China’s Blockbuster-Fed Box Office Could Still Go Bust

Hollywood action films are still very popular, but how long can that last?

The Fate of the Furious
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

When “The Fate of the Furious” pushed its way to the top of China’s box office, becoming the highest-grossing Hollywood film in the country of all time and outperforming all other territories, it validated the idea that future action movies fueled by visual effects should target the world’s second-largest film market.

But will this last forever? As the Chinese market and its audiences mature, the news for Hollywood may not be so good.

Beijing-based producer Isabelle Glachant, who works with Chinese directors including Wang Xiaoshuai, Lou Ye and Lu Chuan, says China’s film market — and its audience — are still very young. Most were not exposed to Hollywood action blockbusters until a decade ago. If Hollywood let the young Chinese audience dictate the choice of genres, it could be distancing itself from the rest of the world, including its own domestic market.

“To the Chinese audience, going to see a Hollywood actioner is like going to Disneyland [for the first time]. They are enjoying what the rest of the world has been seeing again and again,” Glachant says. “Sometimes they like a lot of films that the rest of the world doesn’t like that much.”

Rushing to produce action blockbusters that only please Chinese audiences means films of genres that don’t sell in China might be more difficult to make in Hollywood, per Richard Huang, a research analyst at Nomura.

“With the growing Chinese market, Hollywood studios have already been changing the genre of the movies produced,” he says. “The focus is on grade A action, sci-fi fantasy movies that are more welcomed by Chinese audiences. Other genres are affected. The ones that suffer the most are comedies, which are mostly only appreciated by local audiences.”

“To the Chinese audience, going to see a Hollywood action is like taking them to the Disneyland [for the first time]. They are enjoying what the rest of the world has been seeing again and again and gotten used to.”
Isabelle Glachant

But for studios, when profits are king, diversification is less of a concern, especially when China is the world’s second-largest movie market with an estimated annual box office $6.52 billion, despite a relatively sluggish performance in 2016 after annual growth of 35% for over a decade.

The eighth installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise grossed $362 million in China as of the end of the first week of May, compared to its $200 million domestic take, beating the 2015 record set by the “Fast and Furious 7,” which grossed $348 million in China.

“Age of Extinction,” the fourth offering from the Transformers franchise, released in 2014, came fifth in China’s all-time box office at $275 million, compared to its $245 million domestic gross.

In the case of “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” the contrast between China and North American domestic box office was even greater. The film grossed $159 million in China, more than 3.5 times the $45 million it gained domestically. “The Great Wall” grossed more than $170 million in China, a stark contrast to the $45 million B.O. in North America since its Feb. 17 opening.

Huang says these films appealed to Chinese audiences, which “have historically shown a stronger interest in action, sci-fi fantasy movies, and a weaker interest in drama and comedy titles.”

And despite the film industry’s dramatic growth the past two decades, China has yet to produce action blockbusters that could rival those from Hollywood due to budget constraints and lack of personnel.

“Their production budget is still significantly lower than that of their Hollywood peers as a Hollywood movie can be distributed globally while Chinese language movies normally are only appeal to Chinese audiences,” Huang says. “Another thing that limits the Chinese studios is the lack of human resources. It will be hard for China to get to Hollywood’s scale right away. After all it is still a new industry [in China].”

Data from China movie website Mtimes.com shows that the majority of China’s moviegoers are between 21 and 30. With the quota system in place limiting the number of imports, young audience members are less likely to be exposed to various types of films.

“The quota system was to protect films politically, and then to protect the Chinese industry from Hollywood. Now it also protects China from diversity,” says Glachant. “The [Chinese] government isn’t exactly excited about having more artists who question the world.”

(Pictured above: “Fate of the Furious”)