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How Dwayne 'the Rock' Johnson became the most bankable star in China

While Hollywood scrambles to break into the burgeoning Chinese market, the Rock already moved in a decade ago.

While Hollywood scrambles to break into the burgeoning Chinese market, the Rock already moved in a decade ago

Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson attends the Great Wall on October 18, 2014 in Beijing, China. Over the past few years, he has become one of the most successful American actors in China's burgeoning film industry. (Emmanuel Wong/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures International)

China became the biggest box office in the world this year, overtaking North America for the first time in history. While the North American box office dropped 2.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2018, China's grew 39 per cent, a rate so high that the country can hardly build new theatres fast enough.

This growth has lead to an explosion of domestic box office hits, creating a new class of superstars out of Chinese actors and directors, but it has also provided a much-needed boost to Hollywood, especially as it recovers from 2017's 25-year low for theatre attendance. So much so that Hollywood has started to depend on the Chinese market, and in some cases, even caters its movies to Chinese audiences. And what do Chinese audiences want from Hollywood? For the most part, it comes down to four things: robots, monsters, superheroes and Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson.

Over the past decade, Johnson has become the biggest Hollywood name in China, and it's all been by his own design. If you think a man who brings an 18,000-kg "travelling carnival" of a gym to every single movie set does anything by accident, you'd be mistaken.

His most recent film, Skyscraper, opened to an underwhelming box office in North America, causing some critics to wonder whether we had reached "peak Rock." In its opening weekend, Skyscraper took in just $25 million at the North American box office. A week later, it opened in China, where it almost doubled that opening number, pulling in $47.7 million. What was first seen as a misstep in the Rock's career turned into a resounding success in China, which all seems to have been part of the plan. As Variety says, the movie was "virtually engineered to do well overseas."

It's pretty significant that Skyscraper is the lone Western film showing in China during a six-week period, spanning July and early August, when [middle-class consumers] go out in droves. - Richard Gelfond, IMAX

Skyscraper was set in Hong Kong, it featured Asian actors and was co-produced by Legend East, the Chinese arm of the American production company Legend. But at the heart of it all was the film's secret weapon — the Rock. That was enough to give Skyscraper the rare advantage of being the only foreign film to open in China in July, a period known as the "blackout," where China refuses to release any non-domestic films.

"It's pretty significant that Skyscraper is the lone Western film showing in China during a six-week period, spanning July and early August, when [middle-class consumers] go out in droves," Richard Gelfond, the chief executive of IMAX, told NBC.

The Rock's transition from professional wrestler to one of the biggest actors in Hollywood has been anything but textbook. Since 2001, he's released 37 films (with at least three more already scheduled for 2019), and his accolades include a couple of Teen Choice awards, as well as a Razzie, which honours the "worst films in Hollywood." But critical success hardly seems to matter because, at the box office, Johnson is rock solid. In 2017, the NAACP named him entertainer of the year. And in 2013, Forbes named him the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. He released an astounding five films that year, which brought in a combined $1.3 billion worldwide.

And this is one of the reasons the Rock is so successful. His work ethic is unparalleled. Any followers of the Rock will have heard his "seven bucks" moment. The story, as he tells it, revolves around a time when he was playing football for Calgary's practice squad in the CFL, only to be cut from the team. With his football dreams dashed, he reached into his pocket and realized he only had $7 left. Since then, he vowed to never be that down-and-out again, hence his approach to filmmaking, and the importance of China to his career.

The Rock, notably, has never been cast as a superhero, which is a surprise considering his size and overt physicality. Being part of a successful superhero franchise is a huge meal ticket in Hollywood, one that actors like Ben Affleck and Ryan Reynolds have cashed in on more than once. But somehow it wasn't an option for the Rock, whose first major Hollywood role was as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. The solo spin-off The Scorpion King, released a year later, grossed $165 million at the box office with a budget of $60 million, opening at number 1. Whether he knew it or not, right from the start Johnson was establishing one of his key strengths — an uncanny ability to make a reboot, spinoff or sequel successful.

