Warcraft has now earned $412 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing video game adaptation in history. Normally people in the games sphere would crow about a huge success like that, but two things get in the way: 1) Warcraft isn’t very good, and 2) $221 million of that haul comes from China. That second fact shouldn’t be a big deal, except that the movie made less than $44 million in the US, putting it solidly alongside films like Terminator: Genisys and San Andreas, which both turned to international markets for a bailout. Such films are developing a stigma, the popular narrative being that the Chinese can’t tell a good movie from a bad one.
But I don’t buy it. While it’s true that underperforming films sometimes do well in China, it has nothing to do with lack of taste. In reality, Warcraft’s Chinese loot drop is the product of many local factors — from trade protection, to merchandizing, to translation — but the greatest may have to do with expectations created by traditional Chinese theater. Chinese tastes aren’t inferior, they’re just different — and a closer look reveals that audiences in the Middle Kingdom are more discriminating than popular wisdom believes.
The Heritage of Beijing Opera
There are a plenty of reasons Chinese audiences like broad action films. First of all, that’s just what they get. Chinese trade agreements stipulate that only 34 American movies can release there each year (more on that later) so studios naturally send crowd-pleasers rather than challenging dramas. Second, dialogue-heavy movies don’t translate well. Wordplay and subtlety are hard to convey through subtitles, meaning dramas lose some of their heft, and comedies don’t always hit home, especially if they rely on cultural references the audience didn’t grow up with. (Though it’s false that American comedies aren’t considered funny in China — audiences do respond to slice-of-life situational comedy, like the perennial learn-English-while-laughing favorite, Friends.) Better subtitles might help bridge this gap, but considering the translation for Avengers: Age of Ultron was so poor it literally made fans cry, I’m not holding my breath.
Frankly, we in the west are just as guilty of exclusively consuming Chinese action epics. Odds are, the last Chinese film you saw was probably a martial arts piece, like Hero or Ip Man, rather than a bittersweet indie like Go Away Mr. Tumor or the comedy mega-hit The Mermaid. Hong Kong pumped out Kung Fu movies for decades largely because they were the only thing subtitle-phobic Americans would watch, and even then, they only broke big after the English-speaking Bruce Lee provided a cultural bridge.
But let’s return to the question — why do Chinese audiences eat up overwrought performances like those in Warcraft, San Andreas, and Furious 7? Do they not recognize how bad the acting is?
Well — yes and no. The truth is that one culture’s “bad acting” can appear perfectly fine to another. And Chinese film has long included big, over-the-top acting styles that come straight from Beijing and Cantonese Opera — and I think it’s possible that this heritage makes audiences more tolerant of performances westerners read as “bad.”
You might not have considered this in detail, but actors use completely different body language, vocal styles, and speech patterns depending on whether a film’s a ribald comedy, melancholy drama, or epic war story. No news to you, clever reader, right? Yet so much of this is instinctive, it’s surprising how identifiable these hallmarks are once you slow down and examine them. You could probably look at a movie still that was boiled down to the actor’s outlines and see — just from the way people are standing — whether it’s comedy or drama. Comedies are generally more stylized, with bigger gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. Modern dramas, which are heavily influenced by naturalism and realism, are more subdued. If someone shouts, sobs, or crumples to the ground it’s usually to emphasize a moment such as a mental breakdown or personal tragedy. Indeed, these indicative behaviors are so important that accidentally spilling from one to another — overacting a dramatic moment until it appears comedic, for example — is the universal symbol of a poor performance. By the same token, we revere the subtle comedian or emotive dramatist who can take a performance to the limit without spilling over. Some even combine these extremes — we fondly remember Heath Ledger’s Joker because he overacted it into comedy, but retained dramatic menace.
Western film inherited these visual and auditory cues from western theatre, where the differences between comedy and drama were historically even starker. Rewind to Shakespeare’s day or Ancient Greece, and you’d find an increasing gulf between how people portrayed the two. Not long ago, actors playing the hero would have to strike strong, wide-legged poses during speeches, that (coincidentally) look familiar to anyone who’s seen a Marvel poster.
And the west wasn’t the only culture where theatre norms affected film acting. Sit down for a Kabuki play, and you’ll quickly realize how much Anime and Japanese film — particularly action and comedy — drew upon that heritage. The big poses, outsized facial expressions, and even the exclamation noises are all the same. It’s uncanny.
Now, consider Chinese Opera. The form emphasizes extravagant, curving movements and a wide range of vocal expression. Martial arts play a vital role, with actors training from childhood to perform onstage fights that involve acrobatics, swordfights, and catching spears. Performers that specialize in playing gods, inhuman creatures, or other stylized roles work in masks or under face paint, necessitating that they rely even more on body language, vocal emphasis, and exaggerated facial expressions to convey character. And speaking of vocals — well, let’s just say you’ve never heard overwrought emotion like a Cantonese opera singer pining for love or cursing an enemy. Everything from sets, to costumes, to emotions is BIG. Even creating a logical plot is less important than conveying an overall mood or feeling with its scenes.
Therefore, it makes sense that when Chinese directors want to film a fantasy-historical wuxia piece or new version of Journey to the West, they frequently draw upon the operatic form that traditionally portrayed those subjects: enormous facial expressions, big, fluid movements, and huge battles. Chinese fantasy films are stylized in much the same way characters in Thor and The Lord of the Rings speak in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearian dialect.
