China’s Box Office: Which Way to a Global Chinese Cinema?


by Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 12, 2012

Well no surprise here – Hollywood dominated the mainland Chinese box office once again with 5 films taking a 73 percent share, reaffirming the fact that China’s film industry simply does not yet have what it takes to compete with Hollywood imports at its own domestic box office.

This is an observation that has been written about extensively here on China Film Biz over the past month, and deservedly so – it has been nearly two months since a Chinese film claimed the top box office spot in the mainland.  The last time was mid-January, when The Great Magician starring Tony Leung and Zhou Xun opened.  Even then, The Great Magician’s reign was short-lived, lasting all of one week before a series of Hollywood imports began their recent streak of domination.

It may seem like we’re beating a dead horse by mentioning China’s inability to produce popular mainstream films for its masses. This is perhaps especially true this week, when even beating a dead horse was something that China literally failed to succeed in doing at the local Chinese box office.

I am referring to the film War Horse, the Steven Spielberg-directed epic war adaptation that is based on a children’s novel.  War Horse, which was released in the US on Christmas of last year, found itself atop the mainland Chinese charts this past week, grossing a rather modest $8.8 million over the span of six days.

To put that opening gross in perspective, the week’s second highest grossing film, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, made $15.2 million in half as many days when it opened in China in mid-February.  The Taiwan co-produced romance Love, meanwhile, made $13.9 million over the course of its first seven days of screening on the mainland.

Also opening this past week was the US action-fantasy film animation Conan the Barbarian, which took in $3.1 million over six days to come in at number four at the box office.

Mission Impossible 4 and the previously released family animation Happy Feet Two rounded out the Chinese box office top five.

*****

A recent post here on China Film Biz highlighted several challenges that make it difficult for mainland Chinese filmmakers to make commercially successful films.   That post focused mostly on the rules and regulations that stifle what should very well be a vibrant and productive creative culture within the mainland Chinese film industry.  Rather than rehash the critical (and very true) observations made in that post, I’m going to focus here a bit on another aspect of the same question – i.e., what I believe needs to be explored in regards to actual film content if China plans on ever developing a successful global Chinese cinema.

Now everyone knows that China will be an increasingly important power in the 21st century.  But how will China’s developing economic and geopolitical might translate on a cultural level?

This is a question that the Chinese government is seeking to address in part through the development of a global Chinese cinema.  But does the Chinese government, headed by a consortium of book smart and savvy politicians with academic educations largely in engineering, know the first thing about what this global Chinese cinema should look like?

Chinese civilization is often described as being over 5000 years old, and it is in part this rich history that has led many scholars to assert that Chinese culture and society is one that often looks backwards in time with great reverence. You see this reverence for the past played out in Chinese cinema/media through the strong, recurring theme of nostalgia in many Chinese movies.   Traveling back in time became such a popular theme in Chinese television that SARFT actually banned the storytelling device from the mainland Chinese airwaves a year or two ago.

In my opinion, the Chinese people’s reverence for the past is an aspect of Chinese culture that will likely hinder the development of a global Chinese cinema. The recent government-produced period films Beginning of the Great Revival and The Founding of the Republic – which featured basically everyone and anyone who has any star power in China/HK/Taiwan – have had little to no global appeal.  As rich as it is, Chinese history has little appeal to the average global moviegoer.  You can even have a certified A-list Hollywood actor like Christian Bale headlining your Chinese period film, but it won’t get potential moviegoers off their sofas and into theaters.

It’s true that the US and the rest of the Western world are fascinated by China, but not the China of the past.  This should be obvious, especially when it comes to the average American – we are a people that aren’t particularly known for caring about history, even our own. Yes, people are aware of China and its rapid economic growth.  But it is not China today that people want to know about.  It is the China of tomorrow.

Ultimately I believe this is one of the major areas that needs to be explored by the mainland Chinese film industry if it is to succeed at developing a global Chinese cinema.  No one really cares what China looks like today, and in some regards they shouldn’t – the country is changing so fast, what you see today will likely be radically different from what you see five years from now.

What people will want to know – whether they realize it yet or not – is where China will end up, because to a large extent, depending on what this future destination of China looks like, so too will the rest of the global world look as well.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at hollymu.com.

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5 thoughts on “China’s Box Office: Which Way to a Global Chinese Cinema?

  1. Sorry but Christian Bale is not a certified Hollywood A-list actor. That designation is reserved for actors who can “open” a film, that is create enough intial interest to create initial sales to justify large advertising expenses and create momentum towards being a blockbuster.

    Your contention that China is in transition is true, but that only films about its future will pay off makes an assumption that the emotional and cultural stress of the moment, the flux of their identity, is not a worthy subject for global cinema.

