The odds were stacked against Spiderman in China. Two weeks ago, the latest film featuring the superhero, Spiderman: Far From Home, was slated to open against The Eight Hundred a highly anticipated, big-budget war movie. But, in a plot twist that’s left local filmmakers reeling, the Chinese film was cancelled just days before its release, allegedly because it’d fallen out of favour with censors. In its absence, Spiderman had a nearly $100 million opening weekend — far beyond expectations. The US blockbuster is currently China’s second-most popular draw, one of six foreign films in the top 10.
This isn’t the Hollywood ending the Communist Party wanted. For years, the Chinese government has actively promoted local movies with the goal of surpassing Hollywood’s profits and global influence, both at home and abroad. Yet, increasingly, the government’s efforts to control content are weakening the industry, to the benefit of US rivals.
China’s film industry is one of the country’s great growth stories over the last two decades. Between 2005 and 2019, box-office revenue grew from 2 billion yuan to just over 60 billion yuan ($8.9 billion), thanks to an emerging middle class in search of entertainment. Annual growth rates of more than 30 per cent weren’t unusual.
It wasn’t just revenues growing, either. The technical proficiency of Chinese films also increased, culminating in Wolf Warrior 2, a 2017 military action-adventure drama that became China’s most successful movie ever, and The Wandering Earth, a sci-fi thriller that’s topping this year’s box office. Generous subsidies, have boosted Chinese films against foreign competition more generally: In 2018, locally made films claimed 62 per cent of box-office revenue, up from 54 per cent in 2017.
Yet, at the same time, the box-office growth rate slowed to 9 per cent, down from 13.5 per cent in 2017. During the first half of 2019, revenues actually fell by 2.8 per cent despite a slight uptick in the average ticket price — the first such decline since 2011. The gross number of tickets sold declined 10.5 per cent year-on-year.
Several factors have contributed to this dropoff, including a recent tax evasion scandal that netted many Chinese film stars and stalled or killed productions, as well as increased competition from China’s booming streaming video services. But the most damaging was summed up by The Paper, a state-funded newspaper in Shanghai: “This year audiences could clearly feel that after Chinese New Year, there were no good films to watch, especially among domestic films.”
Why? While censorship has always been a barrier to innovative and risk-taking films in China, adept and determined filmmakers could still find ways to get interesting work approved. That became much harder beginning in March 2018 when the government eliminated the agencies previously assigned to regulate film, television, and publications, assigning their responsibilities to the powerful Central Propaganda Department. What had been a difficult process mediated by bureaucrats suddenly became a much harder one overseen by Communist Party officials closely tied to China’s top policymakers.
The immediate effects were understandably chaotic. Long-time relationships between studios and regulators needed to be reset or established fresh. This slowed down the already byzantine process of approvals. Worse, it injected a new degree of risk — and risk-aversion — into an industry that already had an ample share.
The results are obvious. In February, and again in April, three prominent Chinese films were abruptly withdrawn from festivals in Berlin and Cannes for “technical reasons” — a euphemism for censorship. An even more ominous sign came last month when The Eight Hundred was also pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai International Film Festival for “technical reasons.” Reports on Chinese media suggest officials may have been offended by the idea that soldiers under Chiang Kai-Shek, the Chinese Nationalist rival to Mao Zedong’s Communists, had fought with valour during World War II.
Chinese filmmakers are getting the message. On the sidelines of the festival, China’s biggest studios announced slates of films that seemed designed to please the censors. Tencent Pictures, the studio owned by Tencent Holdings, announced an upcoming lineup that Variety described as “a mix of Hollywood content and Chinese propaganda.” China Film Group Corporation, producer of The Wandering Earth, announced a similar slate while emphasising its “mission to closely revolve around the Party and the country’s promotion of overall cultural work.”
The irony is that regulators know such dutiful movies aren’t likely to inspire ticket buyers. Traditionally, in an unwritten blackout designed to boost the fortunes of local productions, the busy summer holiday season in July and August has been reserved for Chinese films only. This summer China has opted to open the gates to foreign films, in an effort to pump up ticket sales. The biggest beneficiary of China’s clampdown on content may be Hollywood.