It’s time for Hollywood to kick its addiction to Chinese box office

With $191 million worldwide as of today, not counting whatever it has earned overseas since Monday, it’s a good bet that Crazy Rich Asians has crossed the $200m mark at the worldwide box office. If not, the Warner Bros./Time Warner release probably will today as it opens in Mexico in one of its last big markets.

It’ll open in Japan next Friday, with a few more territories (the Czech Republic on Oct. 4, France on Oct. 10 and Argentina and Brazil on Oct. 25) before it winds down. Barring a miracle, it won’t be playing in China. The good news is that when you gross over 5x your production budget in domestic box office alone, you can afford to not be worried about that precious 25% cut of the gross from the world’s biggest moviegoing market.

Now, for the record, I’m sure Warner Media would prefer that the Jon. M. Chu-directed film play in China. Generally speaking, studios prefer it when their movies earn more money as opposed to less money. But the film has been caught up in recent attempts by the Chinese government to (among other things) crack down on western influence.

It's time for Hollywood to kick its addiction to Chinese box office

They allegedly banned Disney’s Christopher Robin due to in-country jokes that likened China president Xi Jinping to Winnie the Pooh. The be fair, it could just be that they didn’t want to include it among their 35 annual Hollywood imports (they didn’t pick up A Wrinkle in Time either and I have no clue if The Nutcracker and the Four Realms or Mary Poppins Returns will play in China), but the theme stuck.

Donald Trump’s trade war with China has coincided with a downturn in Chinese investment in Hollywood which threatens plans to allow more Hollywood movies per year (since the likes of Dying to Survive and Operation Red Sea are kicking butt anyway) and possibly lead to fewer American movies playing in China.

And that’s not even getting the apparent disappearance of Fan Bingbing, who is believed to be a target of a government crackdown on celebrity tax evaders. That a whole different can of worms, one that threatens Jessica Chastain’s female ensemble spy flick 355, which was to be distributed in North America by Universal/Comcast Corp. and which was to co-star Bingbing. So, yeah, all things being what they are, Crazy Rich Asians not playing in China ranks pretty low on the “Oh bother!” scale.

Unofficially, the reason for the acclaimed romantic comedy not playing in China is due to concerns over the film’s alleged glamorization of wealth. Although, it could just as likely be that the movie would just play as another studio programmer.

Crazy Rich Asians may be a big deal in North America by virtue of its entirely Asian cast, but in China it would be… Tuesday. The things that make the movie stand out, at least demographically speaking, wouldn’t be much of a big deal to a land with 3 billion Chinese people.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon may have been a huge hit in North America ($128 million domestic in 2000), but it was ridiculed in China for essentially being a riff on the kind of film that is par for the course over there.

Whether or not Crazy Rich Asians was a victim of Chinese governmental politics or whether it just didn’t seem like a winner in the world’s biggest moviegoing marketplace, it’s worth noting that the film is already a huge hit without a dime of overseas box office.

It is cheap enough that it didn’t need to break out all around the world, and it is successful enough in North America alone that its overseas success will be arguably gravy. When your $30 million romcom has already earned $153m in North America, whether or not it plays in China (or is a success in China) is tantamount to trivia.

And if China continues to crack down on all things western, it might be valuable for Hollywood to start making more movies that don’t require a Chinese payday to break even.

Yes, there are exceptions like The Meg (a rare big-budget China/Hollywood co-production that broke huge in both America and China) or xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (which bombed almost everywhere except China), but more often than not the idea of a failed Hollywood biggie scoring huge in China is a myth. The Mummy, Termination Genisys, Skyscraper, The Great Wall and Pacific Rim: Uprising over/under $100 million in China and were still global whiffs. Ditto Warcraft and Terminator Salvation.

Meanwhile, the explicitly American (or explicitly non-China pandering) likes of Coco, Ready Player One, Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War were huge in China but also good-to-great in North America as well. More often than not, the movies that break big in China (like Mission: Impossible – Fallout) are the movies that break out in North America as well.

China is a huge market. However, it is not and never was a life raft for underwhelming Hollywood releases. The only flicks it tends to “save” are lower-budget grindhouse actioners like London Hals Fallen. Unless your movie is cheap enough or does relatively well everywhere else too (a poor showing in North America and the rest of the world cannot be redeemed by a strong showing in a marketplace where, in most cases, studios only get 25% of the ticket price.

China’s government can crack down on Hollywood exports whenever they so choose. With Chinese blockbusters breaking records in China and the U.S. President picking fights for sport, this seems like a good time for Hollywood (or at least the Hollywood media) to start questioning the notion of China as the great box office savior.

There are more movies that were huge hits that either didn’t play in or didn’t need China than there are big Hollywood movies that were big hits thanks to China. Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t need a penny of foreign box office to be a huge hit.

Neither will China Rich Girlfriend. But rather than looking at its domestic-driven success as an anomaly, we might be wise to use it as a canary in the coal mine. And yes, a Hollywood less reliant on Chinese box office (or foreign box office in general) could more willingly offer the kind of LGBTQIA representation that TV has already made old hat so that the MCU is at least as progressive as the Arrowverse. Either way, this may be a good time for Hollywood to kick its addiction to Chinese box office.