Friday 12 September 2014

How Transformers Wooed China (VOR #23)

If this summer season has proved anything, it's that international audiences, particularly Asian ones, are playing an increasingly pivotal role in a film's financial fortune. Wait, shut up Rhys. This isn't news to anyone. Maybe not, but that doesn't make it any less true. In fact, it's very much the shape of things to come...

Hong Kong getting torn a new one
in Transformers: Age of Extinction
Let's kick this column off with some cold hard facts shall we? China's movie industry is growing at an increasingly exponential rate, rapidly closing the gap between itself and the US. It's estimated that 12 to 18 new cinema screens open across the country every day, and in 2013, the box office revenue rose a whopping 27.5% to reach $3.57 billion in ticket sales.

By 2020, it is expected that China will be the largest market for films in the world, eclipsing that of North America.

Meanwhile, in contrast, the US market has dipped dramatically in 2014 with countless media outlets like indieWIRE posting week-by-week blogs on how each weekend has made less than the last. Look no further than the weekend just gone which reportedly was 'one of the worst ever' for box office takings.

Therefore, it's no coincidence that studios are sitting up and taking notice to the rapid growth China's film industry is experiencing. In order to strike while the iron is hot, big-budget films and directors are now making the conscious decision to angle a film towards China in an effort to appeal to the increasingly vast market.

The most obvious example is this year's biggest 'hit', Transformers: Age of Extinction (and I use the term hit in a purely financial sense as the reviews reeked of bile). Transformers, a series not known for its subtlety, made a big song and dance of the fact the final third was set in Beijing and Hong Kong (apparently making this film so totally original and different from the rest because it wasn't Chicago or California being totalled by robots in disguise)

Actress Bingbing Li was a big drawcard for
Chinese audiences 
Essentially, Age of Extinction served up the most overt example of this audience realignment we've seen so far; the Hong Kong cityscapes populated by Optimus and co. were festooned with all sorts of product placement for Chinese and Western products. Also, scenes which were set in Texas (the opening third of the film) included adverts and references to Chinese products, such as China Construction Bank, Yili Milk and Nutrilite protein powder.

Skepticism about overt product placement in movies aside, this is just the first example of many movies racing to get their foot in the Chinese movie industry door.

Sticking with Transformers for the moment, we also saw Chinese actress Bingbing Li cast in a fairly major role and Ken Watanabe voice a Japanese samurai robot, Drift. Combine all these elements together, and you my friend have a winning formula for success at the Chinese box-office.

So despite the film receiving complaints over the less-than-positive nature of their representation, Chinese audiences flocked to see Age of Extinction. The movie made over $300 million in China alone, $219 million of which came in first 11 days.

This makes Transformers: Age of Extinction the highest-grossing movie in China ever. It also means that it made a helluva lot more money there than it did in the US, where the movie struggled to reach $250 million and has since been eclipsed by the much better Guardians of the Galaxy.

Transformers owes a lot of this success to its content for sure, but also consider that the film premiered in Hong Kong (see the top image) and received a widespread release across 18,000+ movie screens. Why we're even shocked by the money it made is a mystery - it makes total sense. It also makes undeniable sense that studios would be interested in targeting a market that is growing faster than Starscream can fly.

Arguably, the film's narrative suffered greatly in its decision to zip across to China in that it felt like an entire second movie bolted onto the end of an already tedious, bloated indulgent blockbuster. Narratively, it made little sense.

But none of this matters at the end of the day, because financially it made perfect sense. Why not relocate to China if it ensured box-office returns. Essentially, the general gist is this; ticket sales for the Transformers movies have steadily decreased in the US whilst increasing in Asia. The series has subsequently adjusted to accommodate this - and audiences have responded en masse.

It's the exact same story for the Spider-man franchise, which as I discussed in my last entry to this column, has steadily lost audiences in the US ever since Sam Raimi's first movie in 2002. So much so, that Amazing Spider-man 2 (which hit cinemas in April) was dubbed a flop given the meagre domestic gross.

And yet, it made hundreds of millions more internationally. In fact, Amazing Spider-man 2 broke box-office records in Hong Kong for its opening weekend - surpassing the previous held by Spider-man 3. Hmm, guess Spidey is really popular in China?

Some other examples have been successful to varying degrees; Iron Man 3 inexplicably added a scene where Tony Stark went to China just in the Chinese version of the film, whilst X-Men: Days of Future Past director Bryan Singer cast Bingbing Fan as Blink in an attempt to give international audiences a local face to side with.

Likewise, we can owe the existence of Pacific Rim 2 to the money its predecessor made in China, whilst Looper went all prophetic on our asses in 2012 by showing a future world where Bruce Willis' character lived in Shanghai and spoke Mandarin - sorta like Firefly did. Even Bond and Batman are getting onboard - Skyfall and The Dark Knight both saw their heroes jaunt across to South East Asia. Looking forward, one of the biggest films (if not the biggest) of next year, Avengers: Age of Ultron, has been filming on location in South Korea.

When you put all these pieces together, the picture becomes increasingly crisp. Both international audiences and studios are evolving, adjusting to this newfound Asian flavour in Hollywood films. The question is, how do studios maximise ticket sales across increasingly Westernised markets in China and Asia without alienating the domestic audience?

Will there come a point where American audiences become distanced with the shift eastward - God forbid a major superhero flick takes place anywhere other than the US. And beyond that - will studios care? Who cares if Spider-man tanks in the US if it makes double that in China - money is money, and at least there is an actual audience out there they can market towards.

This transition has steadily creeped from invisible to perfectly visible - and where it heads next will continue to be a field of debate and discussion for film analysts. One thing we do know however, is this - Jackie Chan could be in for a serious career revival.


  1. It's not new that International box office and Asia increasingly contribute significantly to overall box office takings though I suppose this is mostly for the blockbusters. But now it seems the movie people are recognizing the contribution and working it more by like you said setting movies in Asian cities and also more recently have part of their cast fly off for Asian premieres and press junkets.
    Wandering through the Shelves

    1. Thanks for commenting Wanderer :) Targeting international markets is a big deal in movie making now, and it is interesting to see how much of a hit films like Transformers are in markets like China after they've purposely modelled the film around actors and cities which will be popular.



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