Soul-Searching in China Over Weak Movie Sales Abroad

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy of Everett Collection
"Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is still by far the highest-grossing Chinese film of all-time overseas.

While the Chinese local box office continues to boom, international sales for the country's films are at their lowest level in nearly a decade.

China's domestic film business may be booming but its movies are not doing well overseas, prompting a bout of soul-searching over why homegrown films fail to draw audiences or kudos abroad.

A report on Chinese film exports in 2012 by the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture (AICCC) at Beijing Normal University, found that 75 of the country's total 893 domestically produced films over the past year were exported to more than 80 countries.

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But while China's domestic box office in 2012 was a hefty $2.8 billion, overseas earnings were just 1.1 billion yuan ($180 million), down nearly 50 percent on the $330 million clocked up in 2011.

"The dissemination of Chinese films overseas in 2012 saw few highlights, and it's worrisome," said Huang Huilin, director of the AICCC, to Chinese media outlet Global Times.

Overseas box office revenues fell 43 percent between 2010 and 2011, then the lowest level since 2005.

The article bemoans the disappointing reception for some of China's big domestic hits, such as Lost in Thailand, which scored a record $210 million at the Chinese box office in 2012, but earned only $60,000 in North America.

The bigger picture is that last year over 15 Chinese films screened in North America, eight of which brought in an average of $100,000, with Love and Back to 1942 topping the list with under $300,000.

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The most commercially successful Chinese film overseas is still Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with $128 million in box-office receipts from the North American region alone. Of those films that do reasonably well overseas, kung fu genre movies rule.

"For foreign audiences, kung fu is magical, but above all, they don't need to read subtitles to understand the film, which is a very important factor given the current quality of translations," Huang said.

Meanwhile, the People's Daily ran a similarly downbeat reading of China's domestic TV industry, saying that imported formats are doing very well here, but there are signs that this could hit the homegrown TV industry's motivation and capability for innovation.

The biggest hit at the moment is the reality TV program Dad, Where Are We Going?, which is a Korean format, and various experts bemoaned the ability to produce a similar success at home.