Has China fallen out of love with Hollywood movies?

Nathalie Emmanuel and Vin Diesel in a still from Fast & Furious 9.
PHOTO: Universal Pictures

While the Covid-19 pandemic has led to widespread entertainment industry suspension and folding-up of cinemas in the US, the news that Fast & Furious 9 racked up 1.2 billion yuan (S$249 million) at China’s box office earlier this month provided a welcome boost to the ailing Hollywood industry.

However, this seemingly glowing figure is a far cry from the China box office takings of the franchise’s previous films . Its eighth instalment took in 2.7 billion yuan in 2017 and its seventh, released in 2015, grossed 2.4 billion yuan.

The franchise’s performance in China is emblematic of the wider trend of Hollywood movies fast losing appeal with mainland audiences. Last year, domestic films accounted for 84 per cent of 2020’s total box office of 20.4 billion yuan, according to figures from China Film Administration.

All the top 10 box office winners for 2020 were domestic films.

The picture was the reverse in 2011 and 2012, when six and seven Hollywood movies respectively were ranked among the top 10 grossing films for the year in China.

The last Hollywood movie to be ranked as the highest-grossing film for a whole year in China was Transformers: Age of Extinction, the franchise’s fourth instalment which was released in 2014. The movie took in 1.9 billion yuan in China, accounting for one third of its global box office.

Mark Wahlberg in a still from Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).
PHOTO: Hasbro Films

The waning pull of Hollywood movies among Chinese audiences comes as the domestic industry is in an unstoppable ascendancy. Domestic films break box office records year after year. Wolf Warrior 2 took in 5.68 billion yuan in 2017.

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In 2019, sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth earned 4.4 billion yuan at the domestic box office, which is eclipsed by the 4.65 billion yuan Nezha , an animated film, took in later in 2019. 

The gap between box office takings for the highest-grossing domestic Chinese and Hollywood films is also widening.

In 2015, the discrepancy was negligible when Hollywood box office champion Fast & Furious 7 took 2.4 billion yuan, the same as that chalked up by Monster Hunt, China’s highest-grossing domestic film that year.

So far in 2021, the highest-grossing domestic film is Hi, Mom, which took in 3.8 billion yuan, more than three times that of Fast & Furious 9 .

Jia Ling (right) and Zhang Xiaofei in a still from Hi, Mom.
PHOTO: China Film Co., Ltd.

Li Jun, director of 2019 film Hunt Down, tells the Post at the Shanghai International Film Festival that Chinese audiences are bored with the repetition of Hollywood movies and incessant extension of franchises. “People get bored when Fast and Furious is in the ninth instalment,” he says.

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“When it first came out [in 2001], people had never seen things like a car hurtling out of a plane. People loved Hollywood before for the good stories and genre films. When it keeps churning out similar fare, audiences leave.”

Other Hollywood franchises are also pulling in much smaller Chinese audiences.

While Transformers ’ fourth instalment took in 1.9 billion yuan in China and was the box office champion in 2014, the fifth instalment, Transformers: The Last Knight – was ranked only sixth, and took 500 million yuan less than the previous movie when it was released in 2017.

Bumblebee fights off a Sentinel in a still from Transformers: The Last Knight (2017).
PHOTO: Hasbro Films

China’s love affair with Hollywood started in 1994 when the mainland government allowed the import of 10 overseas movies each year. The Fugitive, starring Harrison Ford, was the first Hollywood import, arriving in six trial cities in China, including Beijing and Tianjin, in 1994.

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In spite of being screened for only seven days, it easily made 25 million yuan in box office takings, the highest that year.

In 1995 True Lies , starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, was screened across China, reaping a record-breaking 102 million yuan, even without the sea of publicity that usually accompanies today’s Hollywood releases.

The individual heroism, sexy scenes and bloody fights portrayed in The Fugitive and True Lies were a far cry from the edifying domestic fare, which was intended more to educate than entertain the audience.

In 1998, Titanic, based on the historical sinking of the eponymous doomed passenger liner, took a whopping 350 million yuan, with a scalped ticket to the film selling for several hundred yuan.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a still from Titanic (1997).
PHOTO: Paramount Pictures

In 2001, with China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation, the overseas film import quota rose from 10 to 20, with Hollywood films making up most of the quota year after year.

In 2010, Avatar became the first film to take in over a billion yuan, earning 1.35 billion yuan. Franchise movies like Harry Potter and the James Bond series reigned supreme for more than a decade. 

Over the past few years, however, instead of being box office champions, Hollywood productions have been plagued by negative publicity. Last year, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan was criticised for messing up the presentation of traditional Chinese culture.

In 2019, China pulled the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood , following reports that friends and family of the late Bruce Lee had panned the director for the untruthful depiction of Lee in the movie.

Li Jun says another reason for China’s waning love for Hollywood has to do with the rising production values of local films. “Domestic films’ special effects are done by international companies, including those from Korea and Hollywood. The domestic special effects companies are also composed of many overseas talents.”

Li cites as an example Infinite Depth , a disaster movie directed by him and to be released in summer, which has 1,600 special-effects shots.

“While I can’t say how much it cost to make the movie, it’s the most expensive film I have ever made,” he says. “There’s a scene of a car chase when humans have to outrun a natural disaster. We need around 10 cars, which keep getting damaged.”

Li Jun, director of Infinite Depth, at the Shanghai International Film Festival.
PHOTO: Shanghai International Film Festival

Infinite Depth was made in Guizhou province in an area with many deep underground caves. “One of the caves we shot the movie in is the longest in Asia, at 280 kilometres. The cave went all the way to Chongqing.

The film crew had to be lowered several tens of metres underground to make the film. We have recruited speleologists and psychologists to provide counselling for the crew, as many unforeseen circumstances like a precipitous drop in temperature can happen so deep underground.”

Jeff Bock, box office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, says Hollywood movies lagging far behind mainland films in China’s box office will continue far into the future.

“The Chinese productions right now are some of the best works that have ever come out of China in terms of reaching mass audiences. There’s a lot of innovation [in them].”

“It’s a difficult situation for Hollywood,” he adds, “because they so wanted to tap into the Chinese market on a consistent basis.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.