When Warcraft opened with a dismal $24-million (U.S.) at the North American box office two weeks ago, critics breathed a sigh of relief. Thank god, the sentiment went, we won't have to sit through a sequel to that. But then the numbers started coming in from China.
In its opening weekend on Chinese screens, the almost universally panned video game adaptation earned $156-million. It will be a Durotan-sized miracle if Warcraft hits $100-million on North American shores, yet it's already surging past $200-million in China, where local audiences hold a fervent passion for both large-scale fantasy films and the original video game series (and understand who Durotan is).
Unless Universal Pictures suddenly develops an allergic reaction to money, a sequel is inevitable. And therein lies the predicament currently needling critics and agitating Hollywood executives: How do you solve a problem like China?
Of course, it's not really a problem if you're making more yuan than you can count, as Universal discovered last year when its Furious 7 earned more in China ($390-million) than it did domestically ($353-million). But as the Chinese movie market grows at an astonishing 19 per cent a year – meaning that it will become the world's largest by 2017 – the industry is headed for a rude awakening that could change the nature of cinema itself.
First, the good news, at least for studios still keen on exploiting their varied intellectual property: China loves big, splashy franchises. Four of the country's all-time highest-grossing films are made-in-Hollywood confections: Furious 7, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Jurassic World. Chinese audiences apparently crave the same popcorn-primed blockbusters that North Americans lap up, which means that both sides of the globe can be satiated with the same product.
For audiences already weary of sequels and superheroes, though, the future looks grimmer than a Zack Snyder film.
According to a recent speech given by Wanda Cinema Line's Zeng Maojun, president of China's largest theatrical exhibitor, the country is adding an astounding 15 screens a day to cater to its rising middle class. And all those screens will need movies – particularly the type of dazzling, event-level movies that play best on a big screen.
Which means Hollywood will concentrate on producing even fewer mid-budget, low-return dramas (leave those to the indie studios) and even more comic book adaptations and 'roided-out action spectacles – preferably with a Beijing-friendly bent. As China allows only 34 foreign films into its theatres each year, Hollywood has increasingly torqued its biggest performers in ways both subtle and blunt. After all, there has to be a reason why the upcoming Dr. Strange changed the nationality of a key Tibetan character to Celtic; why Iron Man 3 altered the origin story of what was once a Chinese-born villain; why Transformers: Age of Extinction portrays American bureaucrats as inept bumblers and Chinese officials as smooth operators; why Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson just signed on for Skyscraper, a China-set Die Hard clone. Appeal to the country and you get access to 1.4 billion potential filmgoers, who are expected to spend $15-billion by 2020.
Hollywood is also thinking ahead, skipping the annoying and costly steps of exporting and tweaking their product to make films directly for Chinese audiences. Wanda Group, for instance, acquired the California-based production company Legendary Pictures (responsible for The Dark Knight, Pacific Rim and, yes, Warcraft) earlier this year for $3.5-billion – which may allow the company to bypass the quota on foreign films, creating blockbusters by and for Beijing. Meanwhile, upstart Hollywood studio STX Entertainment reached a co-financing deal last year with Chinese firm Huayi Brothers, while Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo recently launched studio Anthem & Song with about $200-million in Chinese financing.
"Remember those awful 'Europudding' co-productions of the eighties, which were just cultural mishmashes? Those things are not working between Hollywood and China now either," says Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival and a frequent visitor to Asian film markets. "American investors and producers are now wisely ceding creative control to the Chinese filmmakers, who know their audience better."
Which leads to the rare bright spot in this cinematic landscape: the global rise of Chinese cinema itself. "In the past five years, you see this generation who came out of film school in China to make art-house films, but has been swept up in the massive economic growth in the industry," Bailey says. "Somebody who might have gone into school thinking they were going to make films of personal expressions, they now realize they can make films that earn $200-million in a matter of weeks. But the box office doesn't just mean you get rich – you get an audience. … The sky is really the limit."
The question now, though, is what China's new wave of filmmakers will do with that audience. Bailey believes they will play increasingly to homegrown audiences, creating a strong domestic infrastructure that supports Chinese artists with Chinese sensibilities – an industry that doesn't have to "make the compromises to their stories the way Hollywood has."
But it could also go in the opposite direction, with China taking over from Hollywood as the main exporter of world cinema. (The country already has the world's largest studio, Hengdian World Studios, which rests on 7,000 acres near the eastern city of Dongyang.)
On this side of the coin, there are both bulls and bears. At the Shanghai Film Festival last week, director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) issued a warning to Chinese filmmakers, urging them to not rush into a booming market with underdeveloped projects. Hollywood "has their systems set up already and their pop culture touches everyone in the world," he said. "We forget what our parents told us when we were children, that we have to be modest."
Action icon Jackie Chan took the opposite approach: "If we can make a film that earns [$1-billion], then people from all over the world who study film will learn Chinese instead of us learning English."
Whatever the next few years bring to both Hollywood and Beijing boardrooms, filmgoers across the globe should be primed for a cinematic revolution. A revolution that – yes – just might deliver a world of Warcraft.