The China-resentment of American movie snobs

Gamers are starting to blame China more for their consumerist gripes, but American movie fans started it.

Christian Patterson
Underground Mall

Majestic Movie Theatre in Shanghai
Majestic Movie Theatre in Shanghai

Blaming China for gamer moments has increased lately. Whether it was getting upset at China when Blizzard banned a pro Hong Kong player, or before that, when gamers raged against the Epic Game Store by claiming (insubstantially) that it’s Chinese software to spy on American gamers. I’m sure there’s more, and older, examples too.

But we shan’t forget that people have been boogey-manning China regarding Hollywood films before it was ever a thing in video games. Maybe because it’s more recent that China has invested capitalist interest in game production, and video game use has increased over time.

With games, China sees the potential for growth in the esports sector, invested heavily into it, and are trying to allocate facilities and resources across the country to it. Because of this, I don’t think gamers have much to worry about China tampering with their prized games, except when it has a bearing on esports, like what happened with Blizzard recently.

Movies, on the other hand, don’t have the same types of sub-industries, like esports. If China wants to exert control over Hollywood movies, they’re more likely to exert it on the movies themselves. This causes them to reach further into the art form itself, unlike reaching into esports, which is more periphery to the art form.

China does have some control over content in Hollywood movies, at least if they’re going to be released in China. Because of this, the American film consumer has been blaming China for crappy movies way more and way longer than gamers have. However, even with the control China does have on the industry, these anxieties are heavily overblown.

Wanda Movie Park in Wuhan

The issue is, Hollywood has always created bad movies, and the reason they’re increasingly making more bad movies isn’t China. It’s because bad movies have mass appeal, and therefore make a lot of money. This only becomes apparent when China has different taste in bad movies than we do.

For example, Transformers: Age of Extinction and Warcraft made a lot more money in China than North America, and people blamed the Chinese market for liking shit movies. However, these same people don’t complain when The Avengers movies succeed at a similar level, in both Chinese and American box offices. Similarly, some bad movies, like the Disney Star Wars movies, do terribly in China.

This creates a dynamic where, whenever a bad movie does well in China, the American press sneers at China for their shit taste, but whenever a bad movie doesn’t do well in China, it is either under-reported and ignored, or, in fact, also turned against China.

For example, from this Bloomberg Opinion article by Connor Sen and Megan McArdle, “Saving Hollywood From the Chinese Box Office“, Connor Sen writes:

“Now the news is that the latest Star Wars movie fell flat in China. Its opening weekend haul there was barely half of what the previous installment garnered a couple years ago. I fear eventually this means that future Star Wars movies will look a lot more like Transformers movies (less talk, more boom), and in the long run everything will become some version of robot dinosaurs fighting or a “Wolf Warrior” sequel.”

But Connor Sen is forgetting something here. Star Wars has always been “less talk, more boom”. They’re light, fluffy action movies. He just has different taste in “more boom” than China does.

Not only that, but this is deceptive, because the Transformers movie he’s referring to isn’t Age of Extinction which did great, he’s referring to Transformers: The Last Knight, which had a strong opening weekend in China, but ultimately did pretty poorly at the box office. In China, the film was mocked for pandering to Chinese audiences and its out-of-place Chinese product placement. This shows Chinese film viewers are perceptive to, and react to, the same type of things American audiences do (they don’t want to be pandered or talked down to, for example), they just have different aesthetic tastes.

In other words, the Chinese market doesn’t have worse tastes in movies than Americans, they just like different bad movies sometimes.

Interior Wanda Cinema Imax theatre in China

In the same piece, Megan McArdle writes:

“I understand why people living abroad don’t want to be Americanized, any more than I want to be Chinese-ized — or Irishized, or Germanized, or Spanishated. I want jokes that are funny to Americans and no one else, relationships that look like my relationships, characters who act and talk like the people I see every day. Cultural traditions are valuable, and preserving and extending them is a laudable motive. It’s just not a motive that Americans are very well equipped to understand, since for the past century we’ve been the cultural hegemons.

“Now it seems they’re in danger of being hegemonized by a billion Chinese. But I wouldn’t be particularly sad if China were making most of the movies seen in the world. What I dislike is the globalized product that tries to be of no culture at all.”

This makes sense on face value, people want movies that speak to their personal understanding of the cultural world. The issue is, first of all, the film industry is already 100% Americanized. Any reduction to this, like if a foreign market had minor input in Hollywood movies, would be perceived by Americans as “Chinese-ification” of American movies. In reality, the American film industry is “American”, but it’s also the global film industry.

If the US didn’t use Hollywood as a global propaganda tool, and then export that propaganda globally, then other countries wouldn’t feel the need to do so either.

McArdle’s argument becomes insidious when you consider that she’s potentially suggesting two different things, and neither are good. First, she could want the status quo, where Hollywood movies remain a global propaganda machine that the US remains in charge of. However, the status quo for Hollywood isn’t necessarily American propaganda – that’s more of a secondary effect. The status quo for Hollywood is making as much profit as possible. Now, the profit is coming from China, meaning this longing for the Hollywood status quo is imagining a past that can never exist again.

Second, she could be advocating something more insidious – her idea gestures towards ethnonationalism. Now, under a socialist society, movies would likely be made for more localized, culturally-relevant movies, as opposed to boring, generalized movies. That’s because capitalism benefits from the widest audiences possible, and socialism wouldn’t have that same motivation for bland universality.

But if you don’t know McArdle, she isn’t a socialist, she’s a libertarian. So from her worldview, she isn’t advocating a socialist utopia with highly localized folk films, she’s advocating for isolationism and economic nationalism.

That’s not to say Megan McArdle is personally an ethnonationalist. But considering that her argument seems to be suggesting that some type of power (State Power) should intervene in the market for cultural reasons… that’s just textbook fascistic thinking.

Interior Wanda Cinema Imax theatre in China

I will summarize because this post is a little all over the place.

Currently we see anti-Chinese sentiment manifest in fans of the video game industry. But anti-Chinese sentiment has a long history in Hollywood too.

Although the Chinese government does have some impact on what Hollywood produces, they have a negligible impact compared to the impact US state apparatuses has on Hollywood movies.

What people are actually noticing, when Hollywood makes movies that cater to China, is that Hollywood always follows the money, and Chinese moviegoers represent an increasing flow of money.

Americans notice that Hollywood movies are getting dumber and worse, and the easiest connection to make is to the increased input from China in Hollywood. In reality, they’re both symptoms of a bigger problem: Hollywood is the global hegemonic film center, and it is always, constantly profit-seeking.