Why Chinese Films - Huge In China's New Multiplexes - Are Almost Invisible Everywhere Else

These days, when someone at Variety writes about China's film industry, it's often to mark another smashed box-office record or to marvel at the way theaters are popping up around China.

But on August 30th, 2013, Patrick Frater (Variety's bureau chief in Asia) took on a thornier assignment: Examining why Chinese films are failing to ignite much interest outside of China.

You might be surprised to learn that there are more than a dozen Chinese films that topped ¥100 million each in the first six months of 2013. That's two or three Chinese films earning more than $US 16,000,000 each, each and every month, inside China. With many films earning considerably more. All with barely a ripple outside China.

Even as China's domestic revenue from theatrical box office has been growing at over 30% year-on-year, "overseas box office for Chinese films [has been] dropping for the past two years."

What's going on?

Why aren't films from the world's fastest growing film business doing better business outside of China's borders?

It may be that non-Chinese audiences aren't that interested in Chinese motion picture stories. But why? After all, Chinese audiences have accepted and even embraced many Hollywood films. Isn't cultural curiousity (an appreciation of the best from overseas) a two-way street?  The Chinese watch American films that are dubbed or sub-titled... is it impossible to imagine a Chinese-language film that works in a dubbed or sub-titled version outside of China?

A slightly more complex answer seems to be that the Chinese film industry just doesn't (for now) seem too concerned with a wider market: "China’s companies have no idea about international sales. That’s because they are so strongly focused on their home market,” Albert Lee, CEO of Emperor Motion Pictures told Variety.

Even though it may be hard for Westerners to understand, and it seems unlikely that Chinese producers are just leaving money on the table simply out of lack of interest, there does seem to be some truth to what Albert Lee is saying. In a newly movie-mad nation of 1.3 billion people, films like So Young ($US 114,710,000 as of August 31st, 2013) and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons ($US 196,740,000 as of August 31st, 2013) can be very profitable simply by focussing on stories that will appeal to a domestic Chinese audience.

And, even though numerous Chinese language films are catching hold in China each month, and more and more Chinese-made films are becoming hugely profitable inside China, there are few precedents for Chinese language films that have worked outside of China.

Hollywood has had a hundred years of international marketing. China's modern film industry hasn't.

China's filmmaking entrepreneurs haven't yet begun to market to the outside world. And they've got some catching up to do. China's booming motion picture business is a relatively recent development - and the world market still isn't that familiar with Chinese stars (leaving aside the handful of stars who've become known in the West through Kung Fu movies). And being a pioneer in the global marketing of motion pictures isn't for the feint of heart or the under-capitalized.

Still, China's economic and cultural influence is growing.

Isn't it inevitable that Chinese entrepreneurs will find a way to market Chinese films (with Chinese faces and stories?) to a wider audience? (Perhaps using social media tools that Hollywood has been slow to master?)


For now, China lacks the global stars - and the home-grown mechanisms for making global stars and worldwide franchises - to rival Hollywood. But, as the Wanda Group has proven with their acquisition of AMC Theaters in 2012, American-style motion picture marketing acumen doesn't need to be developed. It can also be acquired. If the check is large enough.

So is that all it will take? Money and marketing?

Money and marketing prowess matter a great deal in the global movie business.  And China has both a lot of money and the ability to develop or acquire a studio's marketing skills...

So is there anything else holding China back?


As Patrick Frater also notes, China’s censorship system still presents problems: "Stories must not only steer clear of sex, drugs, religion and present-day politics, but also sci-fi, time travel, ghosts and contemporary thrillers. Censorship has also made international co-productions tricky, as regulations do not officially permit multiple versions of a Chinese film."

"Filmmakers such as Chen Daming have complained that such rules make it difficult to have a strong antagonist, while John Woo’s producer partner Terence Chang says a contemporary crime thriller, such as the Chinese version of “The French Connection” he dreams of making, is out of the question because crime, corruption and police procedures are all taboo."

But the trends in China seem to be toward an easing of certain kinds of censorship restrictions.

Film regulators have recently approved films like Say Yes! (2013 Chinese box office gross = $US 31,260,000), Switch (2013 Chinese box office gross = $US 46,820,000), Tiny Times (2013 Chinese box office gross = $US 77,600,000) and So Young (2013 Chinese box office gross = $US 114,710,000). As Patrick Frater notes, these "light contemporary dramas projecting a hip and aspirational universe" are carrying the day inside China.

And the Chinese are fully capable of making highly-visual films that aren't that reliant on dialogue - but that appeal to the huge global audience for action and animation. That's why Pinewood Studios (home of the James Bond franchise) has recently teamed up with Chinese entrepreneur and billionaire Bruno Wu and Dreamworks under Jeffrey Katzenberg is building a world-class facility for making animation in Shanghai.

As China's movie business continues to boom and regulators adapt to the new storytelling realities - isn't it likely that China's role in the global film business will expand?

UPDATE: September 1, 2013  There is a long article in Buzzfeed by Jordan Zakarin from May 2013 that I've recently encountered. Mr. Zakarin's piece contains much valuable history and perspective, as well quotes from players (actually, mostly would-be Western players?) in the Chinese film business.  I would, with respect, note that Mr. Zakarin's Buzzfeed piece, written from Hollywood's perspective and several months ago, fails to predict just how dynamic Chinese films have proven to be in the 2013 box office. For example, I think Mr. Zakarin overplays the success of Iron Man 3, which encountered stiff competition right from the start in China from a local coming-of-age film, So Young.  Additionally, Iron Man 3, in only its third week of release, was toppled from the top of the Chinese box office by a modestly-budgeted local Chinese film (unknown in the West) called American Dreams in China. For me, perhaps the most fascinating part of the Iron Man 3 in China story is the cool reception, despite a strong opening, that the film received (for following the Zakarin-approved? "carefully engineered to maximize its appeal" formula?). If Mr. Zakarin thinks adding "extra Chinese actors and scenes in Beijing" helped Iron Man 3's performance in China, he's going to get an argument from Dalian Wanda Group head Wang Jianlin who decried the film's lack of "respect [for] Chinese consumers." Finally, while I think Mr. Zakarin is right that Hollywood films can indeed grow their overall numbers in China, focussing (as Mr. Zakarin does, for much of his article) on how Chinese tastes might change Hollywood movies seems only a part of a much bigger story.

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