release. Before the first ticket was sold, studios almost perceptively knew if they had a bomb on their hands. Even more perceptively, they might have sensed this months in advance and taken measures to quietly release it without wasting too much more money on things like marketing.
There seems to have been a shift in thinking over the past five or so years though. Now a major consideration of success is the worldwide gross. It seems studio execs in America now acknowledge the existence of other territories. Now America has perennially been the biggest world market of course, but there are many emerging and rapidly growing markets. Not least the growing influence on worldwide gross that comes from China (which is looking likely to become the biggest market).
Politically and culturally there are extenuating reasons for a sudden growth in this influence. 30 years ago China was closed off to Western ways. Slowly but surely there has been a more relaxed level of control in China regarding outside influences. This has been particularly evident under their current President, Xi Jinping. Long gone are the days of Chairman Mao’s strict regime (to put it mildly). The younger generation in China have more freedom of expression. They are engaging with Western influences. Not (yet) to their cultural detriment (and I hope not). Western music, film, and sporting franchises have increased in popularity. If you look at the arc over such a short space of time, the rise is incredible.
As a consequence it goes without saying that a nation so packed with people (and thus potential punters) which is suddenly more open to Western cinema and blockbuster franchises, offers an enormous market to salivating Hollywood studios. In fact the Chinese market has been largely responsible for salvaging a number of turkeys from box office oblivion. Terminator Genisys is unlikely to get a sequel, but there has still been fleeting suggestions of a possible follow-up (though a reboot is probably more likely). It bombed spectacularly in the US. It didn’t do too much better across Europe (Though Arnold remains eminently popular in some smaller European regions, particularly Eastern). The only reason any suggestion of another outing for the cyborg may even come to pass is because of the gross in China. The Worldwide gross for T-Gen ended up close to half a billion dollars. A huge chunk of that was the gross in China. In fact in its first week it nearly eclipsed the entire US run.
Sticking with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a running theme, one should also consider The Expendables franchise. That looked dead and buried after a hugely disappointing third instalment grossed $38 million in the US. That was half of the second film and almost just over a third of the first film. On a production budget of 90 million, that was obviously a huge let down. However a worldwide gross of over 200 million has been enough to warrant a sequel. Again, the gross in China was big and contributed largely to the fact we’re expecting a fourth instalment to shoot later this year. Furthermore, Arnold and Sylvester Stallone teamed up in the somewhat middling Escape Plan. It may have been passable (if a bit mediocre) but it didn’t pull in the cinema goers in the US at all, grossing a poor $25 million. It proved to be another success in China though, where the old action guard are still immensely popular. As such, against the odds, a sequel to Escape Plan has been greenlit. That will see Stallone headline with Dave Bautista and shoot this year.
It’s not just 80’s action icons either. Godzilla didn’t pull in the numbers expected upon its release. That sounds harsh on a film which pulled in an opening weekend of $93 million in the US, but the drop off was huge. That being said though, the worldwide numbers of over half a billion ultimately meant the film was a financial hit and a sequel is on the way. Pacific Rim was similar. Nothing to write home about domestically, but it appears big monster movies are a big draw across Asia. 2018 will see a sequel.
There are more examples, but why these films in particular need mentioning? Well aside from the audience interest in said franchises, they have gained interest from direct Chinese investment. The controlling stake in Legendary pictures (who own Pacific Rim and Godzilla to name a few) is owned by the Chinese Wanda Group (run by Wang Jialin). Elsewhere Escape Plan 2 is a Chinese co-production, which is set to shoot in China. A significant amount of Chinese investment is being ploughed into Western cinema.
Millennium films, who are most well-known for The Expendables franchise were recently bought by Recon Group, which is owned by Chinese Businessman, Tony Xia. The President (Xi Jinping) himself seems to want to encourage developments in global interactions in media, sports and more. Xia also significantly bought Aston Villa football club last summer. It’s particularly significant for me being a Villa fan. I can say with safe assurance too that Xia is not afraid to throw his money around, even if there’s no guarantee he’ll ever see it again. He’s unlikely to with Villa. Indeed, he’s probably going to be on a loss for much of his film endeavours with Millennium, if not saved by his own nation buying enough tickets. I think at this time the act of significant investments, not only by Xia and Jialin but others from China, is more paramount than the notion of profit. Of course that may come, and these guys aren’t fools, they don’t want to lose a load of cash, but this global engagement is seen as something that will ultimately add new revenues to the booming Chinese economy.
So what next? More companies will see significant investment from China. This will be in significant share purchases, controlling shares, or co-productions and investments in films. Earlier this year we saw a sequel to a long dormant and seemingly dead franchise when Vin Diesel returned as Xander Cage. No one particularly wanted it or demanded it. The original xXx was a hit, but instantly forgettable and subsequently irrelevant in cinematic history. The follow-up (minus Diesel) was a disaster in every aspect. A sequel at that point seemed impossible. However given Vin’s popularity in Asia, it was deemed viable to dig up a poor franchise with a crap hero (and the third film is utterly dreadful). The real clincher though was that it was a Chinese co-production. Add in a couple of Asian stars, notably Donnie Yen, and the film was greenlit and the major hopes of box office success probably rested in China. Indeed the US gross was poor. $44 million domestically, but heartily beefed up by over 300 million dollars worldwide. The opening weekend in China was $69 million, shattering (and shatting on) the entire US run. As such, fully expect another outing for the utterly ridiculous Xander Cage (the 50-year-old skateboarding waster).
The notion that a film’s US box office determines the likelihood of a sequel is dead thinking. It seems over a billion potential cinema goers in China, with a differing taste to the American market (but still open to the general American style) now have a significant say in not just sequels, but potentially elongating the careers of guys like Stallone and Schwarzenegger, who without this market may have been thrown on the scrap-heap, or shot straight to the video on demand graveyard with nary a theatre in sight. Long forgotten films may even have the potential for resurrection too and who knows what potential sequels may find the green-light in the next few years, and indeed where this rapidly growing Chinese influence will end up. For now though it also means that mid to large budget films do not begin and end with Marvel and DC. For better or worse there is a more open market now and there will be a wider array of blockbusters because of the booming Chinese market. Just how far some studios may begin to cater, culturally and politically to the Chinese market will also be a point of interest too.