    What you mean to say is the world has nothing to learn from the Chinese dilemma of escaping or evolving from its own history, and that global cinema is primarily escapist.

    You are not entirely wrong…if return on investment is your only concern.

    Cinema is a window into the soul of a country, as well as the world, and in your pursuit of goals easier to accomplish and more financially rewarding, you do the business no favor.

    Even Harry Cohen who counded Columbia Pictures made quality films because he felt it was good for business in the long run, and that he did want to ber perceived as the crass, cruel and money obsessed mogul he was.

    His funeral was extremely well attended. Someone is remembered to have said, “Give people what they want and they will come every time.”

    • Thanks for your comments Satyajit.

      We can agree to disagree, but Christian Bale seems pretty legitimate as an A-list Hollywood actor to me. He hasn’t gone the Will Smith route and only starred in huge blockbuster films, as he’s taken on really compelling roles/films like The Machinist, The Fighter, and The Prestige, but I’d say being THE star of the hugely, globally successful Batman trilogy should give him A-list Hollywood status. Would The Flowers of War have been more marketable with Tom Cruise in the lead, a la The Last Samurai? That’s a good question. I really don’t know.

      I’m personally not in the know with these things, but I get the impression that The Flowers of War didn’t get a huge American marketing push because the movie ultimately ended up being a sub-par film that was half in Chinese.

      As for whether or not people are just interested in China’s future, I agree with you that such a statement is only a half-truth. There actually is a very creative and productive independent film scene in China that highlights exactly what you mention, the current social issues and dilemmas that people in China face in their new hypermodern reality. However, such films don’t get theatrical distribution in China, struggle to get distribution in general, and given the fact that most of these films are documentaries, have limited mainstream and definitely global appeal. But like you are saying, while they may limited return on investment, these films are important films that need and should be made.

      What I was getting at in this article was China’s mainstream film industry, which the government is hoping will be able to produce globally successful Chinese films that can help increase China’s cultural soft power around the world. For the most part the government has pushed/forced filmmakers to make films set in the past, which have had very limited appeal outside of China. Meanwhile filmmakers face difficulties from censors when attempting to make films set in the present, as the government is very wary about how modern China is portrayed on film to both its citizens and the outside world.

      So what does that leave us? This is in part my own fanciful opinion, but I think the future is a topic that Chinese filmmakers may be able to explore creatively while getting around the censors, and a topic that could find a wide audience outside of China as well.

      Thanks for your thoughts!
      -Albert

      (P.S. If you are interested in learning a bit more on the independent film scene in China, definitely check out http://dgeneratefilms.com, which distributes many of these independent Chinese films in markets outside of China.)

  2. Your comments overlook one important factor — that all the films that are exported to China represent the best 20 films from hundreds of Hollywood movies produced every year. And these films were selected out of tens of thousands of projects developed by seasoned and experienced global film professionals working in Hollywood. Those are not the conditions under which Chinese films were made. If you compare Hollywood films and Chinese films on similar budgets and genres however what you will find Chinese films generally out perform their Hollywood counterparts.

    • Peter, I must respectfully disagree. You may have different evidence than I do, but I can’t imagine any way to show that Chinese films outperform Hollywood films. The average live action Chinese film released this year has earned barely $2 million in revenue in its home territory and a small fraction of that amount overseas.

      The films imported to China each year are not by any stretch the best films that Hollywood has to offer. If you think Immortals, Battle Los Angeles, The Green Hornet, Tron Legacy, I Am Number Four, Skyline, Priest, Sanctum, etc. are the best films Hollywood made last year then we have a serious difference of opinion. This motley bunch averaged $17 million in box office in China. Many of these films didn’t perform well in the U.S. but Chinese audiences flocked to them. Not because they thought they were good films, but because they knew they were much better than the domestically made alternatives.

    • Hey Peter!

      I appreciate your comments. I’m very bullish on mainland Chinese creativity and its filmmaking talent. My article was more a personal musing as to what Chinese filmmakers could do to make Chinese films that have global appeal a la Hollywood blockbuster films. And like you said, this doesn’t assume these films will be the best films made in China, but unfortunately what is best very often isn’t what becomes successful on a mainstream level.

      I personally wonder if/when China starts churning out big-budget blockbusters like Transformers, if they will have the global appeal that Hollywood blockbusters do. Because without a clear global ROI on these big budget films, I don’t know if the Chinese government or other investors can justify investing their money into these films. They tried to do that with Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War, spending over $90 million on that film (a record for a Chinese film I believe), with a marketable global star and director no less, but I don’t think that has been able to recoup its costs yet.

      I remember hearing at your US-China Film Summit that Transformers/X-Men producer Tom DeSanto is involved with the US-China co-production “Gods”, and it will be very, very interesting to see how this film plays in both China and the global box office.

      -Albert

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