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Saving Hollywood From the Chinese Box Office

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Why do so many movies stink? Two movie-loving Bloomberg View columnists have some theories, and some ideas about what to do about it.

Conor Sen: As a fan of American film, I'm worried about where the industry is going. DVD sales have been declining for years, and streaming revenue looks unlikely to ever replace them. The rise of moviegoers in China has created an incentive for Hollywood to make movies that appeal to Chinese audiences as well as Western ones. There are so many entertainment options now, and marketing costs have become so astronomical, that Hollywood has decided to play it safe and focus on large, well-established franchises for movies and sequels. Put all this together and you get a lot of movies like the latest Transformers installment, which dominated the Chinese box office but barely registered in the U.S.

Now the news is that the latest Star Wars movie fell flat in China. Its opening weekend haul there was barely half of what the previous installment garnered a couple years ago. I fear eventually this means that future Star Wars movies will look a lot more like Transformers movies (less talk, more boom), and in the long run everything will become some version of robot dinosaurs fighting or a "Wolf Warrior" sequel.

Megan McArdle: Something very strange is happening to movies. #NotAllMovies, to be sure: There are still the independent films like "Moonlight," and the bigger budget Oscar-bait like "The Post." But more and more of the moviegoing experience seems to be dominated by "franchise" films that can be defined by the three B's:

  • Big budget
  • Blow stuff up
  • Boring as hell

It's not that I have anything against action movies. I grew up on science fiction; I love superheroes; I have watched movies like "Speed," "The Rock" and "Die Hard" so many times that I can practically recite their screenplays. (I won't even mention the great 1960s movies about World War II, which are practically their own genre.) I am perfectly happy to watch things blowing up. But that's not all I want to watch, any more than I want to live on a diet that consists only of ice cream and Oreos. And increasingly, explosions, fight scenes and chase sequences seem to be all that these movies can deliver. The fight scenes drag on … and on … and on … until I, for one, am silently rooting for the villain to kill the hero already, so that the tedium may end.

These movies are becoming less fiction than dance performances, in which we go to admire the ability of the actors at sculpting their bodies into extreme outliers of lean muscle mass, and the ingenuity of the choreographers who mapped out how those humans should move through their routines. Which I suppose becomes its own genre as well.

CS: Is there anything we can do to save good movies?

MM: You're right that one major reason this is happening is Hollywood's increasing dependence on foreign box office. Making movies with a foreign audience in mind changes the kind of movie you can make.

Watching what has happened to movies over the last decade or so has given me a new appreciation of just how culturally specific many things are. Jokes, for example, are intimately tied to language and culture; for something to make you laugh, the surprise has to hit you quickly and unexpectedly, and most of the surprise comes from inverting either the common use of a word, or a common cultural trope. So anything above the level of broad physical humor is unlikely to survive in translation.

Try to imagine even a lowbrow comedy like "Airplane" in translation, and you'll find you're imagining a bewildered foreign audience staring helplessly at the screen for two hours. A white lady speaking jive isn't funny in Mandarin.

I'm not sure romance translates all that well either. Dialogue in general obviously has to be kept to a minimum for a movie designed to be seen in translation; it's hard enough to write sparkling dialogue in one language, much less two, or 12. After nearly a century of talking film, it seems to me that dialogue in big-budget pictures is evolving backward, toward something like the title cards of silent film — interstitial material between action sequences, designed to communicate the bare minimum of information.

Which means, in turn, that the heroes have to be pretty darn simple. (The villains must be not only simple, but also inoffensive to global moviegoers: North Korea, Nazis, aliens and greedy U.S. corporations are about the only powerful villains it's still safe to put on film.)

What's just as interesting to me is what does seem to translate, judging from its prevalence: violence and kids. Everyone loves their kids the world over, and since young kids are, by definition, not yet masters of their cultural context, you don't have to dumb them down for foreign audiences to find them broadly appealing. And then there's the physical stuff. Objects smashing into other objects. Explosions. Guns. Lots and lots of punching. To lighten the mood, pratfalls and some sex humor.

