Scrolling through The Hollywood Reporter’s “Today in Entertainment” newsletter, I came across a rather curious headline:
Securing a release date in China can be a make-or-break ordeal for lots of Hollywood movies. China’s the second biggest film market in the world. It throttles the number of foreign releases it allows per year. How do you say leverage in Mandarin?
Doesn’t matter. What does is this: China has got Hollywood by the proverbial balls. However, you always hear about this in relation to tentpole blockbusters, not Oscar-contending dramas. They don’t need our dramas or comedies. The Chinese film industry can handle that kind of thing perfectly fine on its own and in ways audiences over there will better understand. But while our cultures and languages may be different, we can mutually respect a damn fine action scene.
So, why on Earth would Green Book – a buddy dramedy road trip through the racist back corners of the United States’ Deep South in the 1960s – care about China?
Mostly because China, like everywhere else in the world, is fully aware of the cultural cache of the Oscars. We’re not the only ones curious to see whatever the Academy anoints as the best films of the year. Oscar nominations and wins can provide a significant boost to a film’s domestic box office. The same, it turns out, is true in China, that is if you can get past their censors.
Big wins at the Oscars have been known to give U.S. prestige titles a significant boost in China in the past. Alejandro Inarritu’s gritty survival epic The Revenant earned $59 million there — a record for a Hollywood drama at the time — after Leonardo DiCaprio won best actor at the 2016 Oscars. Following its five-Oscar outing in 2017, Damien Chazelle’s La La Land pulled in $36 million from China, despite musicals previously having a dismal track record in the country. Last year, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri scooped up $10.3 million in its post-Oscars China run, more than it earned anywhere else out of the U.S. and U.K.
Other recent Oscar movies to join the made-more-in-China-than-anywhere-other-than-the-U.S. club include: The Shape of Water, Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, The Martian, Unbroken, and Gravity, most of which would have probably been hits regardless of Oscar buzz. Manchester By the Sea, The Darkest Hour, The Imitation Game and American Hustle, on the other hand, went mostly ignored by Chinese audiences, not a single one of them grossing higher than $5m. Most other major Oscar movies from the past half-decade, including Best Picture winners Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, and 12 Years a Slave, never even made it to China.
That should give you some context for how genuinely impressive it is that Green Book at least managed to score a release date over there. Green Book will now hit China on March 1, the first Friday after the Oscars telecast. Roma’s producers, meanwhile, are said to be trying to secure a similar release.
The following may have given Green Book a leg up in this particular competition:
China’s Alibaba Pictures is a co-financier of Green Book via its partnership with Amblin Partners, which co-produced the film with Participant Media. Alibaba Pictures is expected to support the China release with its powerhouse ticketing service Taopiaopiao and various other digital marketing channels.
The irony here is Hollywood studios have largely abandoned mid-budget movies in search of the kind of blockbuster glory that can only be cemented with a boost from China, yet now wealthy Chinese investors have scooped in to invest in producing mid-budget American movies. It’s been tough sledding for most of them. The Chinese-funded American studio STX Entertainment has been around since 2014 and only just last week scored its first #1 opening with The Upside, an orphaned Weinstein Co. project.
Green Book, meanwhile, has $42m domestic and just $4m international in its pocket after an up-and-down-and-then-up-again box office run so far. One surprising win (Golden Globes) after another (Producers Guild) has made it the possible movie to beat for Best Picture, though, which the producers obviously hope will translate to more for their bottom line in ticket sales. Now, they have China to turn to for that as well. It might end up doing no better over there than Three Billboards did last year, but for films this small an extra $10m can make all the difference, even if they only end up seeing a quarter of that money since China usually takes a 75% cut of ticket sales.