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Commentary: Why ‘Fast and Furious’ Is Bigger Than ‘Star Wars’ in China10 min read

18 January 2021 7 min read


Commentary: Why ‘Fast and Furious’ Is Bigger Than ‘Star Wars’ in China10 min read

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Starring Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, 1993 action-thriller The Fugitive would be the first fresh major Hollywood blockbuster screened in China in decades. Since then, throughout their love-hate relationship, the Chinese film market — now see-sawing between being the world’s largest and second-largest — has puzzled Hollywood with their peculiar trends. 

Hollywood blockbusters that have barely made a splash domestically, such as 2013’s Pacific Rim and 2015’s Terminator Genisys, found spectacular success in China. Despite Disney’s best efforts, the Fast and Furious series remains far more popular in China than Star Wars. 2016’s Warcraft would have been a flop if it wasn’t one of China’s most anticipated films.

Despite being critically panned, Universal Pictures saw its then-highest-grossing debut ever in China with 2012’s Battleship. Perhaps the most perplexing statistic comes in 2006 with Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties shattering Chinese box office records for animated films. 

Despite struggling domestically, the success of 2013’s “Pacific Rim” in China led to its 2018 sequel / Warner Bros. Pictures

Sift through China’s box office numbers further and it is tempting to make sense of the perplexing trends as a symptom of the Chinese film market being ‘uncultured and ‘unsophisticated’; that they just want to watch mindless explosions, giant robots and sports cars. This comes easy with the casual racism and Sinophobia so apparent today. 

Finding out the reasons behind film consumption trends probably wouldn’t do much in eradicating hatefulness. However, untangling these trends can lead to a better understanding of the Chinese and their everyday lives, as well as unearthing a glimpse of the uncertain yet exciting future of Chinese and Hollywood blockbusters.

A Brief History of China’s Hollywood Imports

Superman’s first on-screen appearance in China would be one of the few instances where the superhero became a supervillain. 1978’s Superman, starring Christopher Reeves, was brought to China in 1986 and drew record crowds. However, the film would be pulled just a month later, followed by the state media running a hit piece decrying the superhero for representing the capitalist class in a good light.  

It would take almost a decade later for China to welcome the next fresh Hollywood blockbuster with The Fugitive. Already a hit a year ago domestically, the film would repeat its success with packed Chinese theatres.

(The success of “The Fugitive” in China would be surpassed a year later with Schwarzenegger starrer “True Lies” / Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Fugitive marked the first revenue-sharing arrangement between Hollywood and China. The arrangement was part of China’s efforts to revitalise its film industry and film market, where profits from these would be funnelled to industry development. The other method for a foreign film to enter the Chinese market would be by paying a flat license fee — a fee that has skyrocketed over the decades since the 1990s.

Another barrier facing foreign studios are China’s film quotas. As of today, only 34 revenue-sharing films are allowed to be imported into China, while a further 30 to 40 films can be imported on a flat-fee basis (however, this might change very soon with a new administration in the White House possibly — but unlikely — bringing about a détente between the two superpowers).

Hollywood Offers Something Different From Chinese Domestic Films

When The Fugitive arrived in Chinese theatres, audiences praised the film’s “sound effects” and “strong sensory stimulation”. It’s a broad generalisation but how these elements were singled out by Chinese audiences in the 1990s could still vaguely apply for Hollywood’s appeal to them today.

Film quotas are enforced by the Chinese to protect its own domestic film industry. While the last decade has seen hundreds of domestic films released each year, their market share remains comparable to the dozens of foreign imports. This can be attributed to the limited genre scope of mainstream domestic films, which are mainly feel-good romantic comedies, historical fantasies, and nationalistic dramas. 

Based on a popular mythological character, 2019’s “Ne Zha” is the highest-grossing animated film of all time in China / Image credit: Chengdu Coco Cartoon

Hollywood CGI spectacles offer Chinese audiences something completely different. It is no coincidence that — in most cases — whenever domestic films do tackle different themes and genres, such as with animated film Ne Zha and sci-fi Blockbuster The Wandering Earth, they are box office hits. 

Hollywood films also fundamentally differ from Chinese films in their tone, giving audiences a glimpse into foreign life. The appeal of Hollywood blockbusters is furthered by how mainstream Chinese films tend to have a stronger focus on domestic issues, stories, and cultures — which also happens to explain why the latter group tend to struggle in international markets.

All That Glitters Is (Not) Gold

Just because Hollywood films tend to look and feel different to Chinese audiences doesn’t mean that these imports always find success. There are films that strike a universal appeal between the two worlds, such as the success of the Fast and Furious franchise and of superhero films. However, Hollywood blockbusters would still have to account for the language barrier and massive cultural differences between East and West.