It also means Chinese audiences watching a big, loud, pseudo-medieval fantasy film like Warcraft may not blink when an actor takes his or her performance over the top or scenes don’t make sense. It’s not that they can’t detect a bad performance — China also makes films with naturalistic acting — Chinese audiences may simply tolerate a larger range of expression and less focus on plot. The expectations could be different for a bombastic fantasy film because, well, from an operatic perspective why would you want people to act realistically in a movie about giant green-skinned people? Expecting a stylized film to have stylized performances is actually pretty logical. That’s my theory, at least.
But while differing perceptions may have contributed to Warcraft’s success — the fact is that the Chinese government has gone out of its way to make the film a smash hit.
Hollywood Farms Gold in China
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Warcraft, World of Warcraft— really the entire Warcraft brand– has huge clout in Asia. Back when it released, WoW was the social experience game in mainland China, with players crowding into internet cafes to get their next hit of Azeroth. Blizzard cracked the Chinese market largely due to the subscription-based MMO formula, allowing local gamers to log onto their account from anywhere and pay the company a reasonable monthly tithe rather than laying out big money for their own console or computer. Ten years after its localized launch, free-to-play and online subscriptions are still how most players consume games in China.
How big is World of Warcraft? So big that it has its own bootleg amusement park. So big, there are multiple Azeroth-themed restaurants (some official, some less-than-official). It’s so big that an unlicensed movie — starring famous Chinese actors and titled My WoW — premiered a month before the real film’s release.
And if the game’s enduring popularity wasn’t enough of an advantage, the Chinese government has decided to put their shoulder behind making the film a success.
What you have to understand about the Chinese film market is that the government calls the shots. Beijing worries that western films could eclipse the local film industry, and in response, it’s set up trade protection policies where the government holds the cards, and local film conglomerates get a cut. Only 34 Hollywood films per year get to distribute in the market, and the government — via the Film Bureau and state-owned China Film Group — gets to pick which ones, decide how many screens they play on, and even block off certain release dates. The latter has become a point of contention with studios, since it’s widely believed the government plays American movies against each other so they cannibalize each other’s box office, while local films play unopposed. The lucky films that get released win China Film Group as a revenue partner, so half the profits stay in China rather than getting siphoned overseas. Studios put up with it because the Chinese box office is currently hotter than the west’s — it totaled $6.78 billion in 2015, a growth of 48.7% over the previous year. It may be smaller than the US, but it’s expanding as western theater attendance plateaus.
But in addition to putting the breaks on a film, China will happy boost a movie like that involves a lot of Chinese investment — like Warcraft. In Warcraft’s case, buy-ins began when China Film Group inked a co-production deal with Legendary Pictures that included a stake in the film. Next, internet giant Tencent and film investment group Huayi Brothers bought a piece. But the biggest coup came earlier this year, when property developer Wanda — which owns 18% of the cinemas in China — scooped up Legendary Pictures for $3.5 billion. That pedigree basically guaranteed Warcraft would get VIP treatment in the Chinese film market — and it has.
Warcraft had the biggest rollout ever in China, appearing on 67.5% of the country’s movie screens. It also debuted in a prime calendar spot, right after exams ended and before the Dragon Boat festival, a holiday that amounts to a four-day weekend. June is also a sticky, sweltering season in much of southern China, making it perfect air-conditioned theater weather. The film also got to mount a huge exhibit in Chengdu — the largest free movie-themed exhibition in Chinese history — that included full-size Orc huts, a throne room, and a virtual reality ride that simulates swooping around on a Gryphon. Chinese-American actor Daniel Wu — who plays Orc warlock Gul’dan, and is best known in China as the heartthrob doctor in Go Away Mr. Tumor — barnstormed Chinese media with extensive press tours. Like a handsome trust fund kid, Warcraft has had every advantage imaginable.
Yet despite this push, Warcraft hasn’t been immune to Hollywood’s curse at the Chinese box office curse, evocatively dubbed the “splash and crash.” Western movies tend to open big, then fall off quickly the following week. Warcraft suffered a 64% to 85% drop the week after release, depending on how you calculate the long holiday weekend. The same thing happened to Captain America: Civil War, which dropped 64%. In fact, the only movies that seem to weather the second week are animated films with good word of mouth, with the most recent example being Zootopia. Despite launching an unfamiliar IP heavily dependent on humor, the anthropomorphic comedy-mystery-racism-fable earned $235.5 million, with its receipts rising after its first week.
It’s an interesting contrast. On one side, you have Warcraft, a broad adventure film of debatable quality, given every advantage. On the other, you have Zootopia, a likable, funny film with a rising box office based on good word of mouth. The fact that the latter has made more money overall calls into question the idea that Chinese moviegoers can’t recognize a quality product.
Chinese audiences don’t consume media indiscriminately, and their tastes aren’t appreciably “worse” than the American public. Warcraft succeeded because it was graded on a curve in both a business and cultural sense, and even then, it didn’t come anywhere near films that didn’t have its advantages.
Instead of asking why Warcraft made $200 million in two weeks, maybe we should be asking why a Hong Kong comedy about mermaids standing up against pollution made $500 million in the same timeframe — now that’s a revealing window into modern China.
Zam’s parent company, Tencent, invested in Warcraft in China. Neither Tencent nor Universal Pictures nor any of the other entities mentioned in this story have any control over editoral on Zam.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in Zam, Vice, The Escapist, Playboy and Slate. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp