A failure of soft power?

Why are Chinese movies bombing in the overseas box office?


Best foot forward: Zhang Ziyi is promoting The Grandmaster in the US

Late last month Tiny Times – a film that sparked controversy in China (see WiC202) – made its way to the United States. But the movie, which steamrollered its competition back home, made little impression with American audiences, taking only $15,000 at the box office in its first week.

That’s perhaps not surprising as two other of the most recent Chinese blockbusters – So Young and Lost in Thailand – also bombed overseas. The two films, which took about Rm2 billion ($326.6 million) in China between them, managed to collect only $67,000 in the US, for example.

Chinese films appear to be making little headway internationally. A survey published by Beijing Normal University found that only 75 domestic productions were sold overseas last year, generating rights fees and ticket sales of $172.8 million. That figure represents a sharp decline from 2011 and 2010, which saw revenues of $329.4 million and $574 million, respectively.

“The question is, will the Chinese film industry evolve the way Hong Kong’s did, with a focus on exports, or more like India, where the country is so large and the tastes so specific that it’s a completely in-country industry?” asks Jonathan Wolf, managing director of the American Film Market.

Describing the export of Chinese films as “lacklustre”, Huang Huilin, spokesperson for the Beijing Normal University survey, added that the trend is “worrying”. The underwhelming performance of Chinese films abroad is partly due to an underdeveloped marketing and sales structures, Huang said. But there are also “serious flaws” in the translation of film titles and the provision of adequate subtitles.

There may be more important reasons for the underperformance. Moviegoing has become more mainstream in China thanks to a frenzy of cinema construction. That’s boosted takings for films like So Young and Lost in Thailand but the financial results may flatter their cinematic quality.

Indeed, most attribute the less-than-successful run of Chinese films in the overseas market to a lack of creativity in China’s filmmaking. “International audiences have long been familiar with the Chinese kung-fu genre, but over time that genre becomes fatigued. It is no longer fresh and new, so naturally the appeal of that weakens. Unless directors start innovating, it will likely be difficult for films to achieve similar takings to that grossed by Zhang Yimou’s Hero in 2002,” comments Southern Entertainment Weekly.

Can the director Wong Kar-Wai reverse the trend, and moreover with a slickly filmed kung-fu film? Industry observers say the only Chinese hit currently capable of crossing the international divide is The Grandmaster, an epic set to premiere in the US on August 30 (more than eight months after it was first screened in China).

The Weinstein Company, which secured the distribution rights to the film in the US, is not leaving anything to chance. The American version of the film was specially edited for its audience, cutting scenes that dwell too much on the Chinese historical background. The edit, which has Wong’s approval, adds explanatory titles, character names and even some different footage. Ancillary characters are eliminated. Subtitles, too, are tweaked to help with streamlining the plot.

The result is is a shorter film. The Asian version of The Grandmaster is 130 minutes long, while the US cut is down to a tighter 108 minutes. “The US version is more straightforward and linear. The Chinese audience is more interested in experiencing the history. In the US, it’s more about the story,” says Wong. “Instead of doing a short version, I wanted to do a new version. I wanted to tell the story in a different way.”

“In my opinion, I like the American one. It’s clearer. Easier for foreigners,” echoes lead actress Zhang Ziyi, who was in the US last week to promote the film.

Hopefully the American audiences will agree.

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