The Bumping Road For Chinese Films To Go Abroad

摘要: While the Chinese government didn’t do anything but mere words, Chinese enterprises didn’t spend much time and effort either. So it ended up that Chinese films did go abroad, but not to the general public overseas, but instead to China Towns. Chinese films not only failed to serve the role to introduce Chinese culture overseas, but instead meant nothing but a way for overseas Chinese to entertain themselves.

(Chinese Version)

On April 1st, Chongqing Hotpot premiered in mainland China. Yet, as of April 4th, the film has already hit over 100 million RMB in the box office. At the same time, the film, which combines elements from another two popular Chinese films “Crazy Stone” and “You Are the Apple of My Eye”, also showed in 20 theatres in North America.

Not profitable

We noticed that while Mr. Six and Goodbye Mr. Loser, two of the most popular Chinese films in 2015, showed in 32 and 40 theatres respectively in North America, Chongqing Hotpot premiered only in 20 theatres. How come? To answer this question, we got in touch with Ms. Jiang Yanming, president of Chongqing Hotpot’s overseas distributor China Lion Film.

“The number of theatres a film will be on show is adjusted based on specific situations. At present, we plan to put the film Chongqing Hotpot on show in theatres of 11 more cities,” Ms. Jiang explained, “we estimate that Chongqing Hotpot will reach over 40 theatres within two weeks after its debut.”

“Chinese films are not popular at all overseas, and out target audience are mainly overseas Chinese,” Ms. Jiang admitted. For her, distributing Chinese films in overseas theatres was not at all a profitable business.

Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid hit 3.18 million USD in the box office, the highest in five years. Yet, it is nothing compared to the 2002 film Hero’s record: 53.7 million USD. Whether we admit it or not, the box office performance of Monster Hunt and Devil and Angel is far less than that of 3D Sex and Zen.

Not attractive

The following is a list of the box office performance of all major Chinese films in North America since 2010.

As we can see from the above table, row piece rate of Chinese films is quite low, comparatively speaking. However, it is worthy of pointing out some interesting facts: there seems to be a positive correlation between the row piece rate and box office performance of a film. For example, The Grandmaster, the top 1 film in terms of box office performance, hit the screen of over 800 theatres in North America. It is fair to say that 2015 is one of the few years Chinese films sparked in the overseas market recently. In 2015, four Chinese films hit over 1 million USD in the North American box office, including Mr. Six and The Ghouls. At the same time, these films also achieved a great box office performance back in China. However, there is one exception: Monster Hunt. Although the film championed the Chinese box office, it only grabbed 32,000 USD in North American box office, which is less than a fraction of IP Man 3’s. By the way, the box performance of 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy exceeded that of many Chinese films including Beginning of the Great Revival, while The Mermaid outperformed the IP Man3 in North America.

Since lots of Chinese Kungfu films hit the screen overseas in recent years, foreign audience have become tired of such types of films, as can be seen in the box performance of IP Man 3 and The Mermaid: while the former one ranked 147th in the Foreign Language Film List and achieved a box office revenue of 2.67 million USD, the latter one ranked 122th and grabbed 3.18 million USD.

Ever since popular Chinese director Zhang Yimou broke the record, topped the North American box office for two consecutive weeks and amazed everyone with his film Hero in 2002, Chinese films have been increasingly going abroad. However, there seems to be an increasing number of reports saying that Chinese films are not quite well-received in the overseas box office. As a matter of fact, we can draw the same conclusion from the statistics issued by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television: the total box office revenue of Chinese films achieved 27.136 billion RMB in the Chinese box office, and 2.77 billion in the overseas one, which is even less than that of The Mermaid.

In addition, we find that the film Hero hit 53.71 million USD in the North American box office because Chinese Kunfu films were so popular back then, and its overseas distributor found over 2,000 movie theatres to show the film.

Today, however, this isn’t the case at all. On the one hand, all the six major film producing companies in Hollywood wasn’t much interested in Chinese films; on the other hand, the average row piece rate of Chinese films was far from satisfactory, no matter how popular they might be back in China. These are exactly why it was impossible to achieve the same box office performance as Hero.

Five weaknesses

Still, what makes it so difficult for Chinese films to be popular overseas? Following, we summarized some of the major weaknesses of Chinese films:

Weakness One: Cultural difference

Chinese film producers find it hard to get across to foreign audience with their films, due to the huge difference in the value system and life style of Chinese and foreign audience.

