If movies can tell us anything about the internal lives of typical film industry executives, it’s that they like to feel like the most important people in any room, like they’re doing everyone else a favor by granting a meeting. So it takes truly special circumstances to have Hollywood honchos visibly courting someone else’s attention and throwing tantrums in the press when they don’t get enough face time—as they did a few weeks ago, when the richest man in China, Jack Ma, came to do a little window shopping.
Ma is the founder of Alibaba, the e-commerce site originally founded to connect Chinese manufacturers and exporters with foreign companies, which has since grown to be not only the major marketplace in Chinese exports, but also the world’s biggest wholesaler and retailer, and the fourth largest tech company in the world, after Apple, Google, and Microsoft. This year, Alibaba is also making big moves into the entertainment business; it bought a film production studio this summer, and has been busy poaching talent for Alibaba Pictures Group.
As Alibaba moves into the movie making business, it encounters a Hollywood particularly eager to find ways into the exploding Chinese film market, now the second largest in the world after ours, and growing rapidly. As Shawn Wen has argued, this is already beginning to transform the content of major Hollywood films, which are increasingly appealing directly to Chinese audiences. Thus far, it has mostly meant the token inclusion of Chinese stars (like Fan Bingbing with a non-speaking role in X-Men: Days of Future Past), specific Chinese edits of films (like four extra minutes of footage spliced into Iron Man 3), and, nominally, setting more films in China and Hong Kong. But it will spell more fundamental changes—in both ideological and narrative content—down the road.
As the Chinese and other foreign markets grow, domestic box office figures in the U.S. will represent a smaller and smaller percentage of profits. This summer was a dismal one in domestic box office sales—the worst in almost a decade, and down 15 percent from 2013 sales. It would have been a total disaster were it not for foreign markets: Chinese sales alone offset American losses, and there was growth in Brazil, France, and Japan as well. But currency fluctuations mean that foreign markets are less reliable than domestic ones, and so Hollywood is going to have to grow at a faster rate in foreign markets if it wants to guarantee profits. So American-made movies are going to be increasingly, explicitly, designed for export.
In the 1980s and 90s, xenophobic fear of Asian global takeover found expression in the villainous Japanese mega-corporations of Robocop 3, Die Hard, the Alien movies, and more. But Red Dawn, a 2012 film about a communist invasion of America, was changed at the last minute from having Chinese villains to North Korean ones. (There’s no risk of Hollywood trying to break into that market any time soon.) Instead of arrogantly asserting American primacy over dystopian Asian tigers, American action and sci-fi cinema is now quietly shifting its heroes and its story lines to reflect a more global audience.
The summer’s big hit blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy, which would have to be surpassed by Interstellar to not end up as the top grossing film of the year, is a good example of what this shift might looks like, narratively speaking. Though the film’s hero, Peter Quill, is a white American, he was taken from Earth by aliens in his childhood, and the only thing American about him is a Sony Walkman full of pop songs. Quill has adventures through a series of fully invented, foreign, and fantastic spaces, blasting his way through a galaxy that doesn’t care about where he’s from or who he is—all while listening nostalgically to American music for which he has no cultural context. Quill’s story is a fully globalized narrative.
Similarly, while Transformers 4 features lots of chest-thumping shots of the American flag and an inventor-cum-world-savior for a hero, most of the film focuses on aliens battling over a space Seed that could destroy the whole world. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is set in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco, but that’s just a visual setting: it opens with a montage demonstrating how the entire world was wiped out by a plague. And because the film is mostly just CGI monkeys talking to each other in sign language, all foreign distributors will have to do is change the subtitles.
Interstellar, meanwhile, sees the whole world reduced to agrarian subsistence, with its plot focused on characters looking for a new planet for humanity to live on. The heroes aren’t Americans battling the rest of the world; they’re what’s left of the whole world, fighting global extinction. If an American government agency’s saving the whole world is the definition of an imperialist narrative, the threat du jour has become increasingly dire, disparate, and apocalyptic; these films can only imagine America doing the right thing in the face of total annihilation.
None of these plots, in isolation, is a mic-dropping, “I rest my case” moment, but together they point to a general trend of tent-pole summer blockbusters being less and less about America, as they are designed explicitly to sell the majority of their tickets outside of U.S. borders. The return of special-effects-laden sci-fi, superhero, and dystopian films might well have to do with their (relative) lack of cultural specificity. As Hollywood films are made by an increasingly international capitalist class, and sold to an increasingly international audience, they will tend to reflect the viewpoint of international capital more than that of any particular national group.
So, whatever it takes, Hollywood wants in on the Chinese market. But there’s just one problem: the Chinese government only allows thirty-four foreign films to be released in China a year, and those films have to pass censors. Enter Alibaba’s Jack Ma: an investor with connections to both the Party and Chinese film production, and who could make sure that co-produced films would be among the chosen few. And so, Ma is appropriately wined and dined, taken to a basketball game with Jet Li, fawned over and flattered in the film industry press. And we’ll start to see films, made in tandem with Alibaba Pictures Group or companies like it, designed with the goal of appealing to two culturally and ideologically divergent audiences at once.
But the point isn’t to be upset about this development: to wring our hands over it would be xenophobic. It is just one of the symptoms of the collapse of America’s hegemony that, when Americans go to the movies, they will no longer necessarily see themselves reflected back. Or, box ticket sales could keep on dropping, and we’ll just continue to stay in and watch TV.