Did y’all know Transformers 4 is about to become China’s highest-grossing movie ever? (And at a time when the U.S. box office is terrible.)

I haven’t seen any of the Transformers movies since maybe the first one — and I’m unclear honestly if I even saw that one — but regardless, the reviews for the fourth one have been kind of terrible. It’s got an 18 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, for chrissakes! Proving once again that there’s absolutely no correlation between “mass appeal” and “critical appeal,” though … it’s about to become the highest-grossing movie in Chinese history. It will surpass Avatar (no surprise, as that’s still the highest-grossing film of all-time) and just surpassed some movie called Lost in Thailand, which was (oddly) the No. 2 grossing movie in China’s history.

This is all interesting because the U.S. box office, while still the global king, is suffering a bit. This 4th of July weekend was the worst 4th for the U.S. movie industry since the 1980s, adjusting for inflation and all that. It’s a bit hard to compare 4th weekends directly because the actual 4th falls on different days each year, but if you say “… worst since the 1980s,” that kind of gives it some context. That said, the only real new thing that opened stateside seemed to be Tammy, which Gawker called “torture porn with better timing,” so … there’s that. This wasn’t a Will Smith holiday this time around, you know?

China’s film industry is now $3.6 billion annually, which is the largest market outside of the U.S. and Canada. The next largest market is Japan, at about $2.4 billion annually; thus, China is about 50 percent further along than Japan in terms of grosses. Some have called this “a golden age” for China film-wise. As that relates to the U.S., though, there are some contextual things to understand:

But it’s not clear how much this phenomenal growth will actually shore up the global film industry. Currently, only 34 foreign films are allowed in Chinese theaters a year. Chinese officials were reportedly considering raising that number to 44, possibly around the time of the National People’s Congress. That meeting has now passed without any new announcements about foreign film quotas.

Despite Hollywood’s lobbying, China has been loathe to let too many foreign movies in while its domestic film industry is still growing. US film companies get only 25% of box office earnings for their movies in China, compared to 40%-45% in other countries—and last year Chinese officials held up the payment of $143 million in an attempt to negotiate an even lower cut.
Interestingly, you’re seeing the same thing in China as you are in the United States: some content is being found via “going viral” and navigating over to other mediums. “Old Boys” is one example. Streaming is getting big there, too. (As are tax breaks.)

Ted Bauer

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