Weak tea doesn’t sell
A Chinese-American film star explains why blandly globalised fare flops in China
Even if it did not boast a character called Captain America, the superhero film “Avengers: Endgame” is a very obviously American spectacle. Beyond its swagger and expensive special effects, the Marvel comic book film series, of which this is the final instalment, celebrates flawed, individualistic superheroes. That the film just broke Chinese box-office records for its opening weekend could lead outsiders to assume that the American and Chinese film markets—the world’s two largest—are converging. In fact China’s film world is becoming more distinctive and self-confident.
Hollywood producers have bet fair sums of money, over the years, on the idea that American and Chinese audiences are not so very different, and will laugh, weep and cheer at the same, carefully globalised movies. China has a habit of proving them wrong. The “Avengers” series has a large but distinctive set of fans in China, who often say they love the films precisely because they identify with its misfit heroes, struggling with a harsh, judgmental world.
Over 1.7bn cinema tickets were sold in China last year, a domestic record. Most sales were driven by locally made hits in which the stories ranged from Chinese military heroics overseas (“Operation Red Sea”) to a bittersweet drama about cancer (“Dying to Survive”). Though Hollywood had a respectable 2018 worldwide, revenues in China for imported films were down year on year.