Why Chinese Films are Struggling to Go Global

The 2019 hit Chinese animation Nezha (source: Douban)

Looking afar from a pearl white, shell-shaped bridge, the huge sign of “Oriental Movie Metropolis” seemed blurry with water vapor the wind had carried from the South China sea. It reminded people of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, California. Several years ago, this part of Qingdao, the beautiful seaside city of China, is still characterized by black reefs, seaside villages and vast corn fields. Now, the city is on its way to becoming one of the most advanced movie production bases in China, with hit sci-fi films like The Wandering Earth using Qingdao as their main base for shooting. The 1500 square meter film studio, where the protagonist flew around and saved the mother planet, is equipped with an industrial sound proof effect of NR25.

Oriental Movie Metropolis in Qingdao

At the end of August, during the launch event of project pitch of the 2019 Qingdao International Film and Television Expo, discussions ranging from previous successful projects to granting more support to young filmmakers took place. According to the initiator of the event, the film and television industrial zone in Lingshan Bay of Qingdao has already invested over 80 billion yuan in building China’s own Hollywood.

Apart from the continuous inflow of capital, Chinese film makers still have a long way to go to truly shine on the international stage. Below are thoughts and comments from various established directors, filmmakers and Hollywood producers.

Representing the National Aesthetic

“Korea has its own historical films, the warring histories, why are those considered good? Why are Chinese anti-Japanese TV series deemed as ridiculous?”

According to Gao Qunshu, known for his 2009 espionage thriller film The Message, film making should be a holistic representation of a national style whether choosing channels of mass entertainment or arthouse, rather than a segmented expression of political ideas.

“Film production is a business that requires profit. We need money and investment to build an imaginary world from ground zero. Films need to make money. However, it is so much more than a business. From America to Europe, to Japan and Korea, the films in a certain country always reflect their cultural systems, the spine of the nation,” Gao said.

“Films shall represent the aesthetics and characters of the nation. It is a representation of the country’s history and culture to future generations and to the world, both good and bad. If it’s purely for money-making, it would be no different to businesses that wash feet. With better techniques of story-telling and industrial production, we are able to express the beauty of the people and the land,” Gao stated during the event.

Another renowned filmmaker Teng Huatao, director of Shanghai Fortress, a controversial futuristic romance film, expressed his concerns for future investment in film production. He served as one of the judges of the project pitch of both Beijing and Shanghai film festivals. According to him, among all the projects, 80 to 90% of them remain commercial films, which indeed comes as a slight disappointment. “For the project pitch, we should encourage more independent films with their own unique thoughts,” he said. For instance, projects like Mountain Cry should be granted more support.

More Diverse Themes Rather Than Just Classical Chinese Stories

With Nezha, the 2019 Chinese fantasy animation, surpassing the box office of The Wandering Earth, some might say that the next breakthrough for Chinese film industry lies in animation. Among all the Hollywood films garnering top box office results, around 30% of them are animated films. In recent years we have been witnessing the prosperity of Chinese animation. In 2009, the cartoon Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf targeting preschool kids became the first animation that achieved box office results of over 150 million, with even better cost performance than Kungfu Panda. In 2015, Monkey King: Hero is Back became an epic work of its kind, successfully winning the appreciation of foreign audiences with the well known character of Monkey King from ancient Chinese classics Journey to the West. Jiang Hui, the producer of the Monkey King film witnessed the changes of Chinese animation industry throughout his decade of career as producer.

Nezha (source: Douban)

Jiang also mentioned the bottlenecks in this respect, one of them being technology. “Considering technologies in animation making, we also need to learn from enterprises like Huawei. In addition to content development, we need to put more effort into research and development. That’s why I hope that we could add some tech related awards in the entire creation process, because animated films really require strong technical support.

Chinese history and mythology remain the inexhaustible source for film production. That said, more diversity should be added to the genres of Chinese animated films. After Nezha‘s release in North America, comments on western social media proved that Chinese mythological background and translation still creates barriers.

