The Lessons of ‘Oppenheimer’ in China Go Beyond Its Star Director | Analysis

A movie about the United States’ entry into the Atomic Age might not seem like a straightforward sell in an increasingly nationalistic China, but “Oppenheimer” got off to a strong start there, earning $39 million in 10 days.

That’s amid solid word of mouth (an 8.9 from Douban) and a local press tour by director Christopher Nolan. His in-person promotional visit marked the first such event for a Hollywood film since pre-COVID times.

The puzzle now is whether Nolan’s popularity in China is a one-of-a-kind factor or if there’s a broader lesson about what can make for a blockbuster in the country. It’s a crucial question about a once-lucrative market for Hollywood superhero movies and other action-driven tentpoles that has lately proven far more challenging for film marketers.

Robert Pattinson and John David Washington star in Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

The Nolan factor

“Christopher Nolan has a strong following among Chinese moviegoers,” Imax CEO Rich Gelfond told TheWrap. That’s a rare status for directors: The likes of Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, Jordan Peele and M. Night Shyamalan arguably qualify as actual draws, but Nolan stands alone. Nobody else in Hollywood can pull top-tier blockbuster box office the way he can.

Even Nolan’s “Tenet” earned $366 million despite being released in the COVID summer of 2020 when theaters from Los Angeles to New York remained closed. (China welcomed the movie despite its technical violation of pandemic-era runtime rules.)

“Bet on your filmmaker,” a high-level studio insider told TheWrap. “‘Oppenheimer’ was a three-hour, R-rated, talky epic, but it was marketed like a summer tentpole.”

In the last decade, only 10 live-action original or based-on-a-true-story Hollywood flicks have passed even $400 million worldwide. Three of those — “Interstellar,” “Dunkirk” and now “Oppenheimer” — came from Nolan. He’s become a franchise unto himself for original, grown-up cinema.

The personal touch

Nolan showing up in China, a country where guanxi or personal relationships are highly valued, to promote the movie didn’t hurt. Whether it helped “Oppenheimer” commercially, his press tour certainly reignited the notion of American celebrities making themselves known in the Middle Kingdom.

“Oppenheimer’s box office proves the power of kissing the ring,” Chris Fenton, the author of “Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business,” told TheWrap.

He argued that “spending time in China creates a frenzy of consumer interest while also pleasing key government officials.” That’s crucial as Hollywood navigates the increasingly tense trans-Pacific relationship between the U.S. and China.

Drama sells

Chinese filmmakers and theaters have found commercial glory with local-language war actioners like “The Battle at Lake Changjin,” sci-fi epics like “The Wandering Earth,” and fantasies like “Monster Hunt.” China’s biggest tentpoles over the last several years have included original dramas and new-to-you adaptations — the kind of adult-skewing fare that’s commercially struggled to justify big theatrical releases in North America.

Conventional wisdom has long suggested that Hollywood had to make four-quadrant, globally appealing, action-adventure tentpoles starring white dudes — think “Transformers: Age of Extinction” — to cash in on the swiftly growing Chinese marketplace. The blow-out success of “Rampage,” “Furious 7,” “Coco,” “Soul” and “Aquaman” suggests that formula is tired. Even “Barbie” earned $35 million in China, which is better than “The Batman” and “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”

Moreover, it certainly isn’t true for Chinese films. In China, a fantastical environmental rom-com like Stephen Chow’s “The Mermaid” can earn $527 million while an action-comedy throwback like “Detective Chinatown” can spawn a $1.4 billion trilogy.

That’s why it’s so important for Hollywood to study the success of “Oppenheimer” in China. If the only lesson is that Nolan is a global star, then studios aren’t paying enough attention.

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