China Can’t Save Hollywood’s Box Office Bacon

Here’s part of the gamble that Warner Bros. is making with its decision to release its 2021 slate on HBO Max and in domestic theaters simultaneously: “Yes, 2021 box office is going to be weak, but we can still recoup some money at the domestic screens as coronavirus vaccine penetration picks up and, anyway, the Chinese box office is back to full strength and our tentpoles will play well there.” Every other studio is relying on this same strategy to a certain extent, given the uncertainty of 2021 box office figures.

Allow me to suggest that we should be deeply skeptical of this strategy—and keenly aware of the Chinese government’s interests in ensuring that this gambit fails. Two reasons for that skepticism? Mulan and Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84, for short).

Despite being conceived as a “love letter to China,” in the words of director Niki Caro, Mulan bombed in China. Settling on any one reason for the failure of a movie is a fool’s errand; in theory this is the sort of thing audiences eat up, a big-budget effects-heavy epic based on an existing intellectual property with the marketing might of the biggest, smartest movie studio in the world. But as Fortunenoted, the movie suffered from bad reviews driven by heavy early piracy. Chinese audiences were not impressed by the Westernized version of ancient China, it seems, and the box office suffered as a result.

Beyond that, however, is the fact that the Chinese government actively tried to quash Mulan’s chances at finding box office success following controversy in the United States over Disney’s decision to include in the film’s credits a line thanking Chinese government agencies associated with the operation of Uighur concentration camps. Outraged that Americans were outraged by their outrageous assault on the human rights of a minority religious group, the Chinese government smothered Mulan in the crib: it ended up grossing just $70 million in China, well short of the nine-figure payday the studio was hoping for.

“If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem,” Disney Chairman Alan Horn said in 2019. Well, Burbank? We have a problem.

WW84 hasn’t transgressed against any Chinese cultural norms, as best as I can tell. But it too is suffering at the box office, coming in a distant second in its opening weekend to local actioner The Rescue. According to the Hollywood ReporterWW84 grossed under $5 million on its opening day and looks like it’s on track to gross less than half of the original’s $90 million at the Chinese box office.

This is bad news for Warner Bros., which has already torpedoed the film’s chance of making any serious money at the domestic box office by announcing that the picture would debut on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously. WB had hoped China would make up some of the difference. This is the bet they were making on other features, like Godzilla vs. Kong and The Matrix 4 and Dune and every other film in their 2021 slate—the whole of which is, like WW84, debuting on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously. 

It is, I think, a bad bet. And it’s a bad bet because the Chinese government has a vested interest in helping crush American studios in an effort to boost their own productions.

The Chinese Communist Party wants the Chinese film industry to be the sort of globe-spanning artistic empire that Hollywood currently is. They want their agitprop-filled action-adventure movies to be as widely loved as the MCU and the Star Wars universe and the Fast & Furious franchise. They want to be players on the global stage, spreading their message of Chinese ascendancy throughout the world via entertainment. 

And if I had to guess, the Chinese government looks at COVID and sees a gift: a disease that has decimated the American box office and given the Chinese film industry a leg up, a boon that will allow them to cripple American studios that have grown, foolishly, to rely on an oppressive regime to rake in foreign dollars. They are pressing their advantage here and are likely to keep doing so in an effort to wean their own audience off of American blockbusters—which, if it comes to pass, would be financially disastrous for American studios. 

There is a silver lining here. A decreased reliance on the Chinese box office—which has tended to prize spectacle over storytelling—could lead to a resurgence in mid-budget pictures aimed at American audiences. Movies for adults might make a comeback. And that’s something we should all be cheering for.

For more on Warner Bros.’ gambit, listen to my in-depth podcast on the subject with James Emanuel Shapiro, COO of Drafthouse Films and the founder of the analytics department at the Alamo Drafthouse.

And consider signing up for a paid Bulwark+ membership while you’re at it if you haven’t done so already; doing so will not only ensure that I am never forced to sell my soul to the Chinese Communist Party, it’ll also unlock special members-only episodes of Across the Movie Aisle. I know a number of you are already listeners, but if you’re not, it’s the Left, Right, and Center-meets-Siskel and Ebert show I do with Alyssa Rosenberg and Peter Suderman. In previous members-only episodes, we discussed what the concept of “blockbuster” entertainment means in a theater-free world and debated the merits of the radical centrism of Matthew McConaughey.

