Why Foreign-Language Movies Are Thriving in China

Secret Superstar Still 1 -Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Aanna Films

Recent releases from India, Thailand and Europe have struck gold in the Middle Kingdom.

North America remains the world’s largest box-office territory, but for foreign-language films produced outside of Hollywood, China can already offer vastly more market potential for the right lucky title.

The highest-earning foreign-language release in North America last year was Bollywood epic Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, which brought in a substantial $20.2 million. That, however, was just a fraction of the $193 million earned by Indian sports drama Dangal at the Chinese box office in 2017. 

Produced by and starring Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, Dangal struck a surprising chord with the Chinese audience, smashing every local record for an imported non-Hollywood film. Khan was quick to repeat the feat with his follow-up, Secret Superstar. Another family drama — this time about a rural Indian girl who dreams of becoming a singer — Superstar has taken in $118 million since Jan. 19, making it the biggest imported film of the year in China, thus far beating top Hollywood titles Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($77.9 million) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($42.6 million). 

And it’s not just Bollywood finding a foothold at the Chinese multiplex. Thailand’s Bad Genius, a thriller about a high school girl who devises a scheme to cheat on exams, totaled $41 million last year, while Spanish thriller Contratiempo earned $26 million. 

“There’s a growing demand for diversity in the market in terms of genres, stories and styles,” says James Li, co-founder of Beijing-based film industry market research firm Fanink. “The Chinese audience has grown up watching about half of their movies subtitled or dubbed — thanks to Hollywood — so there is potential here for foreign-language films that never existed in North America.” 

Chinese buyers have responded on cue. At the Hong Kong Filmart, Asian and European genre fare with China-friendly themes is expected to be the subject of keen interest and occasional bidding wars. 

The increased box-office potential has already created an opportunity for movies that traditionally would have had zero theatrical prospects outside their home country. Chinese theatrical rights to Spanish basketball film Champions were scooped up at Berlin’s recent European Film Market by Beijing-based Joy Pictures. China’s Bona Film Group, meanwhile, picked up forthcoming Belgian animation film The Queen’s Corgi in a low-seven-figure deal in Berlin.

“Movies like Dangal showed us that certain special cases can do really, really well,” says Li. “The next step is for this to become a sustainable business model for more than just the lucky few.”

This story first appeared in the March 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.