Domestic success has paved the way for China's film industry to seek out new horizons, and while there's hope following some key box-office successes overseas, Chinese movies need to develop a more universal appeal
The past 12 months saw China's film industry reach a major milestone, as eight of the mainland's top 10 highest-grossing films at the box office in 2019 were homegrown.
Mainland box-office takings also hit an all-time high, reporting a total income of 63.7 billion yuan ($9.1 billion) as of Sunday. It remains a difficult task, however, for Chinese films to appeal to North American moviegoers and achieve similar success beyond national borders.
There is, however, reason to be hopeful. Two major Chinese-language film distributors in North America have fared much better last year than in 2018.
CMC Pictures successfully released 11 Chinese films in North American theaters, raking in $10.66 million as of Saturday. That includes China's first homemade sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth, which became the highest-grossing Chinese film in North America of the last five years, posting a total of $5.87 million. It's a great leap for CMC Pictures, which released only five Chinese films in North America in 2018, garnering a total box-office gross of $727,000.
Another distributor, Well Go USA Entertainment－which released just nine Chinese language films in 2018－released 14 movies in 2019, doubling its North American box-office return from 2018's $4.01 million to $9.84 million.
The Chinese animation megahit, Ne Zha, was released by Well Go USA in North America, achieving $3.67 million. It's the top-grossing animated film ever made by China and No 2 on the box-office chart for all films ever screened on the Chinese mainland. The surprise hit has grossed more than $700 million worldwide.
Relatability is key
Over the last two decades, as China's film industry has grown to its current size, Chinese filmmakers have been flooding top US film schools in a bid to learn the secret to Hollywood's domination of the motion picture industry for the past 100 years.
Such Western-style filmmaking skills have translated into astonishing success in China's domestic market, but, to date, only around 7 percent of Chinese box-office revenues come from overseas sales. In contrast, Hollywood films boast a rise in foreign revenues from 30 percent of sales 20 years ago, to nearly 70 percent of box-office revenues today.
The North American box office revenues for The Wandering Earth and Ne Zha account for just 0.8 percent and 0.5 percent, respectively, of their global totals.
It's worth noting that overseas Chinese moviegoers still account for the majority of North American box-office revenues for such films.
Chinese films have long faced an uphill, cross-cultural struggle to attract international interest. Criticism most often ranges from "too difficult to identify with", "too long, rambling and confusing", or simply "too Chinese".
The difference in the stories, and the storytelling style, is significant, because Chinese films usually differ in format and pace compared with Hollywood's more popular three-act linear format. Also, stories that are unique to China are unfamiliar in the West.
Hollywood producer Jeff Most says, "China has thousands of years of legends, folk tales and myths that the West knows nothing about.
"These are rich cultural traditions that China wants to share, but they need to be introduced to Western audiences in a way that everyone can relate to, rather than the more nuanced cultural references that are impenetrable or confusing to Westerners."
Echoing the sentiment, Richard Yu, Cinema Escapist's Asia editor, says, "For Western audiences, it's important for the main characters in stories to have serious and relatable struggles for them to experience a human connection."
Taste of success
"I've long thought that there are a set of particular stigmas placed on Asian cinema, both by the Western critical establishment and by general audiences ... and these stigmas affect the potential of an Asian film's box office," says Sam C. Mac, a film critic for Slant Magazine, adding that some moviegoers still live with the legacy of old martial arts movies and Hong Kong gangster films.
"While it won't always be a winning formula, I think films that are earnest and honest in their expression of Chinese culture have a better chance at critical and audience acceptance than those that try to emulate Western formulas for cinema, and consider cultural identifiers as merely an afterthought," Mac says.
"To some extent, Chinese capital being more involved will help increase the understanding of global cinematic tastes and the improvement of technical skills in production. Reaching global appeal for Chinese movies will require filmmakers to tell diverse stories with universal appeal," Anthony Kao, editor-in-chief of Cinema Escapist, says.
"While joint productions with Hollywood and other global players will help the Chinese film industry better understand global audience tastes, investment alone is not the answer," he adds.
Some Hollywood insiders believe with the rise of China's domestic market, there is less incentive for homegrown filmmakers to gamble millions on an attempt to appease an unfamiliar and poorly-understood international market when they can recoup hundreds of millions of dollars with a single hit film in China.
Andre Morgan, co-founder of Ruddy Morgan Films, says: "The truth is that China has not focused on the American market, yet. Historically, the Chinese industry over the past 20 years has been very focused on building its domestic market and production capabilities.
"They do not really make films for international consumption, but that will change as China consolidates its domestic market and looks for new horizons."