Sunday Night Rants:
With Warcraft posting eye-popping numbers in China, and films like Captain America opening abroad first, are we seeing the end of America as the most important market for films?
We may live in interesting times, which you may recognize as a back-handed curse according to the Chinese. For as long as I’ve lived, the American box office reigned supreme. If a film failed here, it simply failed. No matter how much money it made in foreign markets, if it didn’t cover its bets in US markets, it was a non-starter. To that end, much of the marketing, promotion, and even the plot of movies were firmly aimed at American tastes. Hence the pernicious habit of whitewashing characters and stories. The white male 20-35 audience in America was king, and you had better make sure your project focused on a character and plot that he could get down with. That trend may be changing…
The Warcraft paradox
This weekend we saw a major fantasy film premier, Warcraft, that absolutely sucked eggs with US viewers. 24 million dollars for an opening weekend on a 160 million dollar budget. Holy shit, somebody is getting FIRED! Except, nope, they’re going to get a raise. A huge raise. You’re going to love that raise. (Shut up, Donald.)
You see, Warcraft broke every record you could think of… in China. It set IMAX and 3-D records. It broke ticket pre-sale records. It had an opening day there of 48 million dollars. One day in China that was larger than its entire first weekend in the US. The movie has gone on to make 158 million dollars in its first week in just China. It has made a total 285 million dollars so far in markets not including the US (who at this point probably don’t even matter. This movie is going to make more money in Myanmar than in America.) There is virtually no way this film, which flopped by conventional wisdom, is not going to get a sequel. A raft of sequels. It is going to make Transformers look like a blip on the long term movie radar. About that…
The Trends Don’t Lie
There are many anecdotal cases of films that have made it larger abroad than back at home. This year alone, we have The Huntsman: Winter’s War and Alice Through the Looking Glass. Both movies are recipients and products of the shifting global focus. The initial films that spawned them made huge money abroad. Alice in Wonderland made a hefty 300 million at home, but an absolutely mad 700 million abroad. Snow White and the Huntsman made a respectable 155 million at home, but it made a fantastic 241 million abroad. These movies are making double and triple their US takes in other markets.
These movies also had their sequels get saved by the foreign market. Alice Through the Looking Glass made an anemic 62 million here, but it made a budget saving 151 million dollars overseas. The Huntsman sequel likewise floundered here to the tune of 47 million, but made 115 big ones abroad. Both of those totals do not elevate these titles to hit status, but they do crucially make the films come out in the black budget wise instead of being losses. That is huge. You can now gamble on an iffy franchise, and if you win you get stupid money, but if you lose you get your initial bet back.
Overall, the share of the total revenue for films attributable to the US market has stayed flat. We’re averaging around 10 billion dollars in ticket sales a year. It shrinks. It grows. It doesn’t grow a ton. It is estimated to have a net increase of 0.06% per year. My checking account has about that amount of return. Paramount hasn’t called me to invest 150 million dollars in my low-yield super-savers account so far.
There Be Dragons!
The flipside of this figure is that global ticket sales are growing much more robustly. The world-wide ticket sales figure in 2001 was about 18 billion. So we took 10 of that, so 8 is left over. There is no way a studio is going to figure in that iffy number to their calculations. Bank on the US. Now in 2010, the story is different. The US is doing solidly at 11-12 billion. Hey, growth! But the overall average is now 32 billion! That means the rest of the world has gone from 8 to 20 billion in a decade. That is already walloping the US market. Now, there is no one market that owns that 20 billion, so you still aim at the safe 12 billion here. But by 2017 China is expected to rival or pass that 10-12 billion dollar share. Throw in Russia and other markets like France and the UK, and you get a solid 70% of the total world-wide market. So now the US starts to look like the long shot. Ever notice how many movies these days feature set-pieces set in Beijing, Moscow or Paris? Yup, they are stone cold pandering to the new market.
Scene Changes…and Casting Changes…and Plot Changes, etc.
This has a huge effect on the movies we see. We’re seeing a much greater influx of multi-national stories and casts. That is 100% a good thing. We’re seeing stories and characters we would never get to see before. I love “Journey to the West”, one of the classic Buddhist stories, and we’re starting to see it get made and re-made every couple years in movie form. We’re going to see stories we have never seen before, and those stories are often amazing. The downside, at least for us, is when the changes are not additions, but subtractions.
This year we are set to see Marvel’s Doctor Strange. The original story had Steven Strange get mentored by a mystic wise-man from Tibet. You may not know, but China hates the fuck out of Tibet. They claim to own it, but Tibet feels very differently. So if your movie is being tailored to appeal to China, you probably don’t want to stamp all over this sore point (said sore point being the annexation and brutal repression of a sovereign country…) So what are you to do? Cut out that Tibetan mystic, that’s what!
Tilda Swinton is amazing. I think she has done things in movies that place here in the pantheon of the greats. She’s Greta Garbo levels of legendary. I am glad she is getting a role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She’s a great addition…but not if she’s playing the role of a Tibetan male mystic just to appease China. That is solid bullshit. I don’t care about the gender swap. Lady Thor and Spider Gwen are fucking amazing takes on Thor and Spider-Man that swap genders and explore new ground. It’s not gender politics here.
It is solidly an “artistic compromise to politics” issue. A character has been altered to cozy up to a potential audience. That sucks. It allows a role to go to a wonderful performer who’s gender has been under-served by the franchise…but it still sucks.
What does it mean?
In the future we’re going to see more than Iron Man land in Beijing or Tilda play the role of an Asian man. We’re already seeing movies that have very little perceived interest here. And those movies are going to get made. And they’re going to get sequels. Sometimes we’re going to get stuff that is amazing that we would never have seen. Other times we’re going to get a slap of paint on something to “brand” it in such a way that it will play well overseas. We’re going to have to deal.
What will this mean for movie making trends? I’d imagine we’re going to see Hollywood do its usual chameleon routine and subtly (and unsubtly) follow the trends and address overseas tastes. That’s actually a long-term good thing. We’ve been fed too much self-congratulating pabulum for too long. Michael Bay can wave 150 flags in a movie and we say “fuck yeah!” despite the film surrounding those flapping flags suck. We can use some variety. I think Europe is going to retreat further into its shell. European directors already thumb their nose at “crass” American consumption trends, and now that they’re getting demoted from the B market to the C market (or worse!) they’re probably going to double down on making films that have a lazer focused appeal on niche markets withing their borders.
The final accounting is that this is happening. It’s not hypothetical. We’re statistically in the final year of US dominance in box office sales. We’ve been losing shares, but its been a death by a million cuts so we’ve never been kicked out of bed. Now somebody else has a bigger wallet and we’re going to get a rude awakening when Hollywood starts taking their calls before ours. There are upsides and downsides. We should be welcoming of the good and put up high-holy-hell about the bad. That’s how being a consumer works. We’re going to have to be ready to be consumers instead of patrons, exchanging our role as the “natural” focus of the arts that surround us and vocalize about what we want to see. Without being racist or nationalist pricks. Cause that’s not cool. Seriously.