How China’s order to showcase propaganda movies will affect a key Hollywood market

‘Even if they enjoy some patriotic films, I think Chinese audiences don’t like being told what to do’

Peony Hirwani@peony_hirwani
Friday 07 May 2021 11:35
<p>File image: TCL Chinese Theater box office on March 20, 2020 in Los Angeles, California a day after Los Angeles County announced a near-lockdown</p>

File image: TCL Chinese Theater box office on March 20, 2020 in Los Angeles, California a day after Los Angeles County announced a near-lockdown

The Chinese authorities have ordered the country’s cinemas to utilise the power of the box office to promote positive messages about the ruling Communist Party.

It comes as part of a drive from Beijing to inspire a younger generation to “grow their affections” for the Party and for socialism as their parents did – by watching the same old propaganda films.

Experts warn, however, that an audience used to enjoying their pick of Hollywood and other international blockbusters may not take kindly to having their choice restricted.

Chris Berry, a professor of film studies at King’s College London, told CNN: “After more than 30 years of marketisation [of China], people are used to thinking of themselves as consumers with choices, not as pupils to be educated through entertainment.

“Even if they enjoy some ‘patriotic’ films, I think Chinese audiences don’t like being told what to do,” he said.

In April, many viewers simply stayed away after ticketing sites quietly stopped promoting showings for the re-release of the three The Lord of the Rings movies.

“There is resentment about the ‘nanny state’ that determines what you can and cannot see in terms of culture,” Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who specialises in Chinese politics and society. told CNN.

According to local media reports at the time, the trilogy was “scheduled for re-release in China throughout April”.

The Fellowship of the Ring was supposed to be released on 9 April, although this was pushed back a week. The Two Towers was then scheduled for 23 April, while the release date for The Return of the King was yet to be revealed.

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This re-run followed the successful re-release of James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic Avatar, which saw takings of roughly $50m (£36m) despite receiving little promotion in the country.

However, on 1 April, as soon as Beijing started its drive to promote movies celebrating the founding of the Communist Party, information about the Hollywood trilogy release disappeared and a host of decades-old propaganda movies, many in black-and-white, flooded theatre schedules instead.

Finally, without explanation for the delay, the first Lord of the Rings screening returned to schedules abruptly on 14 April. It is possible, Berry suggests, that the Party saw a dip in ticket sales and panicked about the loss of revenues.

“The Chinese film industry is not just production studios, but also movie theatres and distributors. And the distribution and exhibition sector makes huge amounts of money off Hollywood imports,” said Berry.

“They may be worried that they will suffer financially as a result of this policy. After all, the audience can watch other things on TV and on the internet,” he said.

Rosen said: “China will need those [foreign] films to continue to be the number one box office in the world, assuming the North American market recovers sufficiently.”

In 2020, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was re-released in the country right after cinemas reopened following the Covid-19 lockdown, which ended up grossing $29.4m (approx £21m).

According to government statistics, between 1995 to 2019, ticket sales increased nearly 7,000 per cent in China with the introduction of foreign films proving a big contributor to the Chinese box office.

That’s not to say that Chinese-made films aren’t popular. During the pandemic, China overtook the United States to become the world’s largest box office and many of the biggest draws were produced by Chinese studios and production companies.

According to CNN, while the Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred was a hit amongst audiences, Hollywood films like Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 flopped.

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