How to glocalize a movie blockbuster

The power of story is undeniable. Every civilization throughout history has told stories, utilizing dramatic heroes and far-off settings for effect. Usually these stories were told locally and without care of foreign understanding or appeal. With the movie industry now worth what it is — $38.6 billion according to the Motion Pictures Association of America — and globalization here to stay, making sure that a movie’s characters, settings, themes and style will work across a range of markets has become a priority for movie production companies looking for that elusive box office franchise that succeeds all over the world.

Yet not all localization efforts are equal. When The Fate of the Furious — the eighth installment of The Fast and Furious franchise — earned a world record $433.2 million overseas its opening weekend in April, it took in over $192 million of that in China. The earning potential of the Chinese market is a driving force behind much of the localization in film at present. It is not, however, all about China. Small tweaks can be made at precise moments to appeal in smaller markets. More importantly, efforts should be made to incorporate the appropriate cultural elements so local movie audiences are not offended by the neglectful or ignorant treatment of their culture.

Movie purists will decry the globalized blockbuster, complaining that the “one-size-fits-all” approach dumbs down elements such as dialogue in favor of explosions and Michael Bay-esque production emphasis. While it is true that many movies that succeed internationally are action-based (or animated), such a statement is beside the point. The market for smaller, more localized movies (think Manchester by the Sea) still exists, but in a world where foreign investment in movies is on the up, the importance of the foreign viewer is at an all-time high.

It’s important to remember that while China was the top foreign market even five years ago, the numbers back then were much smaller. Since 2012, the China market has grown from $2.7 billion, just ahead of Japan, to $6.6 billion in 2016. While Japan has dropped from the second-most valuable market to third, India has climbed to fourth and South Korea to fifth, although it should be noted that no other market has seen the dramatic growth China has.

Universality of themes

When looking across cultures and languages, it’s important that a story follows one of life’s more universal themes. It doesn’t have to be the monomyth of the hero’s journey made famous by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and utilized by George Lucas in the Star Wars franchise, but it should be a plot trajectory that people can relate to. 

There are some themes that are timeless and transcend cultures. The Hero’s Journey is one such theme, as are Good vs. Evil, Man vs. Nature, or Love Conquers All. After all, is the Greek epic The Odyssey really all that different from the Chinese classic Journey to the West? Both feature heroes on a path of adventure, battling monsters and the gods while learning from mentors and eventually triumphing over evil. Conversely, there are some themes that don’t translate well (much like comedy, the most dialogue-dependent of genres). The timeworn coming-of-age theme so well-mined by John Hughes in movies such as The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might not be so easily understood abroad. Films following such a theme generally show the transition from childhood to young adulthood but such experiences vary from country to country. The experience of Chinese high school students building up to the all-important gaokao university entrance exam contrasts sharply against the classic American experience of learning to drive at 15 or having a sweet-16 birthday party.

Preexisting material

Familiarity is perhaps not the most fashionable artistic characteristic to promote, but for movies it is important. While directors and actors might chase the new, edgy production to feature in, audiences, and therefore production companies, crave familiarity. Preexisting material (think adaptations or sequels or reboots or remakes) often come with a built-in fan base and appeals to the comfort of familiarity. When considering the 25 highest-grossing movies of all time (unadjusted for inflation), only two are not based on preexisting material: Avatar and Titanic, numbers 1 and 2, both directed by James Cameron. Harry Potter, Captain America, James Bond, Transformers— they all existed somewhere else before the big screen (although if unadjusted for inflation, then the top ten movies would include the original Star Wars movie and E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, both original concepts.)

Selecting the proper actor to boost box office success is a common practice in Hollywood. Talents such as Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence are considered “bankable” movie stars, with some having held that mantle for years. But as the movie market globalizes, studios have started more and more to hire actors who are famous in specific target markets. This trend started with hiring Chinese superstars for small roles with few (or no) lines in films just so Hollywood studios could sidestep the Chinese foreign movie import quota. This pandering was such a trend that Chinese movie-goers coined the term
“/hua ping” or “flower vase,” often used to describe someone who is beautiful on the outside and empty on the inside. In this case, the phrase refers to a Chinese talent who is given a zero-impact role. The best example of this would be Fan Bingbing. Fan is a massive star in China (58 million followers on the popular micro-blogging platform Weibo) and was thus cast in Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past based on her star appeal. The problem was that she was cut from the US version of Iron Man and given the grand total of one line in X-Men.

This practice has changed for the better in recent times, and now it is common to see roles given to non-Americans who are more central to the plot. When casting is done based on talent and the actors given room to act, the results can be promising. Veteran Hong Kong actor Donnie Yen and Beijing stalwart Jiang Wen were cast as warriors in the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One, and their roles were widely praised. While their casting might not have elevated Rogue One to the levels in China it reached elsewhere, its middling success was likely more to do with Chinese audience unfamiliarity with the Star Wars franchise.

An example of how local actors may improve box office performance can be seen in how The Magnificent Seven performed in South Korea. In the movie, South Korean star Lee Byung-hun stars alongside some of Hollywood’s most recognizable actors as assassin Billy Rocks. In Lee’s home country, the movie made $6.8 million; in France and Germany, two comparable markets based on past yearly box office earnings, the same film made $5 million (France) and $4.8 million (Germany).

And while it is more often than not Hollywood that is looking for actors to help in certain markets, they are not alone. The Bollywood movie Tubelight stars not only superstar actor Salman Khan, but also Chinese rising star Zhu Zhu. While the story demands such casting — a cross-border love story — it wouldn’t have hurt negotiations when the producers could bring to the table stars from two of the top five most valuable movie markets.

