Ghostbusters and China: Are Chinese Regulators Scared of Ghosts? Or is "Super Power Dare Die Team" Not on Chinese Movie Screens for Another Reason?
As reported in The Hollywood Reporter on July 13, 2016, Sony's Ghostbusters 2016 reboot - to be known on video in China as 超能敢死队 (Super Power Dare Die Team) - will not be seen on movie theater screens in China.
The PG-13 comedy-action film - despite a promising start at US box offices (boxofficemojo.com is predicting a US $50 million opening weekend) - will not earn one of the 34 slots available each year for non-Chinese theatrical features under China's existing quota system.
And the reason?
Could it be those pesky ghosts?
As unlikely to Westerners as it might seem, Chinese guidelines include a prohibition on movies that "promote cults or superstition." And those rules (if inconsistently applied) have been the excuse for denying prior Hollywood films a shot at China. For example, in 2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was unable to enter China's airlock. Like the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, the 2006 Pirates movie was denied passage into China (because of the Pirate's ghost ship and cannibalism?).
Paul Feig's female crew reboot of Sony's action-comedy franchise (rumored to have cost Sony around US $144 million after incentives), in addition to Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones, does have a number of mischievous once-alive-but-now-dead characters. And the producers clearly knew that their ghosts might present a problem to Chinese regulators. That's apparently why the Chinese word for "ghost" (鬼) does not appear in the film's Chinese title. This title change was made, even though the original 1984 Ghostbusters went straight to video in China with the character for "ghost" proudly in its title - 捉鬼敢死队 or Ghost Catcher Dare Die Team.
So if the 32 year-old original can have a ghost in its title...?
Why is Sony getting shut-out (relegated to a laser-containment grid?) with what Western critics are saying is a fun update of a classic special-effects comedy that has extreme characters causing mayhem - arguably in ways that have worked in recent Chinese box office champions, like Monster Hunt and The Mermaid?
Why are Chinese Walter Pecks shutting down the the power supply to the grid and denying Sony's Ghostbusters access to the world's second biggest market?
It may not be a fear of ghosts, so much as a business decision made by Chinese theater owners.
With no theatrical track-record for the franchise, and no measurable demand for a Ghostbusters film in China (no matter which Western stars were in it or what it was called in Chinese)... perhaps the smart business move was to pass on Ghostbusters 2016. From a Chinese perspective, denying Ghostbusters Chinese screens meant more screens for new local product. And, even though I haven't read much about it in the West, a Chinese-Korean co-production - a horror film that coincidentally has the word "ghost" in its English language title - is premiering in Chinese theaters on July 15th, 2016: When Pen Ghost Meets Plate Ghost stars Kang Sung-goo, Shen Caier, Liu Xiaoqi, and Yan Weier. (Pen Ghost and Plate Ghost refer to the supernatural Chinese fortune-telling tools, similar in practice to the Ouija board, which have been used to conjure spirits for perhaps 1000 years...)
Maybe it isn't the ghosts after all.
One thing is for sure. Being locked in a protection grid, and not being allowed to run wild in China, is not good news for the Ghostbusters franchise or for Tom Rothman's Sony - which stuck with Ghostbusters (at a reduced budget) even after the Sony executive who originally championed the project, Amy Pascal, had departed.
Theatrical success in China may still only return roughly one half of what the studios are used to earning on similar box office in the rest of the world. But Chinese theaters still can have an enormous impact on the bottom line. For proof? Look no further than the June 2016 release of Legendary's Warcraft. A flop everywhere else, Warcraft raked in more than one half of its revenue in China: In excess of US $220 million in the Middle Kingdom alone. Those eye-popping Chinese numbers may not have saved that film's financiers from a small loss. But it could have been a rout. Warcraft reportedly cost US $160 million to make. Toss in marketing expenses, and Warcraft needed China very very badly.
Note: To date (July 15th, 2016), Warcraft has earned around US $430 million worldwide - with roughly 5 times as much revenue in China as in the US. Why? The mystery of Warcraft's over-performance in China may be explained, at least in part, by the support the film received in China from China's biggest theater chain, Wanda, which not so coincidentally acquired Legendary in early 2016.
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Thoughts from a film producer about making and distributing films.