Before the sequel to “Aquaman” was released in China last month, Warner Bros. did everything it could to sustain the original movie’s success.
The Hollywood studio blanketed Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, with movie clips, behind-the-scenes footage and a video of an Aquaman ice sculpture at a winter festival in Harbin, a city in China’s northeast. It sent the franchise’s star, Jason Momoa, and director, James Wan, on a publicity tour in China — the type of barnstorming that had disappeared since the Covid pandemic. Mr. Momoa said China’s fondness for the first “Aquaman” was why the sequel was debuting in China two days before the U.S. release.
“I’m very proud that China loved it, so that’s why we brought it to you, and you guys are going to see it before the whole world,” he said in an interview with CCTV 6, China’s state-run film channel.
The big push didn’t work.
“Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom” has collected only about $60 million in China after a few weeks of release. That was nowhere near the 2018 original’s $90 million opening weekend in China on its way to a $293 million haul, accounting for a quarter of that movie’s $1.2 billion box office success.
The producers of the “Aquaman” movies are not the only ones finding that China has become a lost kingdom.
In 2023, no American films ranked among the 10 highest grossing in China despite highly anticipated sequels in the “Mission: Impossible,” “Fast & the Furious” and “Spider-Man” franchises.
Neither “Oppenheimer” nor “Barbie,” two of Hollywood’s biggest hits last year, cracked the top 30 in China at the box office, according to Maoyan, a Chinese entertainment data provider that has tracked ticket sales since 2011. The only other recent year when Hollywood was shut out of China’s top 10 was 2020, during the pandemic.
Chinese moviegoers who once flocked to Hollywood films have been steadily disappearing. China is, by far, the biggest movie market outside the United States, and a place that American studios rely on for growth and profitability as the film industry struggles.
“The days when a Hollywood film would make hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars in China — that’s gone,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California who studies Chinese politics and the film industry.
China’s film industry is producing more high-quality movies that resonate with domestic audiences. The country’s top two films last year highlight the diversity of offerings: “Full River Red,” a dialogue-rich suspense thriller, and “The Wandering Earth II,” a science-fiction blockbuster heavy with special effects.
Against the backdrop of growing tensions with the United States, Beijing has advanced its ambitions to become a cultural influence, supporting efforts by local filmmakers to create films that are in line with the ruling Communist Party’s doctrines.
In recent years, some of the highest-grossing films have played up themes of a stronger and more assertive China. The top-grossing Chinese films of all time are “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” a 2021 film that depicts an against-all-odds defeat of the United States during the Korean War; and “Wolf Warrior 2,” a 2017 nationalist action flick in which a Chinese Jason Bourne-like character takes on an American soldier of fortune.
Shi Chuan, vice chairman of the Shanghai Film Association, said many American studios once viewed China as a market where they could always make money. That is no longer the case. Wary Chinese consumers are spending less, and box office sales have not returned to prepandemic levels.
“Now I am telling American film companies that this mentality is no longer viable,” Mr. Shi said. “You must study deeply to understand the Chinese market, Chinese audiences and Chinese pop culture.”
Hollywood’s love affair with China goes back years. “The Fugitive,” in 1994, was the first imported American blockbuster, and a year later China started to allow 10 foreign films to be released in the country every year. In 2012, seven of the 10 highest-grossing movies were U.S.-made. At the time, U.S. movie attendance was in a slow, decades-long decline. DVD sales were sputtering. Streaming was in its infancy.
The Hollywood studios, desperate for growth, saw the fast-expanding Chinese market as the solution. When Joseph R. Biden Jr. was vice president, he helped Hollywood win greater access to Chinese cinemas, which were opening at breakneck speed. China raised the quota on American movies allowed into the country to 34 from 20. China agreed to share 25 percent of the ticket revenue for movies that gained entry, up from around 13 percent.
Since most movies struggle to eke out a profit, the additional revenue from China was valuable. Studios began to change the content of movies to appeal to Chinese ticket buyers. In: visual-effects-driven spectacles. Out: dialogue-heavy dramas and comedies.
Studios bent over backward to appease Chinese censors, often heeding what they knew to be Chinese red lines in advance. In one highly publicized example, the Japanese and Taiwanese flags on Tom Cruise’s bomber jacket in 1986’s “Top Gun” were replaced with ambiguous patches in the same color scheme in a 2019 preview for the sequel from Paramount Pictures. The flags had been restored by the time “Top Gun: Maverick” was released in 2022.
But when trade and diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Washington worsened, Hollywood was caught in the middle. Studios came under increased scrutiny for yielding to China, most notably in 2020 when a scathing watchdog report got the attention of American politicians, both Democrats and Republicans.
Over the last year, studio executives have decided that the demand for American films in China, at least for now, has changed so drastically that movie budgets must be recalibrated. Franchise sequels must be made for less money because China can no longer be counted on for the same level of revenue, even though the number of movie theater screens has quadrupled over the last decade.
In 2014, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” topped China’s box office with $280 million. Last year, the most recent installment in the franchise, “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts,” brought in about one-third that amount and ranked 24th.
Part of the problem is that Hollywood has been slow to promote its movies on Douyin, where the Chinese public spends vast amounts of time.
Zhao Jin, chief executive of Parallax Films, an international film sales company in Beijing, said that Hollywood studios were reluctant to reveal plot lines and key scenes on social media before a movie’s release, but that doing so was essential in China to build audience interest.
“Hollywood blockbusters haven’t quite caught up with China’s marketing yet,” Mr. Zhao said.
Many of the biggest Hollywood releases last year, including the “Transformers” sequel, the latest “Mission: Impossible” entry, “Oppenheimer” and “Barbie,” did not have their own official Douyin accounts.
Hannah Li, 27, works at a technology company in Beijing. She used to watch only foreign films, she said, but that has changed recently. She said her favorite film last year was “The Wandering Earth II,” a story about how the world came together to save Earth from being engulfed by the sun. The film’s message, Ms. Li said, promotes a type of collectivism that she rarely sees in Hollywood movies — and should send a signal to American producers.
“If you don’t want to get off your high horse to see what we like, then it’s natural that you will be washed-out,” Ms. Li said. “Hollywood movies can no longer bring novelty to Chinese audiences.”