Although some Chinese comedian films such as Lost in Thainland and Master of Breakup were shot overseas, they still failed to win the foreign audience. On the one hand, foreign audience find it hard to understand those Chinese-style jokes in these films; on the other hand, the English subtitle was generally unsatisfactory. Thu, foreign audience who have zero knowledge of Chinese culture and don’t enjoy reading subtitles might find it pretty hard to understand the jokes and moving moments in these Chinese films.

Weakness Two: Poor quality

Although the Chinese film industry developed rapidly in recent years owing to the improving support of capital and technology, it still lags far behind the Hollywood. For example, while the Chinese popular animation film Monster Hunt is quite successful among Chinese films, it’s still, comparatively speaking, green and out-of-date for foreign audience who grow up with Hollywood films.

Weakness Three: Lack of distribution channels

Among the limited number of Chinese companies who are working on film distribution overseas, most of them are of small-scale. At the same time, foreign companies prefer to show films containing Chinese elements such as Kungfu. According to Ms. Jiang, China Lion Film had already set up its North American, Australian and British branch, but no branch was set in other Asian countries.

Weakness Four: Lack of effective marketing strategies

While Hollywood film distributors often cater to the Chinese box office and adopt marketing strategies that appeal to Chinese audience, distributors of Chinese films seldom invite household stars to help promote films or include foreign elements.

Weakness Five: Inaccurate judgment over overseas market

While most Chinese films that went abroad in these two years are comedies, action and romantic films, foreign audience might not necessarily find these types of films attractive.

When we look back at the Top 10 film in the North American box office, we find that science fiction films, animated films and action films are the three most popular genres, especially science fiction films.

The Top 10 Film in the American box office in 2015

The Top 10 Films in the American box office in 2015

“Generally, comedies are not well-received overseas,” film commentator Tan Fei suggested, “some films are not meant for overseas box office at the very beginning, so no wonder most Chinese films end up showing only in a limited number of theatres overseas and achieve a poor performance in the overseas box office.”

The struggling situation

For Ms. Jiang, however, the most important problem here is the lack of money:

“Since the audience is quite limited in the overseas box office, and it isn’t likely to make much profit out there, many producers are simply unwilling to spare any effort in this sector. While the Chinese government has always been advocating smart power, China Image, our company has been losing a huge sum of money only to nurture the market.”

In addition, Ms. Jiang revealed that among the audience of Chinese films in the North American box office, foreign audience accounted for only around 15% on average, and a little higher in areas with a Confucius Institute.

While the Chinese government didn’t do anything but mere words, Chinese enterprises didn’t spend much time and effort either. So it ended up that Chinese films did go abroad, but not to the general public overseas, but instead to China Towns. Chinese films not only failed to serve the role to introduce Chinese culture overseas, but instead meant nothing but a way for overseas Chinese to entertain themselves.

As we can see from the above picture, 80% of films that showed in the North American box office are distributed by China Lion Film. “Now many people know that a Chinese film will show in the theatre every other month or so, said Ms. Jiang.

However, not all good Chinese films have the opportunity to show in overseas theatres. For example, films such as Forever Young, Devil and Angel and Running Man all went abroad, while Chinese films of high quality, such as The Dead End, didn’t have that kind of opportunity at all.

“We choose films based on our understanding of overseas audience’ preferences. Speaking of The Devil and Angel, we didn’t watch the film when purchasing the overseas distribution right, but we did decide how many overseas theatres we should get involved based on the film’s box office performance back in China.”

Ms. Jiang admitted that they didn’t spend much money developing an effective marketing strategy, since they are well aware that the market is so tiny and unworthy of too much cost out there. “We’ve already set up branches in North America, Australia, UK, and employed market specialists in some of the major cities. Of course, we would develop a rough marketing plan and provide related promotional materials for these specialists.”

Although they are aware of the importance of an effective marketing strategy to a film, they also know quite clearly that the more money they spend, the more they lost. “Chinese films are after all not something popular overseas, so our focus right now is mainly overseas Chinese, and encourage more foreign audience via these people.”

(Like our Facebook page and follow us now on Twitter @tmtpostenglish, Medium @TMTpost and on Instagram @tmtpost_english.)

[The article is published and edited with authorization from the author @Yulezibenlun, please note source and hyperlink when reproduce.]

Translated by Levin Feng (Senior Translator at PAGE TO PAGE), working for TMTpost.




Our official account in English/English Version of


Oh! no