Hollywood is courting Chinese audiences: one small sign of a momentous global shift.
Trendspotter: pandering to China's film market
Hollywood is replete with superheroes right now. The third instalment of Iron Man, staring Robert Downey Jr, has just been released. A new Superman movie – or “reboot” in Hollywood-speak – is due in June. Batman’s The Dark Knight Rises was a summer blockbuster last year.
Audiences – or, at least, studio executives – have fallen in love with these men and others like them: popular, unstoppable, all-conquering. Except, it turns out, in China, where ticket sales for big-budget Hollywood romps are sharply down. In the first quarter of this year, for example, ticket sales for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, fell 65 per cent. Chinese audiences are turning instead to their own, home-grown movies: across the same period, sales for Chinese films rose 128 per cent.
Does it matter if Chinese audiences lose interest in Hollywood films? It certainly does for Hollywood, which depends on big audiences in China to pay its bills. That’s why studio executives are turning to a new solution: customised versions of their big movies, made especially for the Chinese audience.
In China this week, then, a special version of Iron Man 3 is currently playing, tailored for Chinese viewers. The film already contains a number of scenes shot in Beijing, but for Chinese audiences, these sections will be extended and, crucially, there will be an appearance by Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most popular actresses, who will not appear in the standard movie.
It’s the most overt and highest profile example yet of Hollywood tailoring for China. But the directors behind the college comedy 21 & Over also created a for-China version, changing their lead character, the college student Jeff Chang, from the son of a Chinese immigrant father (US version) to a Chinese student who visits America and then returns to China (Chinese version).
But if you’re not a Hollywood executive, why is all this important? It’s important because of the deep, underlying global cultural shift that it points towards. That is, the decline of the US’s decades-long global cultural hegemony and the rise of China as a global cultural force.
First, there are the numbers. China displaced Japan as the world’s second biggest movie market in 2012. The Chinese box office took US$2.7 billion (Dh9.9bn) in that year, an increase of 33 per cent on the year before: that’s staggering growth.
Second, there’s the cultural self-confidence that is coming alongside China’s growth as an economic powerhouse. The success of China’s domestic film industry is a powerful sign that Chinese audiences are no longer content to see the US or the “West” as the world’s cultural centre of gravity. Instead (just as US audiences have done for decades) they want to consume stories that talk about their own lives and are made in their own -cities.
Put them together and the mighty Hollywood – the global capital of the entertainment industry – must now bend its products to the mindsets and attitudes of Chinese audiences.
US politicians may not want to talk about it, but movie executives – who follow the money – are speaking loud and clear via their actions. China is the coming dominant global cultural force. The question is not how many more Hollywood films will be tweaked for a Chinese audience. It’s this: how long until western audiences are watching Chinese films, tweaked for them?
• David Mattin is the lead strategist at www.trendwatching.com
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