Even the star power of Ryan Gosling and multiple Oscar awards couldn’t bring Chinese audiences to watch La La Land. Released in the country on Valentine’s Day, the musical has so far made only Rmb203 million ($32.5 million) at the local box office. The goal, according to the film’s distributors, was for the Chinese market to contribute half of the award-winning film’s global takings (now at $370 million).
It certainly wasn’t for a lack of trying. Along with writer-director Damian Chazelle, the Canadian heartthrob Gosling visited Beijing back in January to promote the film. Chazelle, who was named Best Director at the Academy Awards, also turned on the charm offensive: “To be able to open this film in China is a huge honour,” said the filmmaker, adding his film was “about love and dreams”.
What Chinese audiences wanted was less singing and more action. For instance, a pretty superwoman killing zombies. Even though the sixth – and probably final – instalment in the Resident Evil franchise, called The Final Chapter, received an approval rating of just 33% on Rotten Tomatoes, it dominated the Chinese box office last month. It opened to a near-record Rmb200 million in China the day it premiered in late February. Already, it has surpassed Rmb800 million in takings with industry observers saying that it won’t be long before reaching the Rmb1 billion mark.
“It’s been a long time since I have seen a film as exciting as Resident Evil 6,” one cinemagoer wrote on Douban, the online film and TV review site. “It moves so fast it is impossible to fall asleep.”
“Don’t expect too much from the story itself and whether the plotline makes sense. Just enjoy the action sequences and the thrill. As an action movie, I give it five stars,” another commented.
It’s been a similar outcome for another Hollywood import, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. It too has been ripped apart by critics – Rolling Stone calls the film a “sequel no one wanted” – but has surprised industry insiders with strong results in the China market. The action flick, which stars Vin Diesel and actresses Deepika Padukone and Ruby Rose (who is also in Resident Evil 6), took Rmb300 million in the first two days it screened. In comparison, Star Wars: Rogue One made only Rmb190 million in China on its opening weekend. So far, xXx has collected Rmb950 million at the Chinese box office.
The strong results have singlehandedly turned these grade-B movies into genuine smash hits. And both films cost relatively little to make: Resident Evil 6 and xXx were respectively produced for just $40 million and $85 million.
“Has the Chinese market become a dumping ground for Hollywood’s trash?” asked Beijing Daily.
Southern Metropolis Daily reckons the success of the two films is not coincidental. Statistics show that second-tier cities were the biggest fans of Resident Evil 6, contributing over 42% of the ticket sales. For xXx, total box office takings in third-tier cities have also exceeded those of first-tier cities. “In conclusion, these action-packed brainless films are more popular amongst young men in small villages,” surmises the newspaper.
Critics reckon that American popcorn movies offer a kind of escapism for Chinese moviegoers. “Action fight scenes: that’s the one thing Chinese audiences look for in Hollywood features. Just like comedy is the genre that local audiences associate domestic films with. When they are overworked, they just want to enjoy entertainment they know and love,” one critic told Beijing Daily.
Lanzhou Morning Post concurs: “One film is about one man taking down an evil organisation, the other is a goddess fighting zombies. Both films are high-octane action thrillers. Their only goal is to entertain. North American audiences complain that these films are not innovative, empty and full of plot holes, but these are the same reasons Chinese audiences embrace this type of genre.”
But life is about to get tougher for Hollywood studios. New rules governing the film industry – which went into effect on the first day of this month – dictate that local theatre operators need to make sure domestic films get no less than two thirds of the annual screening time in the nation’s cinemas, according to Xinhua. The guideline adds a new layer of protection to locally made fare – in addition to the existing quota on foreign film imports, which has restricted the China market to just 34 foreign films a year.
Southern Metropolis Daily questions whether the new rules are going to help lift the overall quality of domestic features: “Will the local film business take advantage of the breathing room and thrive? Or will it continue to get by and make a quick buck? What’s certain is that nobody wants to see the rubbish films that pain the eyes to linger on the big screen any longer than necessary.”
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