It might come as a surprise to learn that two of this summer's movie blockbusters have China to thank for their successes. "The Meg", a Chinese-American co-production, raked in $467 million to date— surpassing the box office success of films like "Solo: a Star Wars Film." Sure, "Solo" underperformed, but outdoing a Star Wars film is still a mighty achievement. And "Crazy Rich Asians," the best-performing romantic comedy in a decade, was built on the strength of its' unexpected cross-demographic appeal. These are merely the two latest examples of the meteoric rise of Chinese influence in the movie industry. And the shifting geography of the movie industry is just further proof of China's move toward the spotlight on the global stage.
Increasingly, American blockbusters are reliant on the Chinese moviegoer. This summer saw record numbers for Hollywood's top performing films––but "Avengers: Infinity War," "Mission Impossible," "Ant-Man and The Wasp," and "The Incredibles 2" all owe their success to being hits in China. The domestic gross of most movies usually accounts for 30-50 percent of its total revenue. The international gross accounts for the other half, and China now accounts for nearly half of any non-domestic revenue. For instance, the underperformance of"Solo" in China doomed the film to be a financial failure. As a result, casting in Hollywood has been shifted, with Chinese stars like Donnie Yen and Fan Bingbing cast in immense franchises like Star Wars and X-Men in an attempt to make headlines in China.
Meanwhile, Americans have had almost nothing to do with the meteoric success of Chinese blockbusters. Mammoths like "Wolf Warrior 2" earned $870 million last year––more than "Thor: Ragnarok" and "Guardians of The Galaxy Vol 2." Yet only $2 million of that amount was made in America. These aren't the only successes. Since 2010, 31 films from China have broken $100 million at the box office. Of those, only 13 of those films grossed one million dollars in the US, and only one film, "The Meg," broke $100 million. In other words, Chinese films perform miserably in America, yet boast incredible global market success. Major financial stumbles like "Asura", the most expensive Chinese film in history that was pulled from theatres after only a week, seem like hiccups instead of signs of weakness.
From a political standpoint, China's film industry is certainly worth watching.
From a political standpoint, China's film industry is certainly worth watching. Our own status as a cultural superpower is intrinsically tied to the power of our cultural exports. Jazz, for instance, was pivotal in Cold War Diplomacy. America would send jazz musicians to Soviet satellite nations to expose them to American culture and inspire ideological allies inside these countries. Jazz, centered musically around the tension between structure and improvisation, was a perfect metaphor for communicating America's relationship with democracy and freedom. China clearly understands the power of art in communicating cultural values, which is part of why only around 34 foreign films are allowed into the Chinese market by the Communist Party of China, minimizing the influence of foreign ideologies within the Chinese state
When it comes to international relations, this is pivotal. Music, books, films, and art are the most influential agents of cultural values. The greatest testament to American values are books like "To Kill a Mockingbird," the music of N.W.A, the films of Steven Spielberg, and the art of Georgia O'Keeffe. These works center around equality under the law, civil rights, freedom of speech and conscience, and individualism. China, as it rises in economic, political, and military might, will need to spread Chinese values in order to win over allies and have other nations accommodate China as a superpower. The Chinese film industry is currently China's best bet in spreading its own national values, such as harmony and filial piety.
The British Empire and the Soviet Union were two other major powers that have used culture to help solidify the values of the political class. Britain spent hundreds of years artistically creating the notion of empire, seen in the works like "H.M.S. Pinafore" and the literature of Rudyard Kipling. The Soviet Union used art to propagandize socialist values of the state through the posters of Dmitry Moor and literature of Mikhail Sholokhov. Both of them managed to effectively propagandize their own legitimacy as superpowers through the cultural ambassadorship of their artistic works.
As China increasingly flexes its military and economic muscles internationally, the Chinese film industry reflects these global changes, resulting in the massive success of films like "Wolf Warrior 2". If Americans want to know how China views its global status, looking at the box office can be one of the best ways. As the US and China enter a trade war and start jockeying for global positioning, America needs to be careful to not lose one of its most celebrated industries to its ascendant rival.