If he’d had the time after meeting American captains of industry in Seattle and Barack Obama at the White House, Chinese President Xi Jinping might have ducked out at the close of his United Nations appearance and into a New York movie theater to check on how China’s other soft power ambassadors—its movies, not its pandas—are playing to American audiences.
Struggling to get off the ground, as it turns out.
Though Hollywood studio films are making greater returns than ever at China’s box office—despite imports being limited to 34 each year—market forces pigeonhole screenings of Chinese-language films from the People’s Republic into a small but growing group of U.S. theaters that dedicate a few screens to serving an audience made up almost exclusively of diaspora Chinese and Chinese students studying abroad.
The number of Chinese Americans living in the U.S. was 3.9 million in 2014, according to The United States Census Bureau, up 4.23 percent from a year earlier and up 23 percent from 2009. Then there were roughly 300,000 students from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan studying in America in 2014, many of whom, at the graduate and post-graduate level, bring their spouses along with them.
A self-proclaimed movie fan whose opening remarks last month in Washington State twice nodded to Hollywood’s global influence—mentioning both Sleepless in Seattle and House of Cards—Xi didn’t go to see director Xu Zheng’s buddy comedy Lost in Hong Kong, which was released in the U.S. on September 25 in the midst of the Chinese leader’s state visit. In New York City, the film screened at the AMC Empire 25 in Times Square, the east coast flagship of a theater chain now owned by China’s richest man.
Lost in Hong Kong, distributed in the United States by Plano, Texas-based Well Go USA Entertainment, thus far has pulled in about $1.3 million in U.S. ticket sales at 34 screens nationwide and has cracked the top ten of the most commercially successful Chinese-language films to play in American cinemas [see Table I]. Yet its success is dwarfed by, for example, the tenth most-successful Hollywood film in China just this year: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, which has raked in $137 million for its co-producers, Hollywood studio Paramount Pictures, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, and the China Movie Channel, a unit of state-run broadcaster China Central Television.
TABLE I: MOVIEGOING IN THE U.S. AND CHINA IN 2014
|SCREENS||POPULATION||BOX OFFICE||% CHANGE|
|USA||39,956||319 million||$10.3 billion||-5.2|
|CHINA||23,592||1.3 billion||$4.82 billion||+36|
Source: Artisan Gateway
For all the hype about boom times in China’s movie marketplace—the box office in the first half of this year soared nearly 50 percent over the first six months of 2014—China can’t seem to land a single hit in what is still the largest theatergoing movie market in the world: the U.S. of A.
Chinese films weren’t always so little seen in America. Think back to directors Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou. The first, an American from Taiwan, still holds the record as the top-grossing foreign-language film of all time. His Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon grossed $128 million in 2000, spawning a decade of lesser imitators, and dwarfing the record holder up to that point, the 1997 Italian film Life is Beautiful, which still holds second place today with only $58 million. The second highest-grossing Chinese language film of all time in the U.S. is Zhang’s Hero, which made $54 million in 2004, a few years after China entered the World Trade Organization and Hollywood set its sights on China in earnest [see Table II].
TABLE II: TEN HIGHEST-GROSSING CHINESE-LANGUAGE FILMS IN THE U.S.
|CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON||2000||Ang Lee||Taiwan||$128,000,000|
|FEARLESS||2006||Ronny Yu||China, Hong Kong||$24,623,719|
|KUNG FU HUSTLE||2004||Stephen Chow||Hong Kong||$17,104,669|
|HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS||2004||Zhang Yimou||China||$11,041,228|
|FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE||1993||Chen Kaige||China||$5,216,888|
|LUST, CAUTION||2007||Ang Lee||USA, China, Taiwan||$4,602,512|
|IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE||2001||Wong Kar Wai||Hong Kong||$2,734,044|
|RAISE THE RED LANTERN||1992||Zhang Yimou||China||$2,603,061|
|LOST IN HONG KONG||2015||Xu Zheng||China||$1,302,281|
Source: Box Office Mojo
It’s not that today’s Chinese filmmakers aren’t getting lots of attention and winning prizes at international film festivals; or that they’re not making mainstream movies that blow up big at home; or that Chinese audiences don’t know what they want—they are and they do. Consider recent high praise for Jia Zhangke at Cannes and the New York Film Festival for Mountains May Depart and, before that, A Touch of Sin, and the glowing reviews for Zhang Yimou’s latest picture, Coming Home. On the commercial front, Goodbye, Mr. Loser, the comedy currently at the top of the box office in China, grossed $189 million within the first three weeks of opening domestically on September 30.
