Why the West Loves Sci-Fi and Fantasy: A Cultural Explanation

Anyone looking to debunk cultural explanations for the American/Indian sci-fi gap might point out that Hollywood has had the big-budget, dragons-and-droids market flooded for years. Perhaps Bollywood, for commercial reasons, doesn't want to jump in. Average production costs for American superhero blockbusters hover around $200 million these days, and audiences have come to expect the computer-generated spectacle that kind of money buys. But... Star Wars was made for $11 million in 1977 (less than $40 million now) and 25 percent of Iron Man 3's $200 million budget was Robert Downey Jr.'s salary. Surely there's enough technical expertise and financial muscle in India to digitize a realistic Mars landing when the country's space program is on track to launch a real spacecraft (unmanned) to the red planet this upcoming November.

What about the fact that American blockbusters make tons of money worldwide? For films like Avatar and The Hobbit, foreign sales equal or exceed domestic U.S. sales. But India, the world's ninth-largest economy and second-most populous country, does not even rank in the top 12 foreign markets for the genre. The list of those markets reads like the attendees of a G-8 summit (plus some key trading partners): the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Spain, South Korea, Russia, Australia, and China. Avatar (2009) set the high-water mark for India, where South Asian audiences purchased $24 million worth of tickets—about 10 percent of foreign ticket sales worldwide. But for most science fiction, countries with smaller GDPs than India (Australia, Mexico, South Korea) are higher consumers. Of Avengers' (2012) $888 million worldwide, $12 million came from India; Iron Man 3 is on track with similar numbers; and, to their credit, Indian audiences contributed a paltry $2.8 million to Transformers 3's $434 million. Fantasy fares much worse. The Hobbit (2012) made $714 million worldwide; it took home $1.8 million in India. That is barely more than Croatia's $1.4 million.

Indian audiences contributed a paltry $2.8 million to the $434-million worldwide gross of 'Transformers 3.' And fantasy fares much worse: In 2012, 'The Hobbit' made $714 million worldwide; it took home $1.8 million in India.

The simplest conclusion to draw from this is that Bollywood doesn't produce science fiction and fantasy because Indian audiences aren't as keen on it. Local cultural production doesn't just result from economic wherewithal; desires and needs also matter. And desires and needs are cultural. This sometimes feels hard to accept because desires and needs feel so natural. Often we think that the way we live is normal and not cultural; this is what anthropologists call "tacit ethnocentrism," when we are not trying to be prejudiced, but we have unquestioned assumptions that somehow we are the normal human baseline and others somehow deviate from that.

Hollywood continues to make science fiction and fantasy movies because disenchantment creates a demand for these stories, but disenchantment predates Hollywood. We were journeying ten thousand leagues under the sea or scarcely surviving a war of the worlds before the film industry began. If the uptick of Hunger Games-inspired archery lessons and the CDC's humorous-but-practical Zombie Preparedness Guide are any indication, this is not going away any time soon. Re-enchantment delivers something more important than escapism or entertainment. Through its promise of a world of mystery and wonder, it offers the hope that we haven't seen all that there is.

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Christine Folch is an assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College and sits on the board of ZanaAfrica. She writes about culture and power in Latin America.

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