Before the release of the “Aquaman” sequel in China last month, Warner Bros. made every effort to maintain the success of the original film.
The Hollywood studio covered Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, with movie clips, behind-the-scenes footage and a video of an Aquaman ice sculpture at a winter festival in Harbin, a city in China’s northeast. It sent the franchise’s star, Jason Momoa, and director, James Wan, on a promotional tour to China — the kind of barnstorming that’s been missing since the Covid pandemic. Mr. Momoa said China’s craze for the first “Aquaman” was the reason the sequel was being released in China two days before its American release.
“I’m very proud that China liked it, so we brought it to you and you guys will see it for the whole world to see,” he said. An interview with CCTV 6China’s official film channel.
The big push didn’t work.
“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” has grossed $60 million in China after just a few weeks of release. It was nowhere near the 2018 original’s $90 million opening weekend in China, earning $293 million, a quarter of that film’s $1.2 billion box office success.
The makers of the “Aquaman” movies aren’t alone in feeling that China has become a lost empire.
In 2023, no American films ranked among the 10 highest-grossing films in China despite highly anticipated sequels in the “Mission: Impossible,” “Fast and the Furious” and “Spider-Man” franchises.
Neither “Oppenheimer” nor “Barbie,” Hollywood’s two biggest hit films last year, made the top 30 at the box office in China, according to Maoyan, a Chinese entertainment data provider that has tracked ticket sales since 2011. . This is the only other recent year. Hollywood dropped out of China’s top 10 during the pandemic in 2020.
Chinese film audiences, who once turned to Hollywood films, are steadily disappearing. China is, by far, the largest film market outside the United States, and a location that American studios rely on for growth and profitability as the film industry struggles.
“The days when a Hollywood movie would make millions of US dollars in China – those days are gone,” said Stanley Rosen, a University of Southern California professor who studies Chinese politics and the film industry.
China’s film industry is producing more high-quality films that appeal to domestic audiences. The country’s top two films last year highlight the diversity of the productions: “Full River Red,” a dialogue-rich suspense thriller, and “The Wandering Earth II,” a science-fiction blockbuster brimming with special effects.
Against a backdrop of rising tensions with the United States, Beijing has stepped up its ambitions to become a cultural influence, supporting efforts by local filmmakers to make films that are in line with the principles of the ruling Communist Party.
In recent years, some of the highest-grossing films have reflected themes of a stronger and more assertive China. The highest-grossing Chinese films of all time are “The Battle at Lake Changjin”, a 2021 film that depicts the United States’ defeat against all odds during the Korean War; and “Wolf Warrior 2”, a 2017 nationalist action film in which a Chinese Jason Bourne-like character faces off against an American soldier.
Shi Chuan, vice president of the Shanghai Film Association, said that many American studios once viewed China as a market where they could always make money. That is no longer the case. Cautious Chinese consumers are spending less, and box office sales have not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
“Now I am telling American film companies that this mentality is no longer viable,” Mr. Shi said. “You must study deeply to understand the Chinese market, the Chinese audience, and Chinese pop culture.”
Hollywood’s love affair with China goes back years. “The Fugitive” was the first imported American blockbuster in 1994, and a year later China began allowing 10 foreign films to be released in the country each year. In 2012, seven of the 10 highest-grossing films were American-made. At the time, American film attendance had been in slow, decades-long decline. DVD sales were increasing rapidly. Streaming was in its infancy.
Hollywood studios, desperate for growth, looked to the rapidly growing Chinese market as the solution. When Joseph R. When Biden Jr. was vice president, he helped Hollywood gain greater access to Chinese theaters, which were opening rapidly. China increased the quota of American films entering the country from 20 to 34. China agreed to increase its share of ticket revenues from 13 percent to 25 percent for films receiving entry.
Since most films struggle to make a profit, the additional revenue from China was valuable. Studios began changing the content of films to attract Chinese ticket buyers. In: Visual-effects-driven glasses. Outside: Dialogue-heavy drama and comedy.
Studios bent over backwards to appease Chinese censors, often ignoring what they already knew were Chinese red lines. In one highly publicized example, the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in 1986’s “Top Gun” were replaced with ambiguous patches in the same color scheme in a 2019 preview of Paramount Pictures’ sequel. The flags were restored by the time “Top Gun: Maverick” was released in 2022.
But as trade and diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington worsened, Hollywood was caught in the middle. Studios came under greater scrutiny due to their capitulation to China, especially in 2020 when a sharp monitoring report This caught the attention of American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans.
Over the past year, studio executives have decided that demand for American films in China, at least for now, has changed so rapidly that film budgets should be realigned. Franchise sequels must be made for less money because China can no longer be relied upon to generate the same level of revenue, even though the number of movie theater screens has quadrupled over the past decade.
In 2014, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” topped China’s box office with $280 million. Last year, the franchise’s most recent installment, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” earned about a third that amount and ranked 24th.
Part of the problem is that Hollywood has been slow to promote its films on Douyin, where the Chinese public spends huge amounts of time.
Zhao Jin, chief executive of Parallax Films, an international film sales company in Beijing, said Hollywood studios were reluctant to reveal the plot and key scenes on social media before a film’s release, but to increase audience interest in China. It was necessary to do this. ,
“Hollywood blockbusters haven’t caught up with China’s marketing yet,” Mr Zhao said.
Many of Hollywood’s biggest releases last year, including the “Transformers” sequel, the latest “Mission: Impossible” entry, “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” did not have their own official Douyin accounts.
27 year old Hannah Li works in a technology company in Beijing. She said, she used to watch only foreign films, but that has changed recently. He said his favorite movie last year was “The Wandering Earth II,” the story about how the world came together to save the Earth from being hit by the sun. The film’s message, Ms. Lee said, promotes a kind of collectivism she rarely sees in Hollywood films — and it should send a signal to American producers.
“If you’re not willing to get off your high horse to see what we like, it’s natural that you’ll be spoiled,” Ms Lee said. “Hollywood films can no longer bring novelty to Chinese audiences.”