China’s box office is like an enormous plate of food that we don’t notice because it’s sitting one table away. Hollywood films routinely rake in far heftier profits with their Chinese releases than they do in theaters at home. In the States, we go in circles asking, How could they possibly make a fifth shitty Transformers movie? How many people can really be coming back for more explosions and corny robot jokes? Meanwhile, China’s movie fans are coming out in droves, constituting a single international revenue stream more than double the number Paramount is making domestically.

The Chinese state holds a quota on the total number of American titles that can be released in the country each year (34, with 14 of them being IMAX or 3D releases). But it looks like that number is going to be climbing after this year’s renegotiations. Since the last negotiation of the quota five years prior, China’s box office revenue has more than tripled, making both countries more interdependent, and forcing them to reexamine the situation from the ground up.

China’s box office revenue has more than tripled over the last five years, making both countries more interdependent, and forcing them to reexamine the situation from the ground up

Meanwhile, Americans have a relatively poor understanding of what goes on in China’s movie theaters. What is it that puts asses in seats, so to speak?

Judging by trends and mainstream news, high budget, easily digestible action films are a solid guess. The Transformers franchise has long enjoyed a disgustingly overt reign (though thankfully it seems to be coming to an end), and the highest-grossing movie on record now in the Mainland is the patriotic action flick Wolf Warrior 2, in which China’s deadliest special forces operative overcomes a torrential series of explosions and gunfire to save innocent civilians from vicious mercenaries. In foreign films, regulators sometimes insist on the addition of extra scenes that portray China as important. Bet you haven’t seen this part of Iron-Man:

Dr. Hu, internationally acclaimed surgeon and personal friend to Iron Man, is aided in his procedure by Fan Bingbing, beautiful and beloved actress who locals might recognize from every billboard and every product ever.

There must be more to the story than that. We rounded up statements from a few local friends (and a couple of strangers in a random pho restaurant), in response to the question, What do you look for when going to the movies?
“The movie itself isn’t really the most important thing — sometimes, I care more about the social experience,” one woman in her thirties told us. “Just like when choosing a restaurant.”

Her younger friend Jing, in her twenties, felt differently.

“I like big movies. Like Dunkirk – something big and epic, or 3D — like Avatar. Something big and visually thrilling always gets me,” she said. “But sometimes I like romance, too!”

My friend Ma, also twenty-something, looks for something distinctly cerebral.

“I want me some indie, art-house, thought-provoking cinema. Not this trash they play. Shout out to Shanghai International Film Festival and Shanghai Art Film Federation,” he added. “They’re doing a good job.”

(It should be noted that Ma a a vocal critic of Wolf Warrior 2’s spectacular box office run, message of freedom, and badass explosions.)

Some artier fare that’s come out of the Chinese film scene in recent years — 2015’s Kaili Blues

Yin, 24, is more concerned with the viewing experience:

“Though the movie market is big here, I find most of the cinema facilities are disappointing — always too dark! Especially when it comes to 3D, IMAX, or high frame rate. So when I go to the cinema, I only choose [films] with quality equipment and real professional projection.”

She also expressed her wish for Chinese theaters to make more room for domestic indie movies, which right now are kind of limited to festival runs.

An older man in his forties says it comes down to the movie itself.

“For me, it’s more about the subject of the movie. Action, thriller, drama, superhero — these genres are all fine, but it’s the subject of the movie that will determine if I go out to see it.”

One thing a lot of the responses have in common is an emphasis on the physical movie experience. Today’s audiences, overseas and especially in China, are more likely to watch a movie on their laptop or tablet. Even the older, technologically-limited crowd would probably prefer to grab a bootleg Blu-Ray from the corner store, street vendor, or online shop — which explains peoples’ responses prioritizing things like visual effects, 3D, the social experience, or projection quality as reasons to go to a theater.

Chinese audiences today are more likely to watch a movie on their laptop or tablet

China’s movie audiences are quite varied, like the country’s citizens overall — differentiated by factors like location in first- vs. second-tier cities, language abilities, and exposure to overseas media. While high-budget action films seem to hit a pretty sizable common denominator, individual tastes are impossible to represent.

Maybe the next box office smash will be a black-and-white remake of Waiting for Godot starring Fan Bingbing and Kris Wu. More likely it will be Wolf Warrior 3. Only time will tell.