Hollywood loves to find new technicalities of scheduling and accounting by which to declare this or that new blockbuster not just a hit but a “record breaker,” but one record that used to get broken a lot less often was the global box office opening total. That’s mainly because, for most of history, movies opened at different times around the world in order to best accommodate the cultural schedules of individual territories – but in an era of digital piracy threatening the film industry’s bottom line, more and more major films aim to open in multiple countries at once in order to thwart the demand for “unreleased” pirate copies.
This, plus the more open availability of screen space for American-made releases in rapidly expanding global economies like that of China, has led to this record being broken twice in the space of the last two years; claimed in 2015 by Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens only to be shattered again this past weekend by The Fate of The Furious; which further demonstrated the increased primacy of Chinese movie audiences even more impressively given that the record was broken despite the film opening with a lower box office take domestically than the previous installment, Furious 7. Either way, the question now becomes: How long can Fate of The Furious hold onto this particular trophy?
If recent trends hold, the answer might be “Not long”: the next major movie opening simultaneously in both the U.S. and China will be Marvel’s Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 – a big-budget sequel that the industry is expecting to be one of the biggest hits of 2017.
TWO OF A KIND
Ironically, the prospects for Guardians to outdraw Fate of The Furious are likely good precisely because the two films are so similar. That might seem strange to consider at first, given that one is about a team of onetime underground street racing champs who’ve become government mercenaries while the other is about a group of aliens from different planets having adventures in outer space. On the surface they wouldn’t seem to have much in common – certainly not enough for one to be in some way predictive of the other. But in the details, the two emerge as startlingly similar.
Most obviously, they’re both ensemble movies, i.e. the main story follows a group of multiple characters rather than being mainly the story of only one. Especially in an era where the idea of “movie stars” has evolved in unexpected directions, ensembles are often more popular than single-star productions because they offer a variety of characters for a broader audience. This is especially true of Guardians, which mixes “serious” characters like Gamora with figures like Rocket Racoon and Baby Groot who appeal more to younger children. In keeping with this spirit, while both films feature lots of action they’re shot and edited in such a way as to be largely appropriate for most audiences – a more important concern than ever considering the differing cultural standards of certain nations.
Most notably of all, though, they’re both franchises that share a central theme of family – specifically, surrogate and extended families created by individuals who either are or are made to feel like outsiders otherwise. Both the Guardians and the Furious franchise’s extended Toretto Family are filled with literal and figurative orphans, several of whom are considered outlaws and/or outright criminals, they’re comprised of a grab-bag of ethnicities (and, for the Guardians, species); yet somehow they’ve coalesced into sincerely powerful support systems. In an increasingly-migratory globalised world where ideas of citizenship and “roots” are ever changing, the ideal of such friends-as-family groups is clearly in growing demand (see also: The Avengers.)
THE CHINESE CONNECTION
Where the rubber meets the road in Hollywood’s bottom line is ticket sales, and in the 21st Century that increasingly means casting an eye on China. While once only an afterthought for major studios because of the difficulty in securing releases for U.S. films and the limited spending power of its citizens, a surging economy and burgeoning middle class (coupled with major changes to trade policy) have turned breaking big in the Middle Kingdom into Hollywood’s new must-meet goal. Case in point: Fate of The Furious actually opened significantly lower than it’s predecessor in the U.S., but still broke the record on the strength of Chinese box office dollars.
However, China is not always easy for a Western movie studio to “crack.” While improved communication and a hunger for global pop-culture (particularly among Chinese youth) have narrowed certain once-vast cultural divides, an unexpected hurdle has emerged in the form of present-day Hollywood’s current reliance on properties that hold long-term nostalgia value for many Western audiences, but often don’t have nearly the same cache in China. There’s no better model for understanding this dichotomy than Star Wars, a billion-dollar brand virtually guaranteed to dominate most movie markets on name alone but largely absent until recently from the pop-culture diet of China – where it only performs about as well as any other big FX-driven blockbuster (The Force Awakens was blown out on Chinese screens by Boonie Bears, a low-budget feature spin-off of a popular Chinese cartoon series) despite a massive local marketing push by Disney.
Much of that dynamic is about cultural presence: Star Wars entire marketing presence in much of the world is grounded in the idea of the series as shared modern mythology, which not only doesn’t translate to a culture where it hasn’t historically been shared – it can come off as outright uninviting. By contrast, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe is based on comics books even older than Star Wars, as a film property it’s existence has run nicely parallel with the emergence of the Chinese film market itself. Likewise, while Fast & Furious is built on cultural-exports like hip-hop and American car culture, both have newfound and growing fandom among China’s middle-class and youth.
What that boils down to is that Fate of The Furious is now the global box office champ largely because it connected in China – and if Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2 performs the same way, it could very well pull off the same move. How long this type of constant changing of hands can sustain is anyone’s guess (will global audiences “pop” similarly for the new Spider-Man, grounded so heavily in U.S.-specific High School dynamics?); but you can bet Hollwood will be keeping an eye.