In a nutshell, big studio movies are being made for world audiences and are getting watered down. If you want to apply to the most people as possible in order to rake in the largest box office, there are naturally certain cultural sensitivities that need to be accounted for. Just taking China as an example, the censorship board is so strict that films that contain any of the following were banned from release (though some were successfully petitioned against depending on the project).
- Unscientific Elements
- Propaganda of superstitious beliefs
- Being Anti-Chinese
- Time Travel
- Criticizing government
- Talking Animals
- Explicit Sexuality
- Use of Nuclear Weapons
- Excessive Violence
- US Military Dominance
- Dystopian Themes
But the importance of foreign markets runs much deeper than just censorship. It’s the percentage of foreign gross revenue that is the key. For example, while the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, can largely be considered a critical success, the following sequels were criticized by critics and audiences alike as cash grabs. But the overseas gross revenue for the first film accounted for just 53.3 percent. The three sequels had overseas revenue percentages of 60.3, 67.9, and 76.9, respectively. Seriously, the fourth installment, On Stranger Tides, made more than three-fourths of its money abroad. This is all thanks to global audiences’ willingness to consume sequels that the US is mostly indifferent to.
According to recent figures from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) almost 70 per cent of major studios’ annual revenue from box office now comes from international markets.
US film critic Matt Singer has noted
“With China, Iron Man 3 had extra scenes and extra characters who were barely in — or not in at all — the American version. If you saw the film at a movie theatre in China you had this extra subplot that involved Chinese characters.”
In fact US movie studios are so keen on not losing access to foreign markets that they will go to extreme measures to be politically correct. When news broke that the Hollywood invasion thriller Red Dawn — released last year — was going to feature Chinese antagonists, there was intense criticism in the Chinese media. In an unheard of and extremely expensive move, the villains were then digitally removed in post-production and replaced by North Koreans.
The dominance of international markets can also be felt in the types of films that are being made. The chart below does a good job of illustrating how as the international box office has changed over the past 20 years, so have the success of specific genres — most notably the rise of action and adventure, films that require less dialogue and are easily translatable across languages.
These facts and figures aren’t lost on the global markets either. Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing joked that while she had a small cameo in the Fox superhero tentpole X-Men Days of Future Past, she would be cast as the main X-Man within 10 years.
Just to demonstrate how powerful China’s almost 1.4 billion citizens have on gross box office, earlier this year according to the half-year industry report from China’s Ent Group, box office as of Friday for the first six months of 2018 totaled 31.6 billion yuan ($4.77 billion), with 889 million viewers, up more than 16% from the 27.2 billion yuan ($4.1 billion) recorded in the first half of 2017.
Domestic productions accounted for 18.8 billion yuan ($2.8 billion), or 59.6%, of the total. It was a huge increase from the 10.5 billion yuan ($1.59 billion) that accounted for 39% of total box office during the same period last year. Of the 40 movies released this year that have achieved more than 100 million yuan ($15 million), 18 were domestic productions.
The incredible success of Chinese films was driven largely by crime thriller “Detective Chinatown 2 and military blockbuster “Operation Red Sea.” The former raked in more than 3.6 billion yuan ($544 million), becoming the second-highest grossing film of all time in China after last year’s “Wolf Warrior 2.” “Detective Chinatown 2” grossed 3.4 billion yuan ($513 million). Fantasy comedy “Monster Hunt 2” took in 2.2 billion yuan ($332 million).
So next time you wonder why a random Asian throughline has been inputted into an otherwise story arch, remember that the Chinese are watching.