Warcraft is One Step Forward and One Step Back for the Foreign Box Office

Why The Pressure Might Be Off On Ethnic Representation.

Here are three seemingly unrelated facts about Hollywood and China. Feel free to raise your hand when you see where this is headed.

Fact number one: Hollywood is reluctant to cast an Asian or Asian-American actor in a leading role. Late last month, the New York Times ran a piece on the decreased visibility of Asian-American actors in American movies and television shows. “Though they make up 5.4 percent of the United States population,” the article points out, “more than half of film, television and streaming properties feature zero named or speaking Asian characters.” Tired of this dearth of representation, Asian-American actors and advocates have begun to call attention to movies and television excluding minority actors, with website #StarringJohnCho leading the way.

Fact number two: Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on the Chinese box office. This past weekend, Warcraft — Warner Bros’s long-gestating video game adaptation – broke $150 million at the Chinese box office, almost single-handedly guaranteeing that the film would be a worldwide commercial success. During this past weekend’s Shanghai Film Festival, actor Jackie Chan pointed to the success of Warcraft as proof that China has become a major player in exhibition. “Warcraft made ($91 million) in two days,” Chan said. “If we can make a film that earns ($1.5 billion), then people from all over the world who study film will learn Chinese, instead of us learning English.”

Fact number three: China is about to become the biggest video game market in the world. “With a projected US$24.4 billion in revenues this year,” the South China Morning Post reported in April, “China is expected to be the largest games market in the world, ahead of the US, whose anticipated market size is US$23.5 billion.” Blizzard Entertainment – the studio behind Warcraft and its video game originators – is a particularly strong player in the Chinese market, with World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Heroes of the Storm each drawing on some version of the Warcraft lore and all doing well in the Chinese market.

What links these three facts together? Despite the critical and financial failure of Warcraft at home, the film’s success in China pretty much dictates that we haven’t seen the last of Blizzard’s fantasy franchise at the box office. And this means the pressure if off for Hollywood to be more diverse.

Think back to 2013. Not so long ago, Pacific Rim was flopping in America and blowing up abroad, and pundits were predicting a new bold era for Asian actors and actresses. The Daily Beast, for example, linked China’s emerging box office presence to the casting decisions of movies like Pacific Rim, The Wolverine, and Only God Forgives, noting that Hollywood was changing production details to ensure that films did well in mainland China. Earlier that year, The Atlantic had come to the same conclusion, even going so far as to suggest that foreign countries should buy their way into representation by investing in blockbuster films. “Given the slow pace of social progress in Hollywood,” author Inkoo Kang wrote, “more overseas investment might offer the quickest route to a more diverse film industry.”

And while movies like Pacific Rim suggested that Asian actors could help score points with foreign audiences, Hollywood seems to have bought its way out of the problem of diversity. There are plenty of reasons for a Chinese market obsessed with Blizzard games to enjoy Warcraft. The special effects are sometimes incredible; many famous locations from Warcraft III and World of Warcraft are painstakingly recreated on the screen, and nearly every creature or magicka from the Warcraft universe is given consideration. What we don’t see are Asian actors. The villain, a fully CGI Orc character with a heavily modulated voice, may be played by Asian-American actor Daniel Wu, but it is impossible to differentiate his performance from any of the countless voice actors and body doubles used to create the Horde. And if Wu is obscured by computer effects, then the additional Asian-American actors are practically non-existent. One human soldier stands silently near Dominic Cooper’s King Wrynn as the latter discusses battle tactics with the (Caucasian) commander of his army; he never speaks. Occasionally, we are granted quick glimpses of Warcraft’s elven characters, several of whom are played by Asian actors. They, too, do not speak.

So we go back to our facts. Hollywood loves sending blockbusters to China; China loves fantasy games featuring orcs and humans; Hollywood balks at putting Asian actors in lead roles. There’s a pretty damning lesson in all of this. Right now, a video game adaptation is climbing its way up the ranks of all-time box office hits in China without the benefit of any Asian characters of substance, meaning that Warcraft has scored in the Chinese market on the strength of its non-human characters. Why bother casting non-Caucasian actors ever again? If fantasy epics play well to Asian audiences, and if Hollywood thinks that it computer generated mythical creatures are a solid workaround for onscreen diversity, then it’s not that much of a stretch to think that Asian actors will be relegated to modulated voice over work in any fantasy sequels that Warcraft might happen to produce. And as an increasingly desperate Hollywood tries to shake loose some money from the video game industry, there will be no shortage of fantasy adaptations to choose from.

Warcraft’s Orcs, The Lord of the Rings, and Non-Human Storytelling

To paraphrase Vincenzo Coccotti, then, I hope that Daniel Wu enjoys this unbalanced ratio of voice-over work to press junkets, because Warcraft is as good as it gets and it ain’t ever gonna get that good again. If Hollywood has learned that it can tap into foreign box offices without needing to provide non-white representation, then there is no real impetus for them to make any changes to their casting decisions. Here’s to learning the wrong lessons from surprising financial successes.