Shooting for the film Paths of the Soul takes place in adverse weather conditions in the vicinity of Mount Gangs Rinpoche in west China's Tibet Autonomous Region in 2015 (FILE)
Zhu Yuqing, a veteran film critic in Beijing, was pleasantly surprised when China's box office revenue in 2017 hit 40 billion yuan ($6.11 billion) as of September 4. The revenue figures reached that level 69 days earlier than last year.
"It's really heartening news after 2016 witnessed the biggest slowdown in China's film market over the past five years," Zhu, founder of Beijing Juyinghui Film Culture Co. Ltd., China's first movie evaluation and target audience investigation service provider, told Beijing Review.
Some believe that the better-than-expected box office success of homegrown films released this summer has facilitated the growth of movie ticket sales in general. "Chinese films have performed quite well at the box office recently," Chen Siqin, assistant research fellow with the Communication University of China (CUC), told Beijing Review.
Military-themed action movie Wolf Warrior II is the biggest money earner. It received $870 million worldwide 47 days after it was shown on July 27. It's also the only non-Hollywood blockbuster to rank in the world's 55 highest-grossing films listed on Boxofficemojo.com. One out of 10 Chinese people, that means 140 million moviegoers, watched the film after its release, making it the most watched film in a single market.
Besides Wolf Warrior II, low-budget niche products like art film Paths of the Soul and documentary Twenty-Two also became dark horses in their genres. Paths of the Soul, which depicts the pilgrimage of Tibetan Buddhists to holy Mount Kangrinboqe, raked in 100 million yuan ($15.28 million), one of the highest grossing art films ever in China. Twenty-Two, which sheds light on the remaining World War II sex slave survivors in China, earned 170.27 million yuan ($26 million), becoming the first Chinese documentary to do so.
"China's 2017 box office is expected to total 55 billion yuan ($8.4 billion), or even be up to 60 billion yuan ($9.16 billion)," Zhu estimated.
Obviously, the recent success of homegrown movies has provided an adrenaline rush to China's film market which recorded its most sluggish year in the past five years in 2016. Figures from the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) show that China's box office revenue in 2016 amounted to 45.71 billion yuan ($6.86 billion), climbing just a meager 3.73 percent year on year, much lower than the 49-percent surge in 2015.
As the first Chinese hit listed in the world's Top 55 grossing films, will Wolf Warrior II be a turning point for China's movies to go global? In fact, in contrast to other hits in the top 55 list whose box office revenues came from diverse regions, 99 percent of Wolf Warrior II's ticket sales was contributed by the Chinese mainland and the rest mainly came from overseas Chinese communities.
China-made movies earned less in the international market than foreign films do in the Chinese market. During 2012-16, Chinese films earned just 10.94 billion yuan ($1.67 billion) overseas, less than one sixth of the revenue generated by imported blockbusters in China.
"Chinese films still have a long way to go to win international audience," said Jiang Wusheng, General Manager of United Entertainment Partners, one of the distributors of Wolf Warrior II, adding that foreigners show little interest in and haven't gotten used to the works of Chinese moviemakers.
What should China's filmmakers do to move into the global market? "International topics, state-of-the-art film production and efficient global promotion are among the prerequisites," said Zhang Miao, General Manager of the film department of Beijing Culture. "First of all, we need to find topics that can be widely accepted by the international audience," Zhang said.
CUC's Chen believes that only a film resonating with a common emotional message can be accepted by most audience. "Wolf Warrior II highlights a salute to the hero, love for the people and a call for peace," Chen said.
The climactic moment in Wolf Warrior II, when the protagonist flying the Chinese flag and leading wounded Chinese nationals and locals forward through the safe passage in an African war zone, resembles Eugène Delacroix's painting, Liberty Leading the People, which commemorated the July Revolution of 1830 in France. "Both images personify the concept of a call for peace," Chen said.
But in Wolf Warrior II director Wu Jing's opinion, what is unique to China may also wow the rest of the world. "We need to figure out a way to project our indigenous culture onto the international screen," he said.
Moreover, a worldwide popular film requires quality production. He complained that many Chinese film practitioners served in several crews at the same time, which led to not only a financial loss to investors but also poor film production. "Filmmakers and performers should be faithful to their original aspiration and devote themselves to the film industry," he said.
Many young underachieving performers have been criticized for asking for exorbitant pay because of their popularity. Wu holds that young actors and actresses should be aware of correct professional ethics, saying "the fine tradition of older generation performers of going through real-life experiences before shooting should be carried on."
Last but not least, efficient global distribution and promotional channels are another requirement for Chinese films to go global. "Film production is a process of resource allocation," Jiang told Beijing Review. How to pool an international team well, in which playwrights, performers, visual-effects staff and marketers work together in a "Hollywood way," is an important thing for Chinese moviemakers to learn.
The lack of international distribution channels is another hurdle ahead. "Most Chinese films reach the international market by selling their overseas distribution rights. None are distributed and promoted directly like the U.S. blockbusters," Jiang said.
In early 2016, with the help of SAPPRFT a global film distribution platform was set up to promote Chinese films worldwide.
"If all the aforementioned prerequisites are achieved, I think Chinese films will soon have a bigger share in the international market," said Beijing Culture's Zhang.
Copyedited by Nicole Bonnah
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