Hollywood Spent Years Kowtowing To Beijing. Now, Their Movies Are Tanking

The American film industry has attempted to woo China by appealing to the country’s censors since the 1990s, but Chinese audiences aren’t buying in anymore, according to The New York Times.

There were no American pictures among the top ten highest-grossing films in the Chinese market in 2023, the first time this has happened in a non-COVID year since 2011, according to the NYT. The lack of success for Hollywood in China follows an extensive history of American executives bending to the demands of Chinese censors to gain access to the country’s massive market, purposely excluding or removing certain references, such as the Taiwanese flag being removed from Tom Cruise’s jacket in previews for “Top Gun: Maverick” in 2019.

“The days when a Hollywood film would make hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in China — that’s gone,” Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese politics and the film industry, told the NYT.

Chinese audiences are instead choosing to see domestic films as the country’s own industry tries to pump out higher-quality movies, according to the NYT. The two top movies in China in 2023 were “Full River Red” and “Wandering Earth II,” both domestically produced.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party has also sought to cultivate local filmmaking to boost its own cultural influence while also being able to distill desirable CCP doctrines into the films, according to the NYT. The two highest-grossing films of all time in China, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “Wolf Warrior 2,” both feature patriotic messaging about fighting and winning against American opponents.

Most recently, Warner Bros. sought to boost the second installment in the “Aquaman” movie franchise, pushing movie clips and behind-the-scenes footage on Chinese social media, as well as sending the movie’s star, Jason Momoa, on a marketing tour of the country, according to the NYT. Despite the marketing efforts, the film has only brought in $60 million following a few weeks of release, well below the opening-week haul of $90 million that the first film received.

“I’m very proud that China loved it, so that’s why we brought it to you, and you guys are going to see it before the whole world,” Momoa said to Chinese state-run media during his marketing tour, pointing out how the second “Aquaman” movie was set to be released days earlier than an any other country in the world in an effort to boost viewership.

Hollywood in the past has resorted to self-censorship to ensure that the films will be popular with Chinese audiences, tailoring messaging to appease Chinese audiences and government censors. The movie studio digitally altered footage post-production of the 2012 remake of “Red Dawn” to change the invading army from Chinese to North Korean to appeal to the CCP.

In response to Hollywood’s cooperation with Chinese censors, the Department of Defense created new regulations in 2023 that prohibit the department from funding directly or indirectly any entrainment project that complied or will comply with censorship requests from the CCP.

Will Kessler on January 23, 2024

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