It seems today that no major event film comes out without a lot of talk in the press speculating about, and then covering, how it does in China.
This is, of course, not wholly baseless. Hollywood's ever-larger budgets, and the recent fickleness of American audiences, have the industry looking overseas for more and more of its revenue--a pattern reinforced by its increasing emphasis on the kinds of costly but thematically simple films that will perform well globally. And of course, China, which has become the world's second-biggest film market, and is widely believed to be on track to be the first by 2020, figures prominently in such calculations--while that market is becoming increasingly open to imports.
Still, the tone of the American entertainment press in discussing the prospects of Hollywood in these countries tends to be awfully complacent--as one sees looking when looking at one big story it has tended to ignore, namely what happened in what was formerly the world's second-largest movie market, Japan.
In 2002, 16 of the 20 top-grossing films at the Japanese box office, and 9 of the top 10 films, were Hollywood productions, including the six biggest hits of the year--with Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets at #1, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones at #2, Monsters, Inc. at #3, the Fellowship of the Ring at #4, Spider-Man at #5 and Ocean's Eleven at #6.
By contrast, just 9 of the top 20, and 3 of the top ten were American in 2012, with the year's biggest Hollywood success, Les Miserables, making only the #5 spot.1 (The other two films, incidentally, were Resident Evil: Retribution at #8, and The Avengers at #9.)
One may wonder if 2012 was not simply an exceptionally poor year for American film at the Japanese box office, but an examination of the years in between indicates a steady downward trend in its fortunes, with far fewer American films among the major earners, and these films tending to make less money--collectively, hundreds of millions less than they might have made otherwise in this single market each and every year.2 Additionally, as the hits of 2012 demonstrate, the list of American films that do make money in Japan is more idiosyncratic, Japanese moviegoers not simply going in for the same product as their American counterparts.3 By and large the gap has been filled by Japanese films, just one reflection of Japan's ever-higher profile in the world pop cultural map.4
And that, of course, has been a reflection of Japan's combination of size and affluence as a country of 127 million with a solidly First World per capita income, which is what gave it a domestic market with the purchasing power to support the vibrant film and television industry it now enjoys. Assuming countries like China and Russia continue to expand their economies, there is no reason to think they cannot, and will not, do the same, their own film industries claiming a larger share of those more lucrative home markets, while moviegoers in those markets also become more selective regarding the American movies they see at the theater.5 That these other film industries might then go on to fight for foreign markets as well, competing with Hollywood not just nationally, but internationally, at the multiplex rather than just the art house, is a more distant but far from unrealistic prospect--and underlines the fact that just as Hollywood takes the American moviegoer for granted at its peril, so it does with the world box office.
1. This is, incidentally, a very different pattern from what is seen in other industrialized countries. By contrast, 9 of the top 10 films, and 18 of the top 20 films, at the German box office in 2012 were American, a not atypical figure in that country. A similar pattern holds in Britain, and to a lesser extent, France (where a dozen of the top 20 were American that same year). All of the data used in this post came from BoxOfficeMojo.com.
2. Between 2003 and 2007, American films averaged 11 of the top 20 and 6 of the top 10 slots; between 2008 and 2012, just 7 of the top 20 and 3 of the top 10 slots.
3. The weak performance of many of the biggest American blockbusters is worth pointing out. The highest-grossing film at the U.S. box office, The Avengers, admittedly did not do so badly in Japan, still making the top ten (barely). However, the Dark Knight Rises, the second-biggest hit of the year in the U.S., came in at #27; the third-biggest American hit, The Hunger Games--criticized by many even in the U.S. as a rip-off of Japan's own Battle Royale--was all the way down at #95 in Japan; and Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, sixth at the U.S. box office last year, came in at #106. By contrast, Resident Evil 5, which outdid even The Avengers in Japan, was only a mediocre earner in the U.S., taking in $42 million to be just the seventy-ninth biggest hit of the year in the States.
4. It certainly seems noteworthy that of the three American films to make the list of 2012's top ten earners, Resident Evil was based on a Japanese video game series, while Les Miserables is based on a French musical based on a French concept album based on the classic French novel, rather than being a distinctively or deeply American product. Completing the irony may be the fact that The Avengers was directed by an American widely regarded as owing a significant creative debt to animè (direct or indirect).
5. Of course, this does not always happen. Germany, for instance, with its population of 80 million and GDP of $3.4 trillion could support a rather more robust film industry than it now has (especially with millions more German speakers in neighboring countries like Austria and Switzerland extending the audience for German-language fare). Uwe Boll has remarked on the "art house" sensibility prevailing in German film as a factor, but I have not encountered any explanations of the reasons for this tendency.
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