In the United States, Goodbye, Mr. Loser, the first film from directors Yan Fei and Peng Damo, sold out five of the 14 screens on its October 9 opening night at AMC’s west coast flagship in the Los Angeles suburb of Monterey Park, a Chinese enclave. It has since grossed $1.14 million in the U.S. and opened in limited release in the U.K. on October 23. The film is distributed outside China by China Lion, a Beijing- and Los Angeles-based company with four employees founded and majority owned by Jiang Yanming, founder of Technicolor Beijing, with investment from independent Chinese film companies Huayi Bros. and the Bona Film Group. China Lion’s U.K. release of Goodbye Mr. Loser is its first foray into Europe in three years and comes right on the heels of Xi Jinping’s state visit there.
It may be a while before mainstream U.S. moviegoers on the coasts (let alone middle America, or the average Briton) flock to see films in Chinese with English subtitles, even if Chinese studios increasingly approximate slick Hollywood production values and fast-paced storytelling.
“When non-Chinese see Chinese films, they want something they can’t easily see in their home countries. Not, say, a romantic comedy, of which there’s an ample supply in the American marketplace,” said Janet Yang, a Los Angeles-based veteran go-between in the rising Pacific Rim movie trade and a producer of the modern urban fish-out-of-water comedy Shanghai Calling, a bilingual film that Yang said was “marginalized” by the U.S. market. “When audiences can’t entirely relate to the characters, what’s the point?”
Much as most of the 1,200 features produced in Bollywood in India last year exist in a bubble of domestic isolation, reaching out to the world mostly to concentrated diaspora communities, the audience for Chinese movies seems destined for now to remain disproportionately small considering the size of the country’s population, its people’s rich storytelling history, and China’s officially stated global cultural and soft power ambitions.
Some Chinese-language films are less about the language and more about the action, as Well Go USA’s success with the Yip Man franchise starring Donnie Yen attests. Though the films had modest runs in U.S. theaters, they have proven to have staying power in the home entertainment arena, according to Jason Pfardrescher, senior vice president of theatrical and digital distribution for Well Go USA.
“Our focus is to bring over films that appeal to the Chinese community and also provide an opportunity to go wider and speak to the African-American community, the Hispanic community and the action junkies who love to consume action films,” Pfardrescher said.
And those fans increasingly are found in middle America, around college campuses with large numbers of Chinese students, said China Lion’s chief operating officer Robert Lundberg, who grew up in one such college town, where he now sends his mom to check on the local Chinese-language releases for him.
“Lansing is where Michigan State University is and it’s easily one of our top ten locations. There’s a sliver of a local first-language-Chinese speaking population, and then the bigger thing is a very curious and interested Western audience who are beginning to say ‘Hey! What’s going on? We should know more about China and this is a great way to figure it out,'” said Lundberg.
Still, Hollywood producer Yang, who grew up in New York as the daughter of Chinese immigrants, says the cultural divide in the realm of the movies is growing in China, not shrinking, meaning it may be some time before movies from the People’s Republic have legs overseas.
“The tastes of Chinese in third- or fourth-tier cities in China is even more different from that of the West,” Yang said. “So there’s an increasing divergence. American films will still play in China because they’re fresh, but there’s obviously something else the Chinese audience craves, something closer to home.”