In my fantasy world, where the unicorns run free and my cats are as witty as Oscar Wilde, films get made for inherently artistic reasons — some smart, engaged, and cultured film executive looks at a story, says, “My God, people need to see this in film form! Damn the expense!” and then goes on to make a visionary work of art, untrammeled by the dictates of the marketplace. It’s a fine fantasy world. Just ask my robot butler.
Out here in the real world, however, films get made for slightly different reasons — but reasons that are in their way no less fantastical than in the scenario I mentioned above. For example, recent news suggests that movie studios are about to get even more interested in large-scale science fiction and fantasy films than they already are. Why? Because they love science fiction and fantasy films more than any other sort? Well, no: It’s because of China.
Follow: China, is an emerging economic powerhouse with more than a billion people and a rapidly expanding middle class that loves film. Hollywood looks at this expanding market and swoons — all those people! All that money! — but is hobbled by China’s policy regarding foreign films. It turns out that for the last several years, China has only allowed 20 foreign films into its theaters per year, to be distributed by a state-run agency which keeps roughly 85% of the gross. So even though China is a huge market, filled with people who pack theaters, it’s not the gold-plated money font it could be for the American film industry.
However, a new film deal between the U.S. and China was announced last week. It does a number of things, including allowing for the creation of independent (i.e. not state-run) film distributors and an increase in the amount of the box office foreign (i.e. U.S.) film studios can take home with them — it’ll now be up to 25%, which is a significant bump. But more importantly it allows for an increase in the number of foreign films that can be shown in China. The Chinese government will allow for an additional 14 foreign films a year to unspool in its theaters.
The catch? These 14 additional films have to be “premium-format films.” Practically speaking, that means films that are shown in IMAX or 3D.
Essentially, this is China saying to American film studios, “Hey, want access to our market? Make your films big and loud, with as many explosions and/or orcs and/or lasers as you can manage.”
Why would China make this particular rule? One reason might be an interest in protecting its home-grown film industry. While there are certainly epic-sized Chinese film productions, including ones with fantastical themes, Hollywood still rules the roost when it comes to Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean-size films. By expanding its market only to “premium-format films,” China is cannily giving Hollywood what it wants — more access — but signaling that access is for a certain class of film, allowing the Chinese film industry to continue populating the other film categories.
Another possible reason, somewhat more cynically, is that $100 million-plus science fiction, fantasy, and action films don’t usually have much in the way of a controversial political agenda. They exist to make tons of money by being entertainments, not statements. Choosing to open up access to only these films allows Chinese filmgoers to see more of the American film productions they enjoy without the headache (for the Chinese government) of having to heavily censor the films. It also keeps the U.S. film studios aware that if they want access to the profitable Chinese market, they need to keep current politics out of it. This is easier to do if your movie takes place on another planet entirely, or features wizards, hobbits, and dwarves.
What this means is that U.S. movie studios, which are already inclined to shove piles of money at big, loud, fantastical (and uncontroversial) movie productions, now have even more impetus to do so.
This is good news for you if love big brassy science fiction, fantasy, comic book, and adventure films in 3D with earth-shaking digital sound. This is not necessarily good news for you if you believe that major American studios should be doing all sorts of different types of films, including dramas that are aimed at adult audiences and don’t shy away from difficult subjects, including politics. Also, if you were ever hoping for a big, expensive historical motion picture about the events in Tiananmen Square from one of the major film studios, best to kiss that wish goodbye. It’s not going to happen now, even if it’s directed by Michael Bay, in 3D.
As I said, it’s strange to think a relatively minor policy change between the U.S. and China can potentially have a significant effect on science fiction and fantasy film production here in the U.S. But that’s reality for you: much weirder than fiction. Without or without unicorns and snarky cats.