“After watching Nezha, I was thrilled the whole day. I realized how a sound production process plays the positive part in leading the content and guarantees its reaching a certain level,” Jiang said, “However I have another concern. It might actually affect the width and range of our content. After Nezha, a whole bunch of films on Chinese classic mythologies will come around. And some realistic or even futuristic content might be removed. Therefore, in terms of content diversity, it is essential to explore the content that is more relevant to the modern ages, and enables young people to grow and gain something.”

Rewriting the Script for Broader Audiences

Also presented at the pitch event was John Lee, the producer of the well-known Oscar-winning Chinese film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. He was also referred to as a “Production Guru” by Hollywood Reporter. At the very beginning of his presentation, he points out that for the two highest grossing films in Chinese history — Wolf Warrior II and The Wandering Earth, both films could have quadrupled their profit if the producers have paid more attention to overseas distribution.

Wolf Warrior 2

Crowning the list, Wolf Warrior II grossed a box office record of 5.67 billion yuan with The Wandering Earth following closely behind. However for both films, domestic earnings account for 98% of its total global performance. Apart from overseas distribution, another thing that stops them from being globally recognized could be the patriotic storyline. Despite the Hollywood facade, both films have underlying Chinese ideologies.

“The only reason is that, they were making it without letting anybody else around the planet know. They didn’t go to all the distributors,” John Lee commented during the interview. “When we make a film, all of them are global. We would never make a film without talking to people in China. When we write the script, we pay attention to what doesn’t click with audiences in China. This is too culturally specific. When we are shooting the movies, we shoot several scenes that are just for Chinese market. Same for France, Japan, the top ten markets. We want our audiences to be happy, to have seen the film and really feel like that we made it just for them. That’s what’s missing in those two examples, the Wolf Warrior and The Wandering Earth.”

However, that doesn’t mean all Chinese genres are not necessarily appreciated. The Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon is strong proof that wuxia subculture could also be adapted for foreign audiences. “Initially it was an arthouse project. We only spent like 17 million. It’s a really low budget. But we had a sense that audiences around the world would be so enthralled by the stories of China and how production is done here. Flying is a new thing too. No matter what country you are in, we fly in our dreams. We had never seen that before. It’s great story telling,” John said.

the flying scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (source: Douban)

John also shared his ideas about the seven key operating principles employed by the most successful global production companies, among which separate development and funding is the number one golden rule. In short, nothing happens before the script is completed.

Do you know how many drafts some Chinese motion pictures have?Only about six. It’s like making a stew, you put the onions in, the carrots in, and it’s pretty good. But we want to put all kinds of really good things there to savor it,” John explained, “So it isn’t the stories’ fault. It’s just that the story hasn’t been developed to where it’s thick enough and rich enough. Every word, every movement, every action deserves an audience. If you don’t have at least forty to fifty drafts to your script, it’s probably not there yet. It just takes time. Script work is hard, and people are pushing you in the production. Look, I’m ready to go. Crew is ready, locations are ready, come on. When’s the script gonna be ready? That’s why finance should be separated from the process of production.”

Jonh Lee at the project pitch event

“It’s just like those Fast and Furious films, they are written with depth. They might just look like crash boom bang on the screen, but actually they go through lots of drafts to make sure that they know it’s sacrifice between these people. If somebody is in trouble or in jeopardy, they have to run into the jaws of hell in order to rescue them. It’s about either saving my friend or die trying. Because I know he would do that for me. And when the audience hears that, they feel it and realize that it’s really serious. There is nothing more powerful than that. That’s what it’s about. It’s about relationships, how much we love each other and care for each other. But it needs to be in a story form. That’s what makes motion pictures really powerful. No matter what the story is, superhero films, they are all about that. In that way, Marvel’s Captain Marvel film is actually very poorly written.”