For Chinese film executives it seems to be difficult to produce movies that will be seen not just at home, but also by a measurable number of viewers in the United States and elsewhere. In particular, THR reported quoting chief executive of China’s Bona Film Group, Yu Dong that China “lacks international experience” in making such “universally appealing” films.
“It’s true to an extent, though only with regards to Hollywood style blockbusters – Chinese films have historically been popular with audiences and critics at festivals around the world for many years,” expert on Asian cinema, James Mudge told BZFilm, commenting on the issue.
“There has been a couple of breakout like “Hero”, though these aside, yes, there haven’t been many, if any, Chinese films making an impact at the US box office. Whether or not it’s down to experience is an interesting question, and leads to the other question as to whether or not China has really been trying to make films which are designed for success both domestically and in the US,” he said.
“It’d be interesting to see which big budget Chinese commercial films of the last few years had been produced with one eye on the western market,” Mudge said.
He added that it’s only fairly recently that Chinese studios have started really trying to emulate Hollywood style films for local audiences, in particular in the action and romantic comedy genres.
“It’s fair to say that quite a few of these are pretty much just straightforward copies. While in that regard, yes, there might be seen a lack of experience, it’s also true that a lot of genre films in the US don’t find success at home or abroad either,” he noted.
When asked whether culture differences is one of the factors that prevents China from making films possible of becoming hits outside of the country, Mudge agreed that it is partially true.
“If you look at the subject matter of some of the recent Chinese blockbusters, they’re stories and themes which might not mean much to audiences in the US – “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”, “Aftershock” or “The Founding of a Republic” for example, all huge hits, all based on very specific local material,” he explained.
Mudge said that with films in general too there are other cultural factors which might have an effect, like the use of “western villains, or the flag waving nationalism” seen in many Mainland productions.
“Chinese comedies naturally have a more local sense of humour and rely upon local language gags or pop culture references which will likely be lost on viewers from other countries,” he said.
Arguably, the biggest factor, according to Mudge, is that the films are shot in the Chinese language and screened with subtitles.
“This sadly means that a very significant proportion of US (or western in general) viewers will stay away, and that films will be considered art house or simply as ‘foreign’, whether they be commercially minded or not,” he said. “With dubbing not being looked on favourably either, this really is quite a problem, and one without an easy answer.”
Speaking of some specific things that Chinese film executives, directors and writers should take into consideration for making films more appealing to international audiences, Mudge believes this would be difficult to accomplish.
“The very fact of cultural differences might potentially be part of the appeal for some western audiences – the lure of the exotic. It’s not as straightforward as trying to make Hollywood style films, as, even putting the language issue aside, this in itself wouldn’t guarantee international appeal and success,” he said.
He noted that probably the most important things to consider would be not to try and blindly copy popular hits, and to try and learn from films which are critically as well as commercially successful.
Another thing that Mudge believes is a big factor is lack of local star power, as compared to the stars of Hollywood.
“A lack of stars recognisable to western audiences is definitely a big factor, as Hollywood films are very dependent on big name casts – partly this ties into the cultural and language barriers, as films starring foreign faces are always going to be seen as foreign or art house, and therefore not of mass appeal,” Mudge said.
He also said that this is not something that can be hidden by marketing.
“I’ve been to films in mainstream cinemas where people have walked out as soon as they realised that there are subtitles,” Mudge said.
“It’s about finding a balance between celebrating what might be appealing about a film being Chinese, and at the same time tapping into that elusive sense of universality – it’s certainly not easy trying to define exactly what would make a film a local box office hit, let alone universally popular,” he added.
It should be noted that previously speaking to BZFilm, Mudge said that today, Hollywood doesn’t have a bigger market than China.
After the reform of the Chinese film industry in 2002, sales of movie tickets have soared rapidly for 9 consecutive years.
China’s local movies have been doing fairly good at home. According to THR, ticket sales have been rising by 35 percent, annually. Also, China’s domestic box office has recently tilted toward Chinese films rather than foreign imports.
Such growth put China behind the United States, as the second biggest box office market in the world, and now China is on its way to take the top spot by 2020.
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