The problem is that while everyone seems to like a good punch or an explosion, that's not all people are interested in. And as those segments expand to crowd everything else out, the movies start to feel more and more the same. When I was growing up, kids repeated lines from movies to each other endlessly, turning them into cultural touchstones that ultimately made their studios a lot of money in repeat box office and ancillary revenue. It's harder to make a quick joke by mimicking the latest fight sequence.

And the Chinese government has all sorts of restrictions on what movies can show there ("Ghostbusters," for example, was denied release because it violated a prohibition on "promoting cults or superstition.") With a business model that relies on exporting American films, Hollywood essentially imports foreign censorship. We also strenuously try to not offend anyone's cultural beliefs. After you've finished catering to the widely varied taboos of the entire planet, what you have left is apt to be fairly bland.

And I wonder, in the end, if the new cash cow is good business. These big-budget films full of explosions are expensive. No more diversified portfolio of different kinds of movies at all different budgets. Only new installments in safe blockbuster franchises. Surely that's how Hollywood loses the battle for attention. But can anything be done to reverse the trend?

CS: I think your key point is that by exporting American film, when foreign box office growth is outpacing domestic box office growth, we are importing foreign censorship at a growing rate. In the extreme case where China's box office was 10 times America's, Hollywood would mostly make movies in accordance with Chinese censorship rules.

Films have always been an important cultural and economic export from the U.S. If the end result of globalization of the movie industry is censorship and effectively a reduction of free speech in America, do freedom-loving Americans find themselves obliged to put America first — to favor domestic films for domestic audiences, to become Hollywood protectionists? I find myself saying yes.

MM: I have to admit, I find myself more sympathetic to cultural protectionism than I used to be. Not the censors who want to keep stuff out, or the silly language-policing the French engage in, but the folks who want to subsidize domestic content that can't financially compete with a bland globally marketable product.

I understand why people living abroad don't want to be Americanized, any more than I want to be Chinese-ized — or Irishized, or Germanized, or Spanishated. I want jokes that are funny to Americans and no one else, relationships that look like my relationships, characters who act and talk like the people I see every day. Cultural traditions are valuable, and preserving and extending them is a laudable motive. It's just not a motive that Americans are very well equipped to understand, since for the past century we've been the cultural hegemons.

Now it seems they're in danger of being hegemonized by a billion Chinese. But I wouldn't be particularly sad if China were making most of the movies seen in the world. What I dislike is the globalized product that tries to be of no culture at all.

And in the end, I don't want to see the U.S. film industry subsidized as a cultural treasure. (In fact, I'd like to see governments get rid of the outrageous tax subsidies Hollywood already enjoys for shooting in favored locations.) The problem with subsidies is not that they are never aimed at a good purpose; the problem is that they rarely work. Too often, the subsidized industries become moribund and indolent, their product tailored to the whims of the government regulators rather than their ostensible customer base.

So instead I'm rooting for China's domestic film industry to become hugely successful, producing a product that's more popular with their domestic audience than Hollywood fare — widening American cultural and artistic horizons with some very Chinese movies, and forcing American studios to specifically serve their own domestic audience.

CS: Which gets back to the question of whether good movies can be saved. Will the domestic audience be enough?

MM: And if not, are we doomed to a future where what we watch is determined by whatever common taste Hollywood can divine among the world's 14-year-old boys, subject to review by China's Communist Party — and perhaps Vladimir Putin, and the Indian government, and any other state power that has enough citizens to make Hollywood start counting the box office?

CS: While waiting for Chinese filmmakers to make great Chinese movies, there might be more angles to pursue in American filmmaking as well. By now it's no revelation to say how white and male Hollywood decision-making historically has been. So a lot of the Americana we've gotten — movies like "Forrest Gump" — has come through that lens. If anything good can come out of the Harvey Weinstein aftermath, it's women having more power in Hollywood. I suspect they'd be less likely to make movies tailored to the whims of 14-year-old boys.

And whether it's a movie like "Creed" in 2015, or "Get Out" last year, I'm also interested in how black filmmakers tell stories about America. If "Get Out" can make $250 million on a budget of under $5 million, maybe there's still a way to make a blockbuster movie without marketing tie-ins with fast-food chains. We just need new voices with new perspectives and stories to make that happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the authors of this story:
Conor Sen at csen9@bloomberg.net
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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