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Made for China: Having it both ways

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2016-06-20 07:25

Made for China: Having it both ways

[By Jiang Jiahong/China Daily]

I was sitting in a Wanda Imax theater on the afternoon of June 8 when the opening logos for Warcraft rolled. It started with the so-called dragon logo, China's government seal for any movie-domestic or imported-for public theatrical screening.

Then came the one for the Chinese distributor, followed by Universal Pictures, which is the US distributor.

And then a bevy of Chinese companies that are household names in China.

I could almost see the pop-up balloons floating virtually above the audience: "Is this a Hollywood movie or is it a Chinese one?"

The biggest applause came when the opening logos ended with Blizzard Entertainment. And I instantly knew who made up the bulk of this audience.

Yes, they were diehard fans of the popular video game, by far the most popular in China according to some figures.

Warcraft the movie has grossed 1 billion yuan ($152 million) in its first five days of release. It raked in $24 million in the North American market.

Granted, it's not fair to compare the two figures because it opened on a Wednesday in China to take advantage of the Dragon Boat Festival, which is a public holiday here. But there is no doubt in anyone's mind that the Middle Kingdom is destined to be the biggest market for this particular movie no matter how you dice and slice the numbers.

For the fleeting question that popped up during the first two minutes of the movie-"Is that a made-in-China sign we're seeing?"-the answer is elusive. Chinese investors like Tencent and Huayi Brothers are not forthcoming about how much they put into the movie, and the question is complicated by the fact that the production company involved, Legendary Pictures, was acquired by China's Dalian Wanda early this year.

Sure, the $160 million project was greenlit long before the acquisition. But from a purely financing point of view, the Chinese stake was substantial from the get-go.

Conventional wisdom has it that China will overtake North America next year in the size of the film market-the theatrical part, that is.

This was not the first time an American film performed better in China than on its home turf. Pacific Rim (2013) grossed 694 million yuan in China and a slightly lower $101 million across the Pacific.

The difference is, this time the result was widely anticipated and the gap in box-office receipts much wider than anything we've seen.

Extrapolating these incidents, you'll see a trend when Hollywood makes movies specially for China. Overseas box-office performance for many of Hollywood's big projects, so-called tentpoles, already accounts for as much as three-fourths of the total.

And it's quite possible that China, growing by leaps and bounds, will become the No 1 destination for some of its future offerings.

But as I see it, they won't be "enhanced Chinese movies".

Hollywood has experimented with Chinese adaptations of their hits, but they did not work half as well as Chinese fare that's faintly and freely inspired by Hollywood hits. Chinese moviegoers do not go to a Hollywood movie for its Chineseness.

Even cameo appearances by Chinese stars may be nothing more than a marketing gimmick.

Daniel Wu is in Warcraft, but he is not recognizable even by voice. What matters is the legion of characters familiar to Chinese game players, who number 5.8 million on Chinese mainland-based servers. According to unofficial estimates, the Chinese user base could be double that figure because many are on overseas sites.

The news that Warcraft received predominantly negative reviews in its home country reached China shortly before its debut. But its Chinese partners did not seem worried. (Full disclosure: I moderated the first event of director Duncan Jones, joined by female lead Paula Patton and Wu, of their promotional tour in China, which was a forum at the Beijing Film Academy.)

In China, this is called a "fan film", catering to people who are emotionally invested in the story and oblivious to film reviews.

To understand the innate power of a fan film, all you'll need is flip Warcraft with the new Star Wars with its popularity Stateside.

In both movies, the applause comes at moments that would confound non-fans. Another thing in common is a precipitous drop in attendance after the first week.

Browsing through some of the movie review sites in China, I've noticed it's a split verdict, which is far more favorable than the 27 percent "Fresh" rating on US review site Rotten Tomatoes. While some praised it as the best video adaptation ever, a few compared it to The Lord of the Rings. The scathing reviews from the US somehow worked in the film's favor.

"It's not as bad as they said," I thought.

The first half hour had such a blizzard of proper nouns hurled at us that I was struggling for a fresh air of relatability.

Without knowing anything from the game, I could see the writers and the director working hard to add weight to the characters.

Even though they sport mostly cliches in dialogue, they do not look like people from games. Yet they do not carry the gravitas usually associated with good literature either.

What I found fascinating is Jones' refusal to portray the orcs as across-the-board evil. His decision could be founded on mostly commercial grounds as game players can be either species, humans or orcs (57 percent of Chinese game players chose orcs), but it lends a special relevance that echoes the eerily similar refugee crisis in Europe.

It is legitimate to ask: "Is it morally justified to invade another's home if your own home is destroyed?"

This accidental undertone does not register with most Chinese viewers. But there are lots of details that flew by me but became points of discourse for the fan base.

We probably need to separate the discussions "Is Warcraft a successful movie?" and "Is it a good one?"

For the second question, there need not be a single answer.

For the first, it may take a financial specialist after the dust is settled and the box-office totals come in.

Contact the writer at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn


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