Throughout Beijing, images of Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and other protagonists in the latest Transformers film stare from bus station billboards, shopfront windows and even a statue near Tiananmen Square. As US movie studios look further afield for profits, the Hollywood sign now looms over China.
On a Thursday afternoon at the Polybona Cinema in the city’s east, a few dozen Chinese movie-goers paid about US$22 — the price of about 30 bottles of local beer — to watch Transformers: Age of Extinction in 3D.
During the screening, the overtures to Chinese cinemagoers are as clunky as the movie itself. The small crowd laughed sporadically at the Chinese product placements — a China Construction Bank debit card, a can of Chinese Red Bull — scattered throughout the blockbuster’s first half, mostly set in rural Texas. Nonetheless, the producers’ approach has worked: The film has become China’s biggest-ever box office success, generating ticket sales of more than US$222 million in less than a fortnight.
Yang Yunfan, a 33-year-old advertising professional, said he enjoyed the film more than the prior entry in the long-running franchise, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which also set box office records in China.
“You know Transformers, the animated series, was really big in China in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when I was in middle school,” he said. “So many things in these movies pull directly from the cartoon — that’s something they’ve done really well, but there were really too many advertisements. When Hollywood studios started adding Chinese elements to their films about three or four years ago, it made us feel great — we thought: ‘Wow, China is really awesome, it’s a really important country now.’”
Recently, he said, Hollywood’s attempts to woo Chinese audiences have begun to feel superficial and forced.
“If they included more content about Chinese families, or Chinese culture, that might be more interesting,” he said.
Nonetheless, the latest Transformers movie is a text-book case of how Hollywood’s profit-making machine does its job with ruthless focus. In a bid to win over the Chinese audience, a large chunk of the action is set in Hong Kong, with roles for Chinese actress Li Bingbing (李冰冰) and boxer Zou Shiming (鄒市明), albeit smaller parts than those of their US co-stars.
Producer Paramount has also pulled out all the stops to make a film that will please China’s censors, as well as state-run China Central Television’s China Movie Channel and its online film streaming partner, Jiaflix Enterprises, which backed the movie for an undisclosed sum.
While real-life Hong Kong residents took to the streets in their tens of thousands to march for democracy, the Transformers film shows a local leader calling on central government to save the day when the territory faces an invasion by mutant robots. The Chinese government is depicted as benevolent, while the US government manages to be both sinister and useless — typified by the black-clad CIA operatives — one of whom gets beaten up by a Chinese character.
Another reason for the movie’s success is simple economics. China is opening 10 new movie theater screens every day, so almost any movie has a shot of being the biggest ever, says David Hancock, director of film and cinema at consultancy IHS Technology.
He estimates that the Chinese movie market should be worth US$4.6 billion this year, almost a one-third increase on last year, and China has a lot further to go, it had 18,200 screens at the end of last year, compared with 40,000 in the US. If China had the same number of screens as the US per capita it would have 133,000 screens.