Special Features

The Forgotten Part of The Fugitive’s Legacy: Saving China’s Flailing Movie Theaters

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the release of the Harrison Ford-Tommy Lee Jones 1993 classic The Fugitive, and the retrospectives have been flowing in, from The Atlantic to SceenCrush. “The Fugitive acts as a placeholder for a time when adults could be entertained by action heroes without being condescended to,” says Soraya Roberts. “The Fugitive is the best summer blockbuster of the 1990s,” defiantly argues Matt Singer.

This isn’t going to be one of those retrospectives. I lack the nostalgia nor feverish appreciation for The Fugitive that others share, perhaps because I was just a shade too young when it in initially came out for it become a foundational piece in my film fan education. However, the arguments in its favor as the type of quality film Hollywood doesn’t make anymore – a character-driven summer blockbuster that actually earned 7 Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture and an actual win for Best Supporting Actor! – are undeniable. As far as Harrison Ford 90s blockbusters go, I massively prefer The Fugitive to the alternatives (no thank you, Air Force One), and this moment is still an all-timer:

That scene and others like it left a lasting legacy. In the short-term, “It was the one-armed man!” became a bit of a punchline throughout the 90s, as seen in The Mask just a year after The Fugitive’s release. A good, but not great spin-off (1998’s U.S. Marshalls) eventually arrived. Several years after that, Tim Daly starred in a criminally ignored TV series remake indebted to both the original Fugitive 1960s TV series and the movie.

In the longer-term, many of today’s old-man action movies like The Equalizer or whatever Liam Neeson’s latest is at any given moment can be thought of as lesser descendants of The Fugitive (well, The Fugitive and Death Wish).

There is a forgotten part of The Fugitive’s legacy, however, and it is this: it saved the Chinese film industry.

That’s right – the film currently being lamented as an artifact of a sadly bygone era when studios still made actual movies, not mere products, had a small hand in building up the economic monolith that now looms over all of Hollywood.

Take it away, old Los Angeles Times article from 1994:

For the first time in 40-plus years, a recently produced American movie, Warner Bros.’ “The Fugitive,” is being shown in Chinese theaters in general release. Except for a minor glitch here in the capital city, where the film became ensnared in a political rivalry and was pulled after only one week’s release, “The Fugitive” is a runaway hit.

In Shanghai alone, according to Li Guoxing, manager of the Shanghai Film Distribution Co., more than 700,000 people are expected to see the film in 36 theaters where it is showing this month. Scalpers outside the packed theaters, Li said, were getting double the $1.25 ticket price.

All of this is good news to Warners, which took a significantly smaller-than-usual cut of the proceeds to be the first major studio to bring one of its recent releases into China.

Until now, the foreign movie fare here has consisted of decades-old American films such as “Spartacus” and “Love Story,” limited releases of U.S. films as well as extremely popular Hong Kong comedies and martial arts action movies.

Some context: The 1978 Superman wasn’t released in China until 1986, and it was pulled from theaters after one month when critics regarded the title character as “a narcotic which the capitalist class gives itself to cast off its serious crises,” as quoted in Ben Fritz’s The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of a Movies. This resulted in a nearly decade-long complete ban of all Hollywood movies until The Fugitive, which hit Chinese shores a year after its North American debut. Now, back to the blockquote:

American movie executives see this breakthrough as an important opening to the world’s biggest potential entertainment market: China’s population of 1.2 billion.

The opportunity came earlier this year when the Ministry of Radio, Film and Television revised its longstanding limitations on foreign imports and agreed to allow “the 10 best foreign movies” into China each year.

Promoted as a cultural opening, it is more like a desperate cry for help to Hollywood from the beleaguered Chinese cinema industry. The traditionally conservative ministry changed the rules in response to the steep decline in attendance at Chinese movie theaters. According to the New China News Agency, cinema ticket sales dropped to just 9.5 billion in 1993 from 23.9 billion in 1979.

The problem Chinese movie theaters faced at the time should sound familiar to modern audiences: an explosion in competition from alternate entertainment options. Today, that competition is at-home and on-the-go streaming, in all of its forms; back then, it was TV and a newly-thriving karaoke bar industry. Plus, theater owners had to contend with the 60,000 “video viewing rooms,” which the LA Times described as “private rooms that can be rented to watch movies on videocassettes and laser discs.”

In the face of such competition, the steady diet of Chinese propaganda films playing in movie theaters simply wasn’t cutting it. Opening the borders to American movies provided exactly the shot in the arm the Chinese exhibition industry needed, especially since many viewers were already familiar with American stars and movies thanks to the piracy market. The manager of the Da Guangming Cinema in Shanghai told the LA Times, “In our cinema, we have 1,554 seats and showed [The Fugitive] four or five times a day for eight days. More than 50,000 people saw the film here. Most people said they hadn’t seen a film like this for a long, long time. They enjoyed every minute.”

A recent picture of the Da Guangming Cinema, which was first built in 1928.

Not everyone was so enthused. A fight over the local film distribution rights turned contentious and resulted in the loser griping about “using socialist money to fatten the capitalist pig.” The propaganda ministry then yanked The Fugitive from theaters midway through its two-week run.

However, the damage had been done. A 40-year-ban had been dropped and recent Hollywood movies suddenly had access to the Chinese market. Titles like True Lies and Speed soon followed The Fugitive’s lead, and while this resulted in minimal financial gains for the studios it helped prop up what had been a flailing local theatrical exhibition industry. Plus, as The Journal of Communication argued in 2002, this exposure to Hollywood films “(re)defined what counted as quality films for Chinese audiences. As such, the industrial structure and market practice institutionalized by Hollywood have became the new model for the Chinese film industry.”

The explosion of the Chinese film industry still wouldn’t begin in earnest for another decade or more, but when the theaters needed it the most Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones were there to delight with their thrilling journey through the muck.

Source: LA Times


  1. You need to go to china Kk. Critique some films there too. The fugitive was a great film for its time but more so for tommy lee jones who bagged and oscar for it and less so for Ford being in it olaying his usual moody and desperate persona. Hence the limp sequel with wesley snipes and robert downey jnr. I recall barry norman reviewing the film at the time and saying his only critism was that The roles should have been swapped with Ford as the marshall and Jones on the run. This being because we all know Ford vould never do what he was accused of whereas Jones is quite capable.

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