Films that feature intricate plots and worldbuilding, such as The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, often fail to find success in China because of what is lost through subtitles. Films that rely on nostalgia specific to Western audiences, such as Bohemian Rhapsody and 2017’s Power Rangers, would similarly fall flat in China.

Even Disney, the multi-billion behemoth, finds it difficult to punch through the Great Wall. The failure of the Star Wars franchise to lift off in China could be attributed to a combination of the two aforementioned factors. Even featuring Chinese superstar Donnie Yen in spin-off Rogue One didn’t help. How the film was beaten by another Yen starrer xXx: Return of Xander Cage on their opening weekends showed the limits of star power. A similar example is the recent remake of Mulan, which, despite featuring a largely Asian cast (including Yen) and with Chinese consultants onboard, still failed in China for a multitude of reasons. 

The latest slate of Star Wars films have all flopped in the Chinese box office / Image credit: Walt Disney Pictures

That being said, China isn’t free from the clutches of superhero mania either with most entries doing spectacular business there. When entries do fail, such as the Nolan Batman films and Wonder Woman 1984, it is mainly because of the reasons identified above: too much jaw-jaw and too little war-war. 

These could explain why films that may be critically-panned in the West for their straight-forward plots and emphasis on spectacle, such as the Fast and Furious and Transformers franchises, tend to be hits in China. A key litmus test for success seems to be if the film is able to stand on its own plot-wise and with a largely self-contained story even if it’s part of a franchise.

The middle kingdom’s film schedule offers another straight-forward explanation to a Hollywood film’s prospects. Much to the chagrin of US film executives, Hollywood blackout periods, where the country will see no new Hollywood releases, are usually instated, with few exceptions, during marquee blocs of the Chinese calendar. These periods are namely the summer vacation (June to August), Chinese New Year holidays and National Day holiday week.

While the arrangement has never been officially recognised by the Chinese government, Hollywood blackout periods have provided box office boons to domestic films — although recent trends have questioned its effectiveness. 

The end of these periods could also turn out to be a gold rush for Hollywood films in China, which was the case for Terminator Genisys in 2015. A box office bomb domestically, the film was salvaged by its overwhelming success in China. Its success has been attributed to Schwarzenegger’s popularity there as well as the film being the first foreign release after a two-month blackout period. However, without the same circumstances and even despite Schwarzenegger’s return, Chinese audiences would not be back to rescue the series again in 2019 with Terminator: Dark Fate

Only Shooting Stars Break The Mold?

As with any film market analysis, it should be noted that the Chinese audience is not a monolith — especially with a population of over a billion and recent estimates predicting a middle-class 550 million strong by 2022. All these factors identified are not to say that Chinese audiences have simplistic tastes per se either — far from it. They just have their other needs out of cinema fulfilled by domestic productions. The failure of 2020’s Mulan and The Great Wall showed that Chinese audiences have no interest in outsiders telling Chinese stories.

The record-shattering success of 2019’s “The Wandering Earth” spectacularly showcased the possibilities China-made sci-fi / Image credit:  Beijing Dengfeng International Culture Communications Company

Domestic productions are catching up to encompass the spectacle local audiences expect out of Hollywood blockbusters. The previously-mentioned Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth were chart-toppers that offered a double-whammy of being outside of conventional genres while packing stories and themes that are uniquely Chinese. 

It was unimaginable for the biggest Chinese superstars of yesteryears to be headlining anywhere else other than romantic comedies or historical epics. This is not so much the case with the superstars of today. Wu Jing, the star of action-thriller Wolf Warrior 2 and sci-fi epic The Wandering Earth — both in the top three of highest-grossing films in China — is perhaps most emblematic of this new trend.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hamstrung the industry’s spectacular growth, with state media reporting on the closure of over 13,000 film and TV companies.  Perhaps the biggest and clearest indication of the Chinese industry’s strategy moving forward would be with the films commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary this July — would they be fully embracing streaming services, or would theatres remain core? Would they continue to challenge Hollywood’s appeal with more of their own in the same vein? 

All these would have wide ramifications for film studios abroad. If relations between China and India ease, Hollywood may find itself competing with a regional powerhouse. Hollywood would have to start doing far more than dazzle and pander to Chinese audiences to have a foothold in what might soon to be the world’s largest film market.

Get a glimpse of the potential future of Chinese sci-fi by streaming The Wandering Earth on Netflix!

Banner image credits: Universal Pictures / Walt Disney Pictures

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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