By Laurence Sulivan
Perhaps more than ever before, Americans are waking up to globalization’s encroachment into every aspect of American life. Whether it’s open borders, sweeping trade agreements, or endless foreign wars, we see it in our advertising, in the so-called news media, and in the demonization of the diversity of thought. Films have always been a vital cultural export for the U.S. It has inspired millions around living under the tyranny of governments throughout the world. But when foreign box office growth outpaces domestic box office growth, like the social media giants in Silicon Valley, Hollywood ends up importing foreign censorship. This is how to be competitive in the global marketplace. We do not export Americanism anymore. When China’s box office is 10 times that of America’s, liberal-minded Hollywood, of course, alters its products to kowtow to Chinese censorship rules. No stranger to leftist censorship, this new normal only worsens an already beleaguered film industry that is a shell of its former self. So how can Americans put America First at the box office? Do we support local cinemas and independent films? Do we favor domestic films for domestic audiences? Do we become what Bloomberg columnist Conor Sen calls “Hollywood protectionists”? Frankly, yes! These are all fantastic ideas.
Marvel Studios is the quintessential Hollywood “dream machine,” producing hyper-successful film after film. Such blockbuster movies represent an increasingly out-sized percentage of Hollywood’s total ticket shares, and this troubling trend is only getting worse. As Ben Fritz of The Wall Street Journal notes, “In 2015, 2016 and 2017, the top 10 movies raked in between 32% and 35% of total box office, comScore said. Previously, that figure never exceeded 30%. So far this year, it is 58%.” Because of this, chasing opening weekends with pre-sold branded content with an eye towards a global audience is crucial to Hollywood’s marketing strategy.
To make matters worse, Hollywood has changed the kinds of movies they produce to reflect the interests of international audiences. While a commercial flop in the U.S., World of Warcraft was a financial success almost exclusively due to China where moviegoers spent over $200 million on tickets. This is but one example of a slew of blockbuster films, like the latest Transformers installment, that has barely registered domestically but has been wildly successful in China. Despite a much better than expected debut of $63 million, the Chinese online reviews of Blank Panther left much to be desired.
Be it the all-black cast or subtler, gentler forms of racism, these reviews epitomize how Western attitudes towards race and gender have become a source of both discomfort and vexation to Chinese audiences. Just as Lucasfilm had minimized actor John Boyega’s face in Chinese posters for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Marvel Studios likewise released posters with actor Chadwick Boseman fully masked. Observant bloggers have also noticed the curious lack of interracial romance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Great Wall as U.S. studios catering to these non-western sensibilities. Nothing too nationalistic or identifiably American ever gets released for fear that Chinese audiences, the second largest market in the world, will not embrace it. Dialogue is only needed to convey the barest minimum of information between very protracted action sequences. Slapstick abounds. It’s just easier.
It is undeniable that making movies with a foreign audience in mind changes the kind of movie you can make. With Black Panther set to become the third highest grossing movie ever in North America, the film is clearly more impressive than your average second tier standalone superhero movie from Marvel Studios. In fact, the film is great. Just as Black Panther has become a cultural touchstone for African American audiences, the independent sleeper hit I Can Only Imagine has likewise established itself as an inspirational story for Christian audiences. What do movies like I Can Only Imagine and Black Panther tell us about the film industry at large? Since the dawn of online streaming services, there is less and less of a reason to go to the theaters. That is unless the movie in question touches American audiences. This is the only effective way to ensure movies stand the test of time.
If Hollywood wishes to stay relevant, they need to stop forgetting about their domestic audiences. This is not to say they need to make more overly jingoistic or patriotic films. Hollywood should get back to the basics: visionary stylistics, good storytelling, and relatable characters. Instead, domestic moviegoers are often left with “Made in China” movies jam-packed with blandness, insincere liberal platitudes, explosions, and unfunny gross-out humor. For the time being, that’s entertainment. But it doesn’t have to be. As consumers, we can vote with our dollar. This includes supporting local voices and talents online and elsewhere. As Hollywood protectionists, we can and must demand better.