China’s twisted film industry will engineer more bomb-hits like ‘Warcraft’
Warcraft, the film based on Activision Blizzard˚s fantasy game, is tanking in the US. In its debut weekend It made just $24.3 million on an investment of $160 million, and word of mouth is unlikely to help turn things around. The film has a critics’ rating of 27 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, and The Atlanticsays it requires “years of training alongside solemn mages simply to possess the superhuman endurance needed to enjoy it.”
In China, though, the film swept up $137 million in it’s first two days, surpassing the year’s previous biggest opening, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid, and setting a new all time record for Chinese IMAX sales. One guy even bought a ticket for his silicone girlfriend. Jackie Chan delighted in the idea that the film’s success in China has “scared the Americans”.
Do Chinese audiences have bad taste or what?
The vastly different receptions Warcraft has received in the US and China have been explained a number of ways, including Chinese audiences’ poor taste and the game’s popularity here. Neither of these answers holds much orc blood.
Yes, user reviews of social media site Douban give Warcraft (魔兽) a generous 8.1/10, but English speaking audiences scored the movie even higher at 83 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes. Bad taste spans both sides of the Pacific.
So does good taste. Lee Hyo-won, Asia correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter, told us “The Chinese film market is constantly changing, as is the local audience's taste. While gimmicky films have done surprisingly well so have (locally produced) intelligent indie films.”
Regarding the number of Chinese World of Warcraft (WOW) players, estimates range from half of the 5 million active players to a much less impressive "at least 10 per cent" of the 100 million WOW fans (when China makes up 19 per cent of the global population).
Further muddying the waters, some commentators claim the number of Chinese players is inflated by gold farmers, people who play only to accrue game credits they can sell for real world money. The practice was widespread enough that Chinese prison bosses forced inmates to farm gold.
On the other hand, World of Warcraft had a particularly ardent following in China according to gamer Carwyn Morris. “It's hard to understand the level of importance unless you spent time in net bars and college dorm rooms playing these games, as I did in both China and the UK. The first 'bro' moment I had in Gansu was playing Warcraft 3 with my hairdresser in 2005. I would imagine that the percentage of the movie going population that played one of these is probably higher than any country, perhaps with the exception of South Korea, but SK was a bigger Starcraft country and it moved on past Warcraft, while China never really did.”
While the game is undoubtedly popular in China, it has a huge US following too. Hell, they made a South Park episode about it. But if differences in taste and the number of super fans don’t fully bridge the chasm in box office takings, what does?
An uneven raiding field
The main reason is the lack of competition. China limits the number of foreign films to just 34 per year, fewer than two every three weeks. Scant films from anywhere can compete with Hollywood blockbusters, and the Chinese domestic film industry is no exception. Whereas Warcraft struggled against The Conjuring 2 in the States, it blew by China’s domestic competition like so many sleeping security guards.
The State-owned China Film Group has a monopoly on the release of foreign films in China, deciding which will screen here and collecting a whopping 75 per cent of the revenue. Unsurprisingly, the most cynical, most lucrative Hollywood offerings — vapid spin-offs of whatever property has an ardent fan base — tend to win out.
As Techinasia points out, “Warcraft is precisely the kind of foreign movie that tends to do well in China: an action-based special effects bonanza based on an existing property. China’s highest-grossing foreign films virtually all fit this pattern: Furious 7, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, etc.”
Warcraft also has zero socio-political import, making it censor-friendly, though it’s worth remembering just how much trouble the gamehad in China. Releases were repeatedly rejected because of mild graphic content — cartoonish zombies and skeletons — and red blood, which was made black and then green to appease the two state agencies who fought tooth and nail for the potentially lucrative right to police WOW.
World of workarounds
The plot of Warcraft is about an alliance between two peoples to overthrow a ruler whose power feeds off the energies of others. It might as well be an allegory for the ways film studios and distributors are trying to circumvent the China Film Group’s monopoly on foreign titles.
Exemptions are given to Sino-foreign co-productions, for instance, but to qualify, films must be shot at least partially in China and have some Chinese cultural elements, in addition to being co-financed by a local company.
To fit the bill, Legendary Entertainment, the studio that made Warcraft, Godzilla and Pacific Rim, is working on monster movie The Great Wall, directed by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon and Willem Dafoe. The film is being produced by Legendary East, a joint venture between Legendary Entertainment and the all powerful China Film Group.
Further covering its bases, Legendary Entertainment was acquired by Dalian Wanda — a Chinese real estate company with more cinema screens than anyone — for $3.5 billion USD, with Legendary Entertainment CEO Thomas Tull remaining in charge of day to day operations. While the deal came too late for Warcraft to be classified as a Chinese production, the new owners intend to use their ownership of Legendary to advocate for concessions from the government regarding future titles.
Limiting the number of foreign films that enter China, prioritising big, dumb blockbusters, and giving incentives to shoehorn in Chinese cultural elements are conditions in which a few people are making great fortunes, but too few people are making great movies.
The blurring of boundaries between LA and BJ offers a glimmer of hope, but in the meantime we can expect to see more films bombing in the US and making bank in China.
- Article by Sam Gaskin