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.
“We are talking about a very, very large market,” Hancock said. “Within six years China will probably be the largest film market in the world.”
Transformers is hardly the first attempt at buttering-up the Chinese movie-goer: James Bond turns up in Shanghai and Macau in the latest edition of the 007 franchise, while Chinese stars Fan Bingbing (範冰冰) and Wang Xueqi (王學圻) had small roles in the Chinese version of Iron Man III, although audiences reacted angrily when it emerged that their scenes were cut for the international version. The chase for the Chinese market also appears to have heightened the big studios’ natural risk-aversion to comedies, traditionally a bigger gamble, more likely to be lost in translation. Data from Nomura and Box Office Mojo show that comedies now account for just 13 percent of new releases from the four big Hollywood studios, compared with almost a third in 2010.
“The center of gravity of the film business is moving towards Asia,” Hancock said, adding that Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and India are also increasingly important for Hollywood.
The US studios have been shooting films abroad for decades, but the interest in cultivating Asian movie-goers is a more recent trend.
“The internationalization of production is already a fact. What we are having now is the Asian turn to be dominant in terms of consumption of movies and if you are a studio you have to stay in line with that trend; and that means focusing a lot of your attention or having a strategy to get into those markets,” he said.
Not all Chinese officials sound convinced that the influx of Hollywood’s mutant cars and aliens is a good thing. In a recent comment piece entitled “Beware of superhero films,” the state-controlled China Daily worried that American superheroes may not be ideal role models.
“The problem is that children and, even some adults, lap them up, helping them promote American lifestyle and values that do not necessarily conform to their own cultural values,” it said.
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