About 10 years ago, when Iron Man just came out, I realised that I wasn't getting scripts that were superhero scripts. And I thought, well, maybe the best and most important thing that I could do was establish a relationship with the Chinese audience.- Dwayne Johnson

Since The Scorpion King, Johnson has continued to put out one movie or more per year, a majority of them falling into the reboot, spinoff or sequel categories, but those huge superhero roles still eluded him. That's when he made a decision to focus on China.

"About 10 years ago, when Iron Man just came out, I realised that I wasn't getting scripts that were superhero scripts," he told Chinese magazine Style this year. "And I thought, well, maybe the best and most important thing that I could do was establish a relationship with the Chinese audience, and audiences around the world, but certainly in the Asian market, with just me and not a superhero – I wasn't making movies where I wore capes."

In essence, he became his own superhero, and his superpower was the ability to dominate the box office overseas. And while his movies also tend to perform well at the North America box office (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle was the fifth-highest-grossing film of 2017), in China they're on another level.

And it's not just Skyscraper. In fact, a number of his movies from the last few years perfectly illustrate how his plan has come to fruition, with many of them performing better in China than they did in North America.

Rampage was released earlier this year and instantly received negative reviews, something director Brad Peyton talked about while on CBC's q. Deadline Hollywood predicted Rampage would take two years of home media sales to break even on its production and marketing budget of $120 million, this despite the film opening at number 1 on the North American box office, where it brought in $34.5 million on its opening weekend.

But Johnson had made sure to go on a promotional tour in Shanghai for the film, and when Rampage opened there, it made $20 million more on opening weekend than it did in North America. In the end, it became Warner Bros. second-highest-grossing film in China, and to date has brought in $426.6 million worldwide. It was the Rock's highest-grossing film of all time, and he was sure to thank his Chinese fans for their support.

"I'm extremely grateful to the people and culture of CHINA for embracing me and my films the way they have over the years," he wrote on Instagram.

The top-grossing films in China are mostly dominated by domestic films, with just less than half of the top 50 coming from Hollywood. The top two Hollywood films, however, star the Rock — The Fate of the Furious (2017) and Furious 7 (2015), which rank 6 and 8, respectively, on China's all-time list (Rampage comes in at 49.)

While The Fate of the Furious seemingly performed well everywhere in the world, including North America, grossing $1.2 billion worldwide, the top box office came from China, with $392 million.

It's no surprise, considering that, when it's predecessor, Furious 7, was released, it quickly became the highest-grossing film in China up to that point, and was actually the first Hollywood film to exceed its own domestic gross in a foreign territory, according to the New York Times.

Furious 7 was also heavily supported by the China Film Group, the country's biggest state-run distributor, which invested in the film and reportedly took an almost 10 per cent stake in it. With that level of support, Furious 7 had one of the most widespread theatre releases in Chinese movie history, according to China Film Biz.

Neither of those Fast & Furious films catered to the Chinese moviegoing audience in the way a film like Skyscraper did, except for the sole fact that they featured the Rock.

With his proven track record for appealing to Chinese audiences, it then comes as no surprise that the next film in the Fast & Furious extended universe will be a spinoff around his character, Luke Hobbs, and his relationship with Deckard Shaw, played by Jason Statham. With the Rock front and centre, it could be the most successful film in the franchise yet.

The true test, however, will come when Johnson portrays DC's Black Adam, which is set to begin filming this Fall. DC's biggest film in China to date has been Justice League, but it pales in comparison to the numbers that Marvel pulls in there, with the Avengers films ranking as some of the top films in Chinese box office history. Black Adam, an anti-hero tied into the Shazam film due next Spring, will be Johnson's first chance to don a cape in a major studio superhero picture. Rest assured they will be leaning heavily on his superpower to dominate China's box offices to make sure it's a success.

About the Author

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Producer, CBC q

Jesse Kinos-Goodin is a Toronto-based journalist and producer at CBC Music. He can be found on Twitter @JesseKG or email jesse.kinos-goodin@cbc.ca

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