Next week, we’re going to discuss Netflix’s new original feature, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. If you want a sneak preview of what I might say about it, keep reading: a review of that film is up next in this-here newsletter.

Review: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix)

Part a meditation on the nature of art and entertainment—and the ways in which entertainment-distribution systems are built to ensure that artists do not get their due—and part a glimpse into the manner in which racial prejudice infects and dehumanizes those who struggle against it, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a tight little production with some great end-of-year performances that nevertheless feels a bit dramatically inert.

Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is set to record in Chicago with her band: Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and Levee (Chadwick Boseman), a hotshot trumpeter with designs on something bigger than being a bit player in some fading blues queen’s backing band. Set over one day in a 1920s Chicago recording studio, the tension steadily increases as Levee comes into conflict with each member of the band over how to play—and how to live—as well as with Ma herself. Levee has eyes on Ma’s girlfriend, Dussie Mae (Taylour Paige), and disdain for the singer’s nephew, Sylvester (Dusan Brown), whose stutter makes recording a spoken-word intro to Ma’s hit song nearly impossible.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is very much a filmed play, which makes sense since it is the filmed version of a play by the late August Wilson—one of the ten in his “American Century Cycle.” With lots of heartfelt monologues and a limited number of locations and, if we’re being honest, a relatively scant amount of drama, the movie works as an actor’s showcase and not much else.

But what a showcase! Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman are the big names here and, unsurprisingly, they are great. Davis embodies a sort of lived-in weariness, a great artist who knows just how her manager and the record label will conspire to screw her over. She has a sort of heavy-lidded disdain for the penny-ante shit they pull, a mood that’s far different from the sort of sharp-tongued anger she reserves for her girlfriend when she receives a bit too much attention from young Levee. 

There’s something almost tragic about Boseman’s turn here, about Levee’s rage against God and the unfairness of the universe, given the actor’s untimely death from cancer in August. It’s like he used up the last fiery bits of himself to amp up the sublimated rage in Levee’s heart, the anger he’s felt at having to endure a lifetime of oppression and wickedness. The camera lingers on his tear-soaked eyes and hard-bitten lips in a way that makes you get teary and mad for him at the same time. And while the film/play’s conclusion feels a little pat, Boseman sells the action as well it can be sold, a lifetime of racial injustice pouring out of him against the wrong target because it’s the only target he truly feels comfortable lashing out against.

My favorite performance, though, might be Colman Domingo’s. His role is probably the leanest, but there’s something to his almost zen-like ability to go with the flow that makes it all the more shocking when he no longer can go with that flow. Domingo is a big man and his Cutler is slow to anger, but when properly provoked his fury is shocking and a little frightening.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is tight, slight, and a must-watch for anyone whose primary reason for watching movies is being transported by a transformational performance or three.

Happy Hour: Jiggers

In the last happy hour we discussed the usefulness of owning a smaller martini glass: A drink should be a certain size in part so you don’t overserve yourself and others and also because it will stay cold while you drink it. This week I’d like to emphasize the importance of actually being able to measure your drink. 

To that end, I’d like to recommend owning a set of jiggers. I own this set, and it’s remarkably useful because it allows you to ensure the proper ratio you see in many cocktails: “One of Sour, Two of Sweet, Three of Strong, Four of Weak.” The 2oz/1oz jigger gets the most use in my own kitchen, given my predilection for Manhattans (2oz rye/1oz sweet vermouth). But it’s nice to have the 1.5oz/.75oz jigger as well, just in case you want to make something either slightly stronger or slightly weaker, depending on whom you’re making the drink for.

This tool is important because you should always measure your drinks! You don’t want to just slosh some booze in a glass and call it a day. No recipe works that way, and cocktails are very much recipes. Treat them with respect!

Assigned Viewing: Rome (HBO Max)

This week’s assignment is inspired by one of the dumbest tweets I’ve ever seen:

Look, I know we don’t ask our children to learn history anymore, but the least we can do is ask them to watch HBO’s Rome so they can learn that Caesar crossed the Rubicon first and that’s at least part of the reason why, many years later, he was assassinated as a tyrant. The way this inanity reads, you get the sense that the author feels that the Rubicon is something Caesar valiantly tried to avoid crossing and was killed for his troubles. As if he straggled across the Rubicon with knives sticking out of his back, I guess? I dunno. 

Anyway. Rome is great and everyone should watch it. You might even learn something. It’s on HBO Max!