Pacific Rim seemed to have all the trappings of a major sci-fi blockbuster. It had an impressive cast, a brilliant director, a massive budget and, most of all, a storyline which features giant robots batting equally titanic monsters in major metropolitan areas. A sure fire hit, right? Surely, Legendary Pictures are rushing a Pacific Rim 2 straight into production?
Well, no, unfortunately not. Although there is talk of a sequel, Pacific Rim only just managed to break even on its production costs. Indeed, it was roundly snubbed by the domestic audiences. So, if we do eventually get a Pacific Rim 2, then there’s probably only one bunch of guys you should thank — the Chinese cinema going audience.
Pacific Rim and its proposed sequel are the latest movies to highlight an increasing trend in Hollywood. Whereas traditionally the North American box office was where movies sank or swam, increasingly studio heads are looking East in order to bolster their quarterly profit reports.
Although the 'Communist' state has traditionally been suspicious and critical of American cultural output (or as they’d term it, imperialism), in recent years there’s been a softening attitude towards US imports. Until last year, the Chinese government would only allow 20 foreign movies to be shown in the country per year. Now the number has risen to 34, perhaps illustrating both sides of the bargain realize the mutual benefit of increased cooperation.
The Chinese movie market has exploded in recent years. Every day in China, 10 new screens are added to the already existing 13,000 cinema screens. It is already home to the world’s largest film studio and the film industry grew by 36% over 2013 — meaning it rakes in $2.8 billion a year. It’s already replaced Japan as the second largest movie market and is fully expected to eclipse the US by the end of decade, if not sooner.
As a result, movies which were minor (or even rather severe) flops in the US can still make a profit on the international market. Pacific Rim might be the best known example (it took in $90 million domestically on a budget of $190 million, but generated $225 million globally, $104.5 million from China alone), but even Will and Jadan Smith’s de facto failure After Earth has means to thank the wider market, as it emptied foreign pockets to the sum of $182 million.
So what does this mean for Pacific Rim 2 and the wider movie industry? Well, quite a lot to be honest. You see, once movie studios have realized there is money to be made in China, I’m sure we can expect to see more films attempting to appeal to the interests of the average China moviegoer. Now, on the surface surely this is a good thing? The American movie industry obviously isn't just the American movie industry, it is in many regards the 'world' movie industry, so the less US-centric the films, the better, right?
Well, only to a certain extent. The issue has many facets. Firstly, the Chinese government is extremely critical of any movie which is deemed even slightly subversive, and is particularly critical of themes including homosexuality or the overthrowing of authority. Robert Cain, partner in film co-production company Pacific Bridge Pictures (which works extensively in China) told the Telegraph:
Of course, any sort of political movie or political discourse is really prohibited, whether it’s critical of the Chinese government or critical of other governments, that’s just not allowed, [as is] excessive violence – although that seems to fluctuate with what they’ll allow – and anything that appears to make fun of Chinese culture or doesn’t honour Chinese culture properly.
Secondly, the chasing of Chinese dollars can end in movies making narrative changes to avoid falling foul of Chinese import restrictions. You see, currently foreign movies can only expect to take 25% of ticket sales (as opposed to the 43% native Chinese films enjoy), however foreign films can take a larger cut if they are a co-production with a Chinese studio. But, to qualify as a co-production, certain story elements need to be in place. For example, at least one-third of the main cast should be Chinese and the film should also positively feature Chinese culture.
However, this doesn't always end well. Even Cloud Atlas, which relied on Chinese investment to get made, had 40 minutes cut from its Chinese version, while Pacific Rim, which also featured Chinese characters and a Hong Kong setting, was also criticized. For example, Zhang Jieli, an officer of the People’s Liberation Army, claimed it was simply a cover to promote US resolve in the South China Sea:
The decisive battle against the monsters was deliberately set in South China Sea adjacent to Hong Kong. The intention was to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific area and saving the mankind.
But regardless of criticism and censorship, the Chinese market is something major US tentpole blockbusters (especially sci-fi, which traditionally does well in Asia) wants to court. For example, in order to be registered as a co-production, Iron Man 3 filmed scenes in China and added new characters, while Red Dawn conducted last minute changes to alter its original Chinese protagonists into North Koreans. Casting is another important area. recently cast Chinese superstar in X-Men: Days Of Future Past, presumably to entice Chinese youngsters. As stated:
We can no longer risk making an expensive film with a star who isn't popular in Asia.
Phillip Button, the agent of BingBing and added:
If there’s an opportunity to include somebody that fits creatively with the movie from China and that has a big following, then it’s plus, plus.
This trend can certainly be seen clearest of all in ’s Transformers: Age of Extinction. Although prioritising US actors, the fourth incarnation of the franchise heavily features a Chinese storyline (it filmed extensively in Hong Kong), a rumored Chinese Transformer and several big name Chinese actors. Indeed, we recently heard Bay would be returning to China to add even more scenes set in the country into Transformers 4 — possibly to reinforce it's co-production status.
Now let’s discuss Pacific Rim 2. As we’ve seen, the sequel was only made potentially possible by the last minute addition of Asian money. Does this mean in an attempt to make the sequel more profitable, the film will attempt to entice Chinese audiences above others? Now, of course, movies catering to a select nationality is nothing new. Films such as Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Lincoln, Lone Survivor (the list is almost endless) are specifically designed to appeal to American audiences, but my concern is that narrative storytelling can suffer as a result of this shift East. This blind drive for profit can potentially corrupt the concept of film as an art form.
Let me reiterate: Setting a US film in China and using Chinese actors is, obviously, absolutely no problem. However, I'm concerned the decision to do so often hasn't come from a ‘creative’ or story-teller, but from a producer who simply has to say: “Great, I love the idea, but can we shoehorn in a scene in China?” Maybe I'm being naive, but this shouldn't be how stories are told. Furthermore, the Chinese government’s requirement for the film not to be politically subversive can result in certain important issues disappearing from the mainstream.
But perhaps there’s a silver lining to all this? Bruckheimer explains:
We'll still be making movies about American football in the future, but with much smaller budgets. That's because it's almost exclusively American viewers who are interested in football.
While this is certainly true, it could be a blessing in disguise. While the mainstream is bastardizing their stories to make a quick buck, we could see a resurgence of smaller scale, but more intuitive and creative, forms of cinema. There are of course some directors who will always go wherever the dollar sign leads them (ahem, Michael Bay), but there are many others who I assume hold their creative freedom in high regard — I’m looking at you .
I suppose it’s down to us as an audience to decide what we value most. Do we want big screen, explosive blockbusters filled with expensive actors and set pieces, or will we settle for a smaller, perhaps less exciting but ultimately more intimate and creative pieces?
What do you think? Where do you fall on the issue? Let me know below.