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China’s top ten highest grossing films for 2023 included zero Hollywood blockbusters, the New York Times reported on Tuesday, marking just the second time in three decades of screening American movies for Chinese audiences that not one US offering cracked the list.

Hollywood power brokers and film experts increasingly acknowledge that China can no longer be counted upon to financially bail out American superhero sequels, big-budget action fodder, and other costly productions that barely broke even on US ticket sales alone, according to the Times.

Over years of the Chinese market opening its doors (and its wallets) to a US film industry that had already reached a financial crisis point domestically, studios shifted focus to churning out shallow but visually exciting effects-stuffed spectacles for their perceived appeal to overseas audiences. 

With that no longer a guarantee, studio executives reportedly decided over the last year that budgets for franchise sequels must be slashed dramatically.

“The days when a Hollywood film would make hundreds of millions of US dollars in China – that’s gone,” University of Southern California professor of Chinese politics and film Stanley Rosen told the news outlet.

No American film cracked the top ten in 2020 primarily because the Covid-19 pandemic kept much of China under lockdown, preventing international travel and ratcheting up tensions between the two governments as each accused the other of misleading the world about the origins of the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, a marked increase in production quality among Chinese filmmakers paired with plot lines powered by authentic cultural sensibilities significantly increased the allure of domestic cinema for locals. 

Efforts by US filmmakers to directly appeal to the Chinese gaze fell flat out of the gate, with many critics feeling they relied on ham-handed stereotypes and minimal cultural understanding. A weak grasp of the differing marketing styles favored by Chinese vs American audiences has also left Hollywood behind as a new crop of sophisticated Chinese filmmakers seduced audiences previously accustomed only to foreign films. 

While massive Chinese box office receipts had for years been considered so guaranteed that American filmmakers began preemptively altering plot points and characters for international release in order to appease government censors and ensure a hassle-free theatrical run, the practice has been criticized in the US, where some see it as capitulation to a hostile rival.

International films can be banned if they “endanger” Beijing’s “national unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” according to the National Radio and Television Administration. 

As Warner Bros. found out in July, however, appeasing China may mean losing other audiences. The studio’s summer blockbuster ‘Barbie’ was banned by Hanoi for a scene that included a map that appeared to show the South China Sea largely under China’s control.

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