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Connecting with audiences in China

With its more than 60,000 movie screens (growing by the day) and its increasingly wealthy middle class, there is lots of potential for business in the flourishing Chinese market. 

That being said, movie making in China is a tricky business. 

After meeting the censorship requirements, making your movie and securing distribution, there is always the risk that the movie might ultimately not do well at the Chinese box office, for the simple reason that the movie might not speak to a Chinese audience. 

Exhibit A: 

Crazy Rich Asians was a box office success globally, bringing in more than USD230m worldwide. However, it only grossed USD1.5m in China in its opening week. 

Online commentary suggests that the film was not well-received in China because mainland Chinese audiences failed to identify with the film's portrayal of Chinese culture. It was very much Hollywood's take on Chinese culture: the main character, Rachel, was seen as a traitor to her Chinese roots - turning up in Singapore and being unable to speak Mandarin as well as being ignorant of Chinese traditions; many of the characters in the movie spoke Mandarin with foreign accents. 

Exhibit B: 

Green Book, on the other hand, has done very well in China. The film has taken in more than USD30m since it opened. This makes it the highest-earning best picture winner in China after The Titanic

Online commentary suggests it did well because Chinese audiences were able to connect with the characters and their actions. For example, Dr. Shirley, the black musician whom Tony (the chauffeur) is driving, takes time to help Tony with his letters to his wife, suggesting improvements to his metaphors and correcting his spelling. Audiences in China identified with this because the writing of love letters is a long tradition in Chinese culture. 

Exhibit C: 

The Great Wall was a movie co-produced by Chinese and Hollywood studios. It generated USD66m in ticket sales in its opening weekend. Chinese cultural elements such as the Great Wall played a central role in the movie. 

While The Great Wall did reasonably well commercially, online commentary suggests it was also criticised by Chinese moviegoers for being everything from a "strategic cultural export" to "an exercise in China imitating American films". 

It is evident that China is a difficult market to succeed in for entrants to the market who do not have sufficient knowledge and understanding of the culture and Chinese society: 

  • Movies which one might expect would do reasonably well in China (Crazy Rich Asians, Exhibit A) flop; 
  • Movies which one might not expect to resonate with Chinese audiences (Green Book, Exhibit B), do extremely well;
  • Attempts to make movies for both Chinese and international audiences are neither here nor there (The Great Wall, Exhibit C)

At the same time, it is also worth mentioning that of the top ten highest-grossing movies at the Chinese box office in 2018, four were Hollywood productions and the rest were all domestic productions. The top three movies were all made in China. 

It is clear that China and Chinese audiences can survive without Hollywood. But can Hollywood survive without China? The jury is still out on that one. 

In the face of these difficulties, what can you do if you want to crack the Chinese market? 

  • Co-produce your movie together with a local Chinese company. Having a local partner will give you a direct link to the tastes and preferences of Chinese audiences and a better understanding of what Chinese audiences want to watch. 
  • Commission your production rather than making it yourself.  
  • Acquire or invest in a media company in China. 
...I began to wonder if the very qualities that made the film controversial in the US have been key to helping it connect with people on the other side of the world. As the critics point out, it’s a feel-good movie—well-paced, funny at times, and touching as the characters open their hearts to each other. “The story-telling is simple yet touching,” one user wrote on Douban (link in Chinese). “The journey connects people of different skin colors, classes, and cultural backgrounds together. They had stereotypes, but they made peace at last. We choose to believe a story of this kind because we hope people can achieve kindness, understanding, and equality.” Another fan on Douban wrote: “It’s a good combination to put a white man from the society’s bottom and a black man from the top. It’s no longer a simple, black-and-white concept and a superficial politically correct discussion.”


film, dlapiper, filminchina, china, mse