China Rules the Weekend with “After Earth” and “Pacific Rim”

Some interesting news out of Hollywood today. After Earth, the Will Smith-M. Night Shyamalan sci-fi flick that bombed with American audiences, is a surprise hit in China. The Hollywood Reporter noted that the film won the weekend in the People’s Republic, earning $13.8 million in ticket sales and even outperforming Chinese martial arts star Jay Chou’s much-anticipated martial arts musical, The Rooftop.

Many will see this as a vindication of sorts for Will Smith. After After Earth tanked in the U.S. last month, many movie writers penned career obituaries for the star. Some were kind enough to offer Smith advice on how to turn his career around, while others simply reveled in his failures.

But with China becoming an increasingly important part of the global market for American films*, it’s hard to see how After Earth could still be considered an abject failure. Even more importantly, maybe it’s not the elder Smith that Chinese moviegoers lined up to see.

Will Smith’s career may be fading, but he has invested wisely in the Smith genes. He developed After Earth as a vehicle for his son Jaden, who actually plays the lead in the film (Will has a supporting role). Jaden got mostly poor notices here in the U.S., but he appears to be establishing a fan base overseas, China in particular. Remember that Jaden’s first starring vehicle was the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid, which inexplicably (but smartly) moved the action to China, even though karate is a Japanese form of martial arts. That film also starred China’s most iconic actor, Jackie Chan, giving Chinese moviegoers a familiar face to associate positively with the young American star. Now with the success of After Earth, it appears that Jaden is developing a solid Chinese fanbase.

Jaden Smith in "After Earth"

Jaden Smith in “After Earth”

So while movie geeks everywhere were dancing on the grave of Will Smith’s career, the Smith clan was perhaps just waiting for the real money to start rolling in. In fact, the failure is ours for not realizing just how much the movie industry is changing and not recognizing that a big-budget bomb in the U.S. is not necessarily a bomb elsewhere. After Earth could even end up turning a profit. And so could Pacific Rim, which just came in third in its opening weekend here in the U.S. (behind Grown Ups 2 and Despicable Me 2) , grossing only $38 million off its $190 million budget. The movie might be a dud here, but it seems designed for foreign audiences, anyway. Much of the action takes place overseas, and the characters are written as archetypes with few personality quirks that might not translate to other cultures. Even the title of the movie indicates a deference to the southeast Asian market.

What does all this mean for the future of movies? Nothing good for people like us, I’m afraid. For years to come, we are likely to be stuck with more generic, action blockbusters that disappoint American audiences but make back their budgets overseas. Especially if the trend continues. I had, let’s say,strong negative feelings about Pacific Rim. But if it plays well in China (it opens there July 31), we could be seeing a Pacific Rim 2 or After Earth Again (After After Earth?) in the very near future, no matter how America feels about it.

*                    *                    *

 *A brief history of why China is important.

1)      When the internet became popular, people stopped buying DVDs.

2)      DVDs used to make up about 50% of movie studios’ profit margins, so they had to find another place to make money.

3)      Studios increased their focus on the foreign markets, which incidentally led to the prevalence of sequels and other movies based on established, successful properties. This is a concept known as “pre-awareness,” and it’s hard to get a movie greenlit these days without it.

4)      In the past few years, China has:

  1. Build hundreds of new cinemas, all of which only screen movies in IMAX and 3D (goodbye, independent films)
  2. Upped their cap on how many American films they allow to be imported per year
  3. Ramped up their own filmmaking industry to compete with Hollywood

5)      Given the size of China’s population, and all this adds up to a huge interest in pleasing Chinese audiences.

6)      For more info on this, check out the first chapter on Lynda Obst’s new book, Sleepless in Hollywood: Tales from the New Abnormal in the Movie Business.

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