Film and the World: Film to export

Louis Oh, Blogger

So the “Thor” sequel is coming out this weekend, but before getting excited about Tom Hiddleston’s third return as Loki, let’s takes a moment to take a look back at the last Marvel Studios entry, “Iron Man 3.” Putting feelings about the twist aside, (spoiler alert) the Mandarin wasn’t the only one with a second side; the movie itself had a second version you probably never saw, unless you were in China last May. Although imported films in China often get a few scenes cut before reaching audiences, on this occasion Marvel strangely squeezed a few extra minutes featuring stars Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi to the film specifically for the Chinese audience. Reportedly these scenes are inconsequential and exploitive, but putting the criticism for these scenes aside, why were these scenes, and the alternate version of this American movie, made for China at all?

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, the audience for Hollywood films, especially big-budget productions, has expanded, and the focus is shifting. Like any industry, film will inevitably alter its supply in accordance to a changing demand, and when, according to the American Society of Cinematographers, two thirds of Hollywood’s profits come from overseas, how could studios help but to adjust? It’s common knowledge that the Chinese market is the fastest growing market today, and Hollywood executives know it too. They also notice the numbers that tell them they need to start paying attention to and appealing to other major markets like Brazil, Russia, South Korea, Australia and elsewhere. In last summer’s “Pacific Rim,” the three other countries presented to have monster-fighting giant robots, called Jaegers, were China, Russia and Australia. Coincidence? Probably not. Speaking of “Pacific Rim,” the film also signifies just how important that international audience is for Hollywood. The production had a $190 million price tag, but made an underwhelming $101.8 million in North America. A decade ago this would have been a disaster, and many thought the potential original franchise was dead. However, the Guillermo Del Toro film raked in $305.8 million internationally for a total of about $407.6 million, doing better than double its budget. Sequel prospects could be heard from a mile away.

So what does this mean for the domestic moviegoing experience? It helps to first examine why these films are doing well abroad (and in some cases, not). International moviegoers flock to these big-budget movies less so for greatness in narratives (which is by no means a novelty in many of the industries abroad), but for the novelty of epic-scale computer-generated action that many smaller film industries simply can’t fund. In countries like South Korea, “Snowpiercer,” which cost $40 million to make, was the most expensive film in the country’s history. In contrast, the average budget for the top 20 grossing Hollywood films in 2012 was roughly $191.8 million. So, in most cases, the international customer seeks something epic and visually stunning. Most likely he or she does not speak English, so Anglo-centric humor, cultural references and dialogue complexity inevitably must take a back seat. Themes and ideas are geared toward the universal, and casts feature international stars. Specific nods, like Marvel Studio’s ill-favored attempt, cater to the bigger, faster growing markets. Even 3-D gets an extra push, partially because very few foreign movies can afford to shoot in 3-D or even post-conversion, and because it allows for American films to squeeze in a few more movies through China’s foreign film quota. In some cases, even plot changes and scene cuts are made: “Cloud Atlas” deleted love scenes and “Red Dawn” changed its villains from Chinese to North Korean.

Many fear that such changes are causing a general “dumbing down” of big-budget films and are also presenting the world with an image of America that is unrealistic. Such is also causing concern for a gradual polarization in American filmmaking between smaller-budget and big-budget productions and the effects this has upon storytelling and cultural representation. On the other hand, this economic environment provides American film with a special opportunity that allows for technical and technological advancement and diversification of talent integration. As an industry that hasn’t had the best record for being culturally sensitive or artistically minded, one can only hope Hollywood treats this period as an opportunity for development instead of a buffer for investment.

— Louis Oh