Star Trek And Beyond: Why Hollywood Needs China To Make A Hit

Star Trek Beyond (Paramount Pictures/SkyDance)
Star Trek Beyond (Paramount Pictures/SkyDance)
Photo of Cassam Looch
Film Editor19 July 2016

Sitting awkwardly somewhere between the familiar synth beeps of the Starship Enterprise and the iconic Bad Robot ident at the start of Star Trek Beyond, is a logo which is just as alien to most filmgoers as anything in the movie itself.

Chinese co-producers Alibaba Pictures, part of the Alibaba Group, were announced as investors in two major Paramount Pictures film releases earlier this year. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows and the third Star Trek reboot film both follow on from a similar investment in 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

The increasing influence of Chinese audiences mean that these partnerships are going to be even more commonplace in the future. China is now second only to North America in terms of potential box-office returns for American studio releases; however, predicting which films will be a hit, and more importantly which ones won’t, isn’t an exact science.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney/LucasFilm)

Many predicted Star Wars: The Force Awakens would exceed the $2.7 billion 2009’s Avatar made and top the all-time box-office charts following record-breaking openings in the U.S. and UK. The flawed assumption was that the latest film set in a galaxy far, far away would do similar numbers internationally, in particular in the crucial Chinese market. What most pundits and studio heads missed was that the Star Wars series traditionally performs poorly in the region, and despite their best efforts Disney were unable to buck that trend.

Although a total of $124m is respectable by any yardstick, The Force Awakens‘s China earnings barely makes it into that country’s top 10 releases of 2016 so far. J.J. Abrams’s film languishes behind the likes of The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War and Kung Fu Panda 3. Even the much-derided Warcraft adaptation, which stumbled on release in other markets, outperformed The Force Awakens to the tune of almost $100m.

Big in China. Warcraft found an audience that was missing in the UK (Universal Pictures)

Locally-made blockbuster The Mermaid, which was released on a handful of screens earlier this year in the UK, sits on top of the Chinese chart with a truly staggering $527m so far.

To put that number in context, Britain’s highest grossing film to date in 2016 is The Jungle Book with a grand total of $66m – chump change that highlights why appealing to the burgeoning Chinese market is crucial to the success, or failure, of any movie release.

The Mermaid has outgrossed every other film in China (China Film Group)

If those numbers are surprising, then a direct comparison between the U.S. and China is even more startling.

The biggest film at the U.S. box-office so far this year is Finding Dory. The film is still on release, and will probably make more than its current total of $445m, but even so it is unlikely to match The Mermaid. There’s definitely something fishy going on at the theaters this year.

The lack of insight into the Chinese market is understandable given that English language films have only recently been allowed into local cinemas. This growing accessibility to China has coincided with the rapid growth in the number of movie theaters and acceptance of Western culture. The country has also relaxed laws governing the number of foreign language movies releases, but the system is still far from perfect.

The all-female Ghostbusters reboot was set to make back its budget following a slew of positive reviews that proved many early naysayers wrong. Despite the best attempts of a vocal minority, the Paul Feig comedy was projected to hit the targets it needed to be an unlikely commercial success.

Banned in China. Ghostbusters won't be calling everywhere (Sony Pictures)

That all came to an abrupt halt when distributors in China refused to screen the film. The biggest foreign market in the world was instantly cut off, and now all the buzz is back to Ghostbusters being a commercial failure.

Initial fears that the film had been banned because it had four female leads were refuted and even rumors that an old censorship law governing the depiction of the occult and supernatural were also debunked. It turns out that the movie was not getting a release because it wasn’t deemed to be an ‘attractive’ proposition.

With all those factors in play, it seems like a smart move on the part of the American producers of Star Trek Beyond to get the biggest Chinese film partner to board the project. Alibaba will serve as the local marketing, promotion and merchandising partner on the movie, and have been given a release date of September 2 to work with.

Star Trek Beyond also has Taiwanese American filmmaker Justin Lin directing the sci-fi adventure, following on from a number of Fast & Furious movies. His style suits the Chinese audience, preferring a more action-focused story to some of the grandeur of Into Darkness (2013).

If you were looking at a guide on how to succeed in China, then Star Trek Beyond would be the perfect template.

Star Trek Beyond is released in China on September 2, and internationally on July 22.

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