Monday, April 30, 2012

China and its requited love for Titanic 3D

April's nearly over, so it seems appropriate to look back at its biggest 3D movie: Titanic 3D. The Western film critic community were gentle on the release, some going so far as to reconsider their opinions from 1997. The box office grosses State-side were OK enough, but they didn't reflect the massive amount of work that Cameron and his team went through to convert the 2D film to 3D. In my opinion, it's the best conversion we've yet seen. The real news though? Nope, not that film critics were once again embracing a film they were once embarrassed about. Nor was it that the 3D was tasteful and well executed. No, the real news on this film's re-release is based far away in... China.

Titanic's 3D re-release gave the film one last amazing box-office accomplishment: its launch in April became the highest grossing opening weekend ever to hit China. Ever. It made more there in one weekend than it has in the entirety of its US release to date (over several weeks of playing in American theatres). It made $67 million in one weekend, and a week later has now doubled that figure to an extraordinary $127 million. It will continue to gross more, well into May. The Wall Street Journal picked up on this and ran a brief post on it:

I'm not satisfied with their theories though. To summarise, the 'Journal suggest that Titanic's rejuvenated popularity could be due to its narrative's links to traditional Chinese folklore, and it could also be because it adds a fantasy romance into the middle of a drama about the divide between the upper and lower classes. I think they could have gone further with their theories though, so let's play some out. For one thing: it's in 3D. The previous record holder of the Opening Weekend box-office gross record was... Transformers: The Dark Side Of The Moon. That film was another epic ode to mass destruction, also lensed and distributed in 3D. Before that? The previous record was Avatar, still another epic ode to mass destruction, also lensed and distributed in 3D, and to date (I think) the highest grossing film of all time in the Chinese market. Sensing a trend here?

So. Why have three, 3D, butt-numbingly-long action films, made by two alpha male directors.. reaped in around half a billion dollars in China in 3 years? The most obvious answer is that, well, multiplexes exist there now. Huge screens, dozens of theatres in one place, hundreds of rows, all kitted out with 3D projectors. In fact, China has the second most 3D screens of any nation on the globe, and there's clearly a market there, just itching for a chance to put on their glasses. It's impossible (well, rather hard) to pirate 3D the experience of a sold-out theatre when the film's also distributed in 3D. I'd wager that the audience is there in general for any 3D film, provided it's a guaranteed spectacle. The spectacle had best be on a gigantic scale though, and preferably as close to a theme-park ride as cinematically possible. In fact, if you could just make a theme-park based on the film, that'd be ideal.

Titanic itself though, is special. I wonder if the theories on its Chinese popularity could be taken further. The film's set at the end of an era; one where stuffy colonialism is slowly being overtaken by vibrant upstarts. It's a period of time where bizarre traditions are being questioned; where the concept of female norms are being outright overthrown; and the concept of a classless society is almost within reach. Of course, at the same time, characters like Billy Zane's Cal are on the verge of busting into the mega-rich billionaire statuses enjoyed by many in the boom times of the 1920s. Titanic represents a time where the invention of new technologies made global travel possible and conceivable for the masses. I don't think it's outrageous to suggest there are more than a few parallels between China in 2012 and Britain in 1912.

There's one more idea I'd like to suggest, and it's a touch more controversial than the previous ones. I wonder if the role of 'authority' in Titanic and Avatar lend themselves to an overwhelmingly responsive Chinese audience. The characters who are 'in charge' in both films are really interesting. They're portrayed as well-meaning, deeply concerned for the well-being of their people, they're true to their belief structures, and they stand by their moral codes. They are, however, eventually shown to be unable to bend the populace to their will. Their usage of powerful, modern, technology is not enough to control and calm the masses. Deep down, I suspect all people feel these views. I wonder if Titanic's popularity is really because it's a well-made spectacle that uses a history lesson to show 'authority figures' can be wrong sometimes... despite their best intentions.

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