Despite how it often feels, what ends up in cinema is often down to far more than mere release dates. Instead, business ties and political interests often get in the way. Providing only select audiences with the access to films from a given part of the world or films which dabble in certain subject matters.
While both hard and soft cinematic censorship can be found the world over, there are few film industries as selective as that of China. Beyond the censorship of certain subjects, China keeps a firm hold on its market with strict quotas, allowing only 54 foreign films to have a theatrical release annually.
This may first seem surprising given that China’s film industry is hot on the heels of Hollywood as the world’s second largest. But perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that China is interested in keeping its profits from the film market within their economy.
China’s strict caps on international releases may seem tough, but we may be on the precipice of them coming a whole lot tougher on the US. As evidenced by Marvel’s films, which were previously almost guaranteed to reach Chinese markets, recently being the target of backlash. Seeing “Venom: Let There Be Carnage”, “The Eternals” and “Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings”—a film which was arguably made with China in mind—all currently being held from Chinese release. But without a surplus of clear blockbuster alternatives to fill the foreign film quotas, it’s clearly not just a matter of the films not making the cut.
To be clear, this isn’t a case of content-based censorship. The famous green ident of the Chinese film bureau, who serve as the censorship board, would almost effortlessly emblazon the opening of these films in Chinese theatres. Requiring them to have few, if any, edits to be approved.
Instead, outside access to China’s film market has become a political affair. This was made indelibly clear in 2016, when South Korean film “Oh! My Gran” was pulled from Chinese screens following South Korea’s installation of a US-made missile defence system. This moment, although relatively small for the global film industry, marked a transition towards more overt politicisation of access to the country’s film industry.
Since then, it has been increasingly common to see films denied access for reasons which lie outside of the given film’s immediate vicinity. Be that due to celebrity missteps, business relations breaking down or other international affairs at the time of release, as per the instance of “Oh! My Gran”.
Increasingly, production companies tried to circumvent China’s annual quota through co-productions with the nation’s film industry. As demonstrated with titles all the way from “The Great Wall” to “The Meg” and “Abominable”.
Today, US–China relations are fraught. With tensions flaring over Taiwan, human rights and economic sanctions, it seems harder than ever for US films to make their way to Chinese markets. Despite US film imports into the country already being at their lowest in recent history, with the US formalising a political boycott of the 2022 Beijing winter Olympics, these numbers may dip down even further.
This thought is especially hard to stomach seeing as how, historically, US films have had strong box office returns in the country. For example, the “Venom” (2018) netted $269 million in the Chinese box office. But, as of today, it appears that the film’s sequel will not even make it into single digits.
So far in 2021, only 25 US films have been shown on the big screen. An incredibly sharp decrease from the 45 shown in 2019. An incredible loss in total market share recalling the entire quota of foreign releases tops out at 54. What’s even more surprising is that of these 25 films, many of them are relatively small American indies which would never promise to draw in numbers remotely close to the likes of a Marvel blockbuster.
While the question of entering the Chinese market is most often framed as simply getting the tick from censors, the reality of the situation is much more serious for Hollywood. One needs to look no further than the apparent “flop” “Warcraft”. Recouping $47 million in the domestic market, only a fraction of its $270 million budget (including marketing costs), it stormed the Chinese box office drawing in $225 million from its theatrical release. Numbers which single-handedly saved the film from becoming a financial sinkhole. This reveals how dependent big-budget Hollywood films can be on Chinese moviegoers.
With lessening access to the country’s screens, US production companies may need to rely less on the world’s largest national film audience. A change which may quake the foundations of the global Hollywood model we have become so accustomed to.
And with other nations increasingly speaking out against China, this may well soon come to impact many more global film industries. Leaving the future of big-budget, global cinema resting on international politics.