What the $50 Million Success of 'Capernaum' in China Means for Arab Cinema

Capernaum-Publicity Still-H 2019
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

With Nadine Labaki's Oscar-nominated drama smashing all records for Arab films thanks to the Middle Kingdom, regional producers are already getting calls from Chinese distributors looking to emulate its success.

While there may have been a disappointing turnout for Arab films at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where few major Middle East features screened across the major competitions, there was some reason for the region’s cinema industry to celebrate.

Not only was Nadine Labaki the head of the Un Certain Regard jury, but the Lebanese director’s attendance on the Croisette coincided with her latest film, the Oscar-nominated drama Capernaum (which won the Jury Prize in 2018’s Cannes) becoming — by some stretch — the most successful Arab title of all time.

The reason: China.

After opening April 29, the hard-hitting drama, set amid Beirut’s underclass and following a destitute 12-year-old boy who runs away from his abusive family, became a certifiable breakout sensation in the Middle Kingdom.

Despite a largely uninspiring domestic box office of $1.6 million in a limited release from Sony Pictures Classics and disappointing hauls from other notable markets ($635,000 in France, $184,000 in the U.K.), something remarkable happened in China. Following an outstanding opening weekend of $12.5 million, the film, buoyed by a clever marketing strategy by Road Pictures, simply refused to dip. By the time Labaki touched down in Cannes, it was approaching $40 million and, a month on, it now sits at almost $54 million, higher than Shazam!, Dumbo and — currently — Aladdin.

Capernaum’s astonishing figures have smashed all records for Arab films. They far outstrip the $14 million amassed globally by Labaki’s first feature, 2007’s Caramel (which was the previous biggest Arab hit), the $6 million earned by Saudi director Haifaa Al Mansour’s acclaimed debut Wadjda in 2013, and Hany Abu Assad’s 2005 Oscar nominee Paradise Now ($4 million).

The stats not only underline the growing appeal of international art house cinema in China, but also showcase the phenomenal potential for Arab films — which have traditionally struggled to find a significant oversees audience — in this growing and sometimes unpredictable market.

“Distributors in China will definitely be looking more at what comes out of our region,” says Mohamed Hefzy, the Egyptian producer behind titles including Cannes-bowing Clash and Yomeddine, and also the director of the Cairo Film Festival. In the past few weeks alone, Hefzy says that several Chinese distributors have been in touch, asking about some of his films and if he “had sold the rights in China or not.”

Most Middle East execs admit that Capernaum’s Chinese success is likely to be, at least for now, an “exception,” the culmination of a number of extraordinary factors, not least Road Pictures’ handling of the film, but the star power of Labaki, impressive reviews and the prestige and exposure following its Oscar nomination. Then there’s its somewhat universal story, which may concern the plight of Lebanese street children but could — sadly — be transplanted to any corner of the world.

“This is a film about poverty and what it means to be a social outcast, subjects that are very relevant and global,” says Hefzy.

But that doesn’t mean other Arab films can’t aspire to achieving the same.

“I think it’s a very important direction,” says Alaa Karkouti of regional distributor and producer Mad Solutions. “Up until now we only had exceptions, like Caramel, Where Do We Go Now [Labaki’s second feature], Wadjda, Paradise Now and Omar [Abu-Assad’s Oscar-nominated 2013 feature]. But now there’s definitely the space for success internationally, it just depends on the stories, the target audience and how you market it, the buzz.”

Karkouti says that, while it’s the recognizable Arabic directors who are the main audience drivers overseas, one of the most important factors for Arab film internationally is who’s backing the film, suggesting that it was the work by Sony Pictures Classics that helped turn Capernaum into a talking point before it headed East.

There is one curious suggestion for Capernaum’s $50 million-plus Chinese haul that the filmmakers are unlikely to have ever anticipated.

“Someone told me a theory they had heard, that the reason Capernuam worked so well was that people thought it was Indian,” says Hefzy. Bollywood has, of course, become a massive box office draw in China, now its biggest market outside India (Bollywood drama Dangal collected a runaway $191 million in 2017).

The idea of Chinese audiences confusing Lebanon with India is, while interesting, one many might find difficult to accept (Hefzy says he has “trouble absorbing” the concept), and not something Middle East filmmakers are likely to take into account for future projects.

“There are lots of interesting subjects coming out of the Arab world,” says Hefzy.

One upcoming title that Chinese distributors might want to take note of is another from one of the region’s big hitters, Al Mansour, whose feature The Perfect Candidate — her first Arabic film since Wadjda — could look to emulate Capernaum’s success.

With a fairly universal story — about a young female physician who maneuvers through her male-dominated society to run in local elections — and a well-established director at the helm, The Perfect Candidate could, with enough critical acclaim and the right marketing, end up being the perfect candidate to follow Labaki’s record-breaking smash hit.