Localized scenes

In order to allow the release of a movie in a particular country, distributors might localize the final cut so that it complies with regulations, self-censoring to create different versions of the movie that extend the overall reach of a movie. But localization is not done only to follow foreign laws. An older example of this comes from the 1993 movie Demolition Man. The US version of the movie features the fast food restaurant Taco Bell in the background for the futuristic world, but in the European version the same restaurant has been re-edited to appear as Pizza Hut. This was possibly done at the behest of PepsiCo, or someone realizing that Pizza Hut is a more recognizable brand outside of the US.  

A more recent and less commercial example can be found in the Pixar movie Inside Out. In the US (and global) version of the movie, the main character, a young girl named Riley, is disgusted by the thought of eating broccoli, a food stereotypically disliked by most children. In the Japanese version, however, the scene was localized to make the much-despised vegetable green peppers. Broccoli suffers not from the same reputation of childish distaste in Japan, and to leave the scene unchanged would’ve missed the point entirely. Similarly, in the Lithuanian version of Garfield, the titular character’s favorite food is not lasagna, as it is in the widely-syndicated comic strip, but instead kugelis, a local baked potato and bacon dish.

In the Disney hit Zootopia, the audience receives updates on what is happening throughout the movie via Zootopia Network News and its newsreaders. While one of the anchors, a snow leopard, remains constant regardless of market, the co-anchor changes to appeal to certain markets. In the US, Canadian and French version, the co-anchor is a moose; in the Japanese version, it’s a tanuki (also known as a raccoon dog); in the Australian and New Zealand version, it’s a koala; in the Brazilian version, it’s a jaguar; and in the Chinese version, it is a panda. Small changes can make a striking difference.

The animated hit Kung Fu Panda 3 took glocalization a step further in that the producers, Oriental DreamWorks in Shanghai, made two separate movies with the same storyline and same characters, but in two separate languages. Not dubbed, with audible Chinese overtop mouths forming English words, but two versions each synched to match the speech and movements of the characters. This meant that some of the phrases and humor needed tweaking. The main character in the movie, Po the panda, often uses the catchphrase “Ski-doosh,” though the phrase is pure nonsense and has no real meaning, even in English. In the Mandarin version, this phrase was translated to “Zou ni!” This can be loosely translated to “Charge!” For humor, local tastes were catered to. For example, after one battle that was particularly frightening for Po, he says “Wow, I think I just peed a little!” This was deemed too crass for Chinese audiences and was instead changed to “This is too much!”

Verify your linguistic and cultural assets

In all localization projects, movie production included, it is recommended that all linguistic or cultural aspects are closely reviewed before release. Failure to do so can result in embarrassing moments like that which Showtime series Homeland experienced in a Season 5 episode. For the show, the producer asked some local artists to create some graffiti on set to recreate a Syrian–Lebanese border refugee camp. The artists disagreed with how Muslims were represented in the show and so painted graffiti that said, “Homeland is a joke, and it didn’t make us laugh,” “Homeland is racist” and “Homeland is watermelon” (which is slang for “not to be taken seriously” and gave rise to the then trending #homelandiswatermelon).

Coproduction between foreign and local market companies is another avenue for improved localization, as more people with different cultural backgrounds having a say during production can eliminate cultural faux pas. This is primarily the domain of Sino-US partnerships at present, which is no surprise given the value of these markets and the money in each country’s home movie industry. An obvious example for making movies that involve Asian elements is chopstick etiquette. In Chinese culture (and indeed across most of Asia), it’s considered bad etiquette to stick one’s chopsticks into a bowl of rice when not in use. This is because the chopsticks visually resemble the incense sticks burned to commemorate the dead. Jamming chopsticks into a bowl of rice is just one in a litany of considerations regarding chopsticks and remembering the dead in Asia. While most Sino-US coproductions exist to circumvent the foreign film import quota (set to increase sometime in the near future), the benefits of such “cultural consultancy” should not be overlooked.

By treating the cultural elements of a country or culture with flippancy, movie producers risk offending a massive audience, generating not only anger within a potentially large movie market but also the massive amount of negative publicity. Such a production misstep was the case in the James Bond movie Die Another Day. Much of the 20th movie in the Bond franchise was set on the Korean peninsula, and it could’ve used some insight on local attitudes. Not only were South Koreans depicted as an impoverished rural people using oxen in some scenes, but Japanese architecture was confused for South Korean, and a CIA officer was shown giving orders to members of the South Korean army. Perhaps the most offensive aspect was a sex scene that took place in front of a Buddhist temple. This angered many in South Korea and led to boycotts of the movie in that country. Given that the movie opened in 2002, two years before Facebook and four before Twitter, it’s likely that the boycott would be far more wide-reaching had it happened in today’s social mediafied world.

It remains to be seen exactly how politics are going to play out all over the world, but globalization is looking more and more like an irreversible phenomenon. Certainly Hollywood is not going to stop pandering to China, just as China is not going to stop exploring coproductions with Russia (as in the widely panned superhero film Guardians). With the way the world is now interconnected through social media and other such channels, indignation can spread all too quickly, hurting a movie before it even opens (as it did with accusations of “white washing” by casting a non-Asian in the lead role in Ghost in the Shell).

At the same time, actors important to certain markets can be used effectively if their talent is up to the task and they are given room to have a meaningful role. Same with scenes localized for specific markets if the local elements appealed to are researched fully. Doing so will increase the chances of success in the international market, maximizing box office and winning over international audiences with thoughtful consideration of represented culture.