So Long, Shanghai
If Hollywood is not already recalibrating their biggest budgets to compensate for China’s disappearance from their spreadsheets, I would be shocked. Because American movies are being shut out from the world’s biggest theatrical market, and access is unlikely to get better anytime soon.
Even traditionally China-friendly blockbusters like the sequels to Venom and Spider-Man: Far from Home are getting locked out, according to the Hollywood Reporter:
With diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington at a nadir, Hollywood’s China business lines are hitting fresh lows. U.S. film imports are now at their lowest levels in a generation and various major studio features, including popular superhero titles Spider-Man: No Way Home and Venom: Let There Be Carnage from Sony-Marvel, still have no release dates. Their chances of getting the green light are becoming slimmer by the day as the year winds down, analysts say.
Venom made $269 million in China, while Spider-Man: Far From Home grossed nearly $199 million and Spider-Man: Homecoming grossed $116 million.
That’s a lot of money to leave on the table, even if China is notoriously stingy about the percent of the gross they share with studios and prone to fibbing about box office totals, period. But outside of a handful of franchises like the Fast and the Furious movies and the James Bond movies, the future of Hollywood blockbusters in the Middle Kingdom is unclear. Hell, Marvel’s whole slate this year was shut out: none of the MCU films (Black Widow, Eternals, or Shang-Chi) got even a token release.
It’s not like Chinese audiences aren’t showing up for movies: two different pictures grossed over $800 million and another grossed nearly $700 million. The pandemic is over, at least as it relates to Chinese box office. And China seems to have decided that they want to use their new power to prioritize domestic releases over foreign fare. As Chris Fenton noted on Twitter, Hollywood more or less sold China the rope with which to hang American movie studios.
How American studios should respond is unclear. After all, it’s not as if domestic audiences don’t love the superhero, FX-driven fare Chinese audiences lapped up for a decade—but those may be too expensive to make without Chinese ticket sales. Adult audiences have migrated to television for longform narratives and streaming for movies more in line with their tastes. Recapturing American hearts, minds, and eyeballs is going to be a tricky task for Hollywood. We’ll see if they’re up to the task.
A One-Paragraph West Side Story Review
As a rule, I don’t review too many musicals because I don’t really understand or appreciate the form of the musical. In addition to having a hard time parsing dialogue when it’s part of a lyric, I just don’t enjoy people dancing about in a silly fashion as they try to impress upon us the seriousness of their hopes and dreams. So here’s all I’ll say about West Side Story: Steven Spielberg understands movement and visual storytelling as well as any American director ever; a handful of these setpieces (the opening introduction, the staging of “America,” the fight in the salt warehouse) are very entertaining; that Rachel Zegler shines as Maria and is done no favors having to star across from Ansel Elgort, who’s a bit of a stiff in this movie; and I appreciated the film’s final message about the importance of learning to really hate people who intend to harm you. Wasn’t expecting that!
Anyway, I liked it a little which means it’s probably one of the ten greatest musicals ever made.
If you like this newsletter a lot (or even a little), consider giving a gift membership to someone in your life who needs to be told which movies to see and why. They’ll also get access to a ton of great stuff by Jonathan V. Last, Charlie Sykes, Tim Miller, and others, but, mostly, they’ll know what to go see in theaters from the most-trusted name in film criticism (me).
Over at The Bulwark I reviewed Don’t Look Up and Red Rocket, two movies that are very much about the last five or six years of American life, in their own, very different ways. Don’t Look Up is kind of a mess, though the ending is quite poignant in its own way. Red Rocket, meanwhile, is one of the best films of the year.
I also taped a special episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood with Tim Miller to talk about Don’t Look Up and his sojourn back to movie theaters.
Also on BGTH this week, I talked to Tony Davis of Tessive about what you need to look for when making Holiday-season electronics purchases. One thing every stocking needs to be stuffed with, apparently: new HDMI cables!
On Across the Movie Aisle, we talked The Power of the Dog and asked what took so long for CNN to dump Chris Cuomo. I also paid brief tribute to the Washington Post’s editorial page editor Fred Hiatt, who died at the all-too-young age of 66 this week. On the bonus episode, we reviewed The Harder They Fall.
Speaking of Fred Hiatt, make sure to check out Ben Wittes’s obituary. Fred was, in addition to being one of the most decent and pleasant people you could meet, an ardent champion of democracy and human rights at home and abroad. He will be missed.
Assigned Viewing: Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Prime Video)
The weird thing about Adam McKay, director and writer of Don’t Look Up, is that he’s one of the most incisive and cutting critics of conservatives and the media writ large when he’s not actively trying to be incisive and cutting. Anchorman, for instance, skewered local news as effectively as any film ever has.
And Talladega Nights is a much more entertaining and, frankly, much more insightful movie about the Bush years than Vice, his biopic about Dick Cheney that was hailed by some critics as “The best superhero origin story of the year.” Talladega Nights really hit on a sort of bravado that’s key to the American spirit and self-conception and questioned how it impacted individuals and communities alike, in addition to simply being gut-bustingly funny. As with most of McKay’s work, I wasn’t aligned with the ideological leanings of the film, but I still loved it.