My sister shared this article with me today titled “China’s Homegrown Hit Films Getting Lost Overseas” and it made me want to offer somewhat of a response. Not because I think it’s wrong, but because I think there are other variables that continue to be ignored in these kinds of articles. So really, this response isn’t exclusively to that particular article, but a number of articles that cover the same topic of Chinese box-office successes flopping in the US. As many of you may know, this is a hot topic right now, especially since a series of Chinese comedies – most notably Journey to the West and Lost in Thailand – have shattered China’s previous box-office records.
So let’s take a closer look.
(Note: all my box-office statistics are from http://www.boxofficemojo.com)
Issue Number 1: The Problem With Box-Office Figures
In most of these articles, the main evidence of Chinese films failing in the US is through a side-by-side comparison of how much a film made in China vs. how much it made Stateside. From the article linked above:
About Lost in Thailand: “The film that earned 1.26 billion yuan ($200 million) in China earned a paltry $57,000 during its U.S. theatrical release”
“Action-comedy “Let the Bullets Fly,” starring Chow Yun-fat, grossed $111 million at home but $63,000 in the United States, while action-fantasy “Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” starring Donnie Yen, earned $113 million domestically but $50,400 in the U.S.”
I always have a problem with this approach because it presents the two releases of the film as being equal somehow when they are actually anything but. Presenting those numbers without much of the industrial context paints an inaccurate picture of what’s really going on. It implies that all a movie needs is to be released in theaters and people will either go to it or not. It takes no consideration of other major factors such as: 1) who the distributor is for the American market; 2) how much experience said distributor has; 3) how many theaters even get the film; 4) how long the movie stays in those theaters; and 5) how much marketing the films receive for the length of time in which they are in those theaters. And I’m not even going to touch on the sheer difference in population size. So let’s look at some numbers and statistics for the American release of each of the movies mentioned above in more detail.
Lost in Thailand
Widest release: 35 theaters
Days in Release: 11
Total Domestic Box-Office: $57,387
Distributor: AMC Theaters, recently bought by Chinese giant Wanda and who seem to have no other distribution credits
Painted Skin 2: The Resurrection
Widest Release: 6 theaters
Days in Release: 35
Total Domestic Box-Office: $50,425
Distributor: Well Go USA; credits include 5 other small foreign films, all released last year, which tells me they’re new to the game. Their widest American release was The Thieves, with 22 theaters.
Let the Bullets Fly
Widest Release: 10 theaters
Days in Release: 56
Total Domestic Box-Office: $63,012
Distributor: Variance Films. Of the three, this distributor seems to be the most experienced, with movies going back to 2009 and including such foreign films as Ip Man 2, Elite Squad 2, and 1911. A cursory glance at their list of releases shows that they’ve never had a wider release than 50 theaters, and that I’ve seen many of these films on Netflix Instant.
Keep in mind that the numbers listed for “widest release” means that is the HIGHEST number of theaters that showed the film during the theatrical life time of the movie. It fluctuates daily and tends to be at a much lower number for most of the theatrical life of these films. Also, please note that I haven’t done any deep research for these numbers or distributor info. I’m going solely by what I can deduce from the stats on Box-Office Mojo.
Anyway, you should already see a couple of trends with the films above: 1) They open in an abysmally small number of theaters; 2) they play for a very short amount of time; and 3) they’re distributed by small and relatively inexperienced firms, some of which, like Varience Films, might actually have their priority on streaming. A lot of these problems and comparisons also relate to my next issue.
Issue Number Two: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Without fail, the standard-bearer for successful crossovers in articles like this one is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, that “global blockbuster” that made almost $130 million dollars in the US but only $85 million from all other international markets combined. Ugh. Can we stop talking about this movie already? It is not representative of the things most articles seem to think it’s representative of. It was not a big hit in China. It was made for a pan-Asian and Western audience. It was a co-production. (I also have some theories of attributing some of its success to The Matrix, but that’s another story). Yes it’s a fun movie, and I’m a big fan, but it had VERY different circumstances than the other films they compare it to. Let’s look at the numbers:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Widest Release: 2,027 theaters
Days in Release: 200+
Total Domestic Box-Office: $128,078,872
Distributor: Sony Classics, distributor of Midnight in Paris, Capote, Kung Fu Hustle, Volver, An Education, All About My Mother, Run Lola Run, The Triplets of Belleville, and a myriad other Award-Winning, often foreign, heavily marketed films dating back to 1992. They obviously have a certain “brand” of prestige.
Crouching Tiger is not a cross-over film like Let the Bullets Fly or Lost in Thailand. Those films were made primarily for a domestic Chinese audience and became huge hits. Their unexpected huge hittetude is what made them potentially exportable and marketable in the U.S. But without the necessary industrial support, they inevitably fail. That’s not to say that if Let the Bullets Fly was released in 2,000 theaters and had a $60 million marketing campaign it would make a ton of money. But it would certainly make more than $63,012. Crouching Tiger was made for an international market using Chinese cultural markers that were familiar to international audiences: kung fu, bamboo forests, internationally famous actors, mystical powers, ideas of honor and chivalry, beautiful landscapes, etc. Plus it had a powerful award circuit campaign that helped to further push its box-office and prestige.
Issue Number Three: Hollywood Success as Measure of ‘Real’ Success
Again, from the article:
“But film distributors say selling China’s movies to the world is hampered by subject matter that doesn’t travel well, different storytelling methods and the sheer size of its own market. Lim Teck, managing director of Singaporean producer and distributor Clover Films, said China has become so lucrative that local studios don’t need to think about other markets.”
“The films that are being made now, the Chinese films, are these romantic comedies that just don’t do well for us.”
Good! That’s great! Why do their films have to travel at all? Why can’t we just applaud China’s domestic film industry for having such an awesome and unprecedented streak of commercial successes? Do you know anything about the insanely difficult and challenging history of that country? Let them enjoy their movies. They deserve it. A lot of these articles feel like they carry this unspoken assumption that a movie is not really a success unless it’s a success in the US. As though shattering all of its own country’s box-office records is just the first step in being allowed to play with the big boys over in Hollywood and not an incredibly worthy feat in its own right. I think it’s about time we let Chinese filmmakers try to entertain (as opposed to politically educate) their own population and for that population to enjoy some homegrown talent in return. Let young aspiring Chinese filmmakers have someone from their own country to idolize and model instead of Michael Bay or whoever else has recently dominated their multiplex.
And for the rest of us, how about we try to educate ourselves on not only the country’s film history, but its social, political, and cultural ones as well. I think you’ll find some of these new movies pretty fascinating if you realize just how much things have changed in the last 10-20 years. Open yourself up to “different storytelling methods,” it’s not always a bad thing. And let’s stop comparing these movies with others that don’t deserve the comparison. It would be much more interesting to compare Let the Bullets Fly to Lost in Thailand than either of those movies to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Over and out…for now.