Despite heavy investment in recent years and regular, heavily promoted pushes to boost visibility outside of mainland China, the Chinese film industry continues to struggle to gain a foothold on the world stage, according to a new survey by the Academy for International Communications of Chinese Culture (AICCC).
Although kung-fu movies continue to do relatively well among audiences outside of China, the market remains largely pigeonholed, with Chinese actors and directors remaining largely unknown world-wide. Despite massive growth in box office takings within China—the Chinese box office reached nearly $5 billion last year—the survey finds that the “traditional way of doing things” in China doesn’t translate to global appeal (and few international viewers choose to see Chinese films at the theaters, watching them primarily via streaming).
As Huang Huilin, the director of AICCC, told Xinhua this week:
The focus [of this year’s survey] is on how overseas viewers are exposed to Chinese films. What we’ve found is that people tend to watch Chinese films through free channels instead of going to theaters. Most of the participants watch Chinese films online. The Internet offers fertile and challenging ground for Chinese filmmakers to exploit. And also kung fu and comedy are still the most popular types of Chinese films among overseas viewers.
The report—like many before it—refers to the success of the 2003 film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, arguably the only mainland Chinese film export to ever perform well in the U.S. market, noting the film’s relatively “un-challenging” nature struck a chord overseas. Overall, the survey foresees a continued challenging road ahead for Chinese films, directors, and actors to make it big abroad. However, this hasn’t been the case for a handful of Chinese actors who have recently appeared in big-budget Hollywood films aimed at global audiences, among them Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Li Bingbing (Transformers: Age of Extinction), and Tang Wei (Blackhat).
One area in which the AICCC survey sees potential for Chinese productions to do well on the global level—or at least for Chinese “elements” to draw in new fans, is television or online streaming. As AICCC deputy director Luo Jun told Xinhua, “We’ve noticed that more and more Chinese elements have been shown in American drama, whether is a character or a storyline or a place, like Marco Polo…For me it’s a westernized narrative of Chinese culture. It’s like Chinese food in America, it’s not just Chinese food, it’s their interpretation and imagination about Chinese culture.”
Whether shows like Marco Polo and Empresses in Palace (a Chinese soap opera currently streaming on Netflix in the United States) might pave the way for greater interest in Chinese productions is up for debate. With productions still constrained by strict censorship in China and virtually always aimed at domestic audiences, the content, production style, and writing may continue to only appeal to audiences in China or die-hard Sinophiles, nipping China’s global film ambitions in the bud.