The upcoming release of Avengers: Age of Ultron heralds a change in the mindset of Western cinema, a breath of fresh air for Hollywood as they dust off the time-worn unwritten rules of film and turn their heads East, in pursuit of new adventures.
Long have Hollywood and East Asian cinema gone hand in hand, with elements from both blending together to create spectacular (and sometimes spectacularly abysmal) blockbuster films. The Rush Hour series, featuring Jackie Chan and elements of Asian culture, leaps between Hong Kong and America and is a prominent combination of global cultures on the silver screen. If you look close enough you can even discover more classical Eastern influences in the series, with 1973 Bruce Lee film Enter the Dragon influencing a scene which was replicated in Rush Hour 2 (incidentally, Chan also appeared in Enter the Dragon). The box office figures for the Rush Hour franchise are almost quadruple that of the production budget, $850 million in the global box office, and when combined with the hefty tax breaks of up to 30% of the production budget, that Hong Kong was (and still is) offering to film productions, then it’s easy to see why the franchise was a global success.
Rush Hour is hardly an exception in taking advantage of lower production costs in Asia. Other films following in its footsteps include the Transformers franchise (portions of the film being shot in several Asian countries, and featuring prominent Eastern actors), Tarantino’s Kill Bill (shot in Beijing, attracted by low production costs, approximately 1/8th of US expenses), Tuxedo, Shanghai Knights, Iron Man 3, the Scorsese-produced Revenge of the Green Dragons… you get the idea. This element of shooting part of a production in a foreign country is actually fundamental to some films, as it not only aids in lowering costs, but also enables the production to be distributed to another, larger, market (Asian cinema audiences being many times that of Western ones), where there is a lot more box office cash and greater potential for future expansion.
Japan is now “Hollywood’s single most profitable export market”, taking 65% of box office receipts in the country. This is markedly lower than that of Taiwan’s 96% and Thailand’s 78% take, however the recent growth of Japanese cinema means that there are more screens collectively than in Taiwan or Thailand – giving the films a larger audience. It’s expected that over 50% of an average US production’s revenue is now generated abroad, with that anticipated to rise to 80% within twenty years. In recent years Hollywood has expanded into South Korea’s exploding film industry, which has a global culture of star worship generated around the sheer plethora of TV and film productions they produce. The Korean Box Office Information Centre now offers a 25% cash grant incentive for foreign productions on shoots in Korea, with excessive rebates on VAT for international production companies shooting for more than 10 days – and this brings us back to The Avengers.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is released in less than a week and it’s already being heralded by critics as a film with “global scope”, with fans already knowing that it was on production in South Korea, Bangladesh, Italy, South Africa, New York and England. The crew primarily spent 15 days’ production in Seoul, with key aspects of the film set in the city and massive lengths stretched to by the South Korean government to accommodate the production (such as shutting off their equivalent of the M1 for several days to film scenes, or “borrowing” the production an island on the Han River to shoot around).
The inclusion of South Korean actress Claudia Kim (previously in Netflix’s Marco Polo, and South Korean productions such as 7th Grade Civil Servant and Romance Town), playing a scientist in Avengers Tower, is just another way that the Avengers film is expanding its attempts at cinematic globalisation, with the hope that a country’s native actor might draw audiences (though it’s notable that Whedon lists her as one of four prominent female characters in the film), and also giving South Korea the opportunity to premiere the film in April a full week before its US release.
Age of Ultron is just the latest film in a long line of Western productions that have tapped into the global cinema market in order to reach a larger audience and expand both in scope and revenue. You can find similar attempts in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, which also included Eastern actresses prominently in its advertising, but little in the actual film. The scope of Hollywood is no longer focused solely on American audiences and American money, as now the potential for expansion is greater than ever with the revitalisation of the East Asian cinema industry.
You can find the names of Jet Li, Corey Yuen, Tsui Hark, Bong Joon-ho or Wong Kar-wai laced through recent times in Western cinema, so it could be suggested that the opposite is also happening, with the “Asianification of Western Cinema” and Western remakes of Asian classics scattered through cinema history like Oldboy, The Ring franchise or The Departed. Asian cinema has a massive influence over everything we watch (ever wondered where The Magnificent Seven, A Fistful of Dollars or most recent horror films came from?), and that is created by Hollywood – and it’s little wonder that productions are now eyeing up the money, audiences and opportunity available in the East. This is hardly something new, as it has been happening for years; it’s just that a lot more productions are now becoming aware of the potential on offer to reach larger audiences and save money during production, enabling them to become a global industry instead of merely being restricted to a specific country.