When “Monster Hunt,” the No. 1 Chinese box-office hit of all time, debuts in 44 U.S. theaters on Friday, it won’t include a scene in which puppies are offered for sale in an open-air meat market.
“We didn’t think parents here would really appreciate that,” FilmRise V.P. Bob Jason told TheWrap. So the distributor excised that scene when it created an English-dubbed version that will be released in the U.S. and Canada, along with the original Mandarin version.
Getting North American moviegoers past cultural idiosyncrasies is just one of several obstacles faced by Chinese films in the U.S., and this weekend’s debut of “Monster Hunt” brings them into sharp focus.
Beijing’s movies play mainly to a niche Chinese-American audience in North America. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which grossed $128 million in the U.S., has been the only real box-office breakout of a movie from that country — and that was 15 years ago. Sony gave “Wolf Totem,” a well-reviewed film that was a hit in China, a short run in September and it made just $210,591.
The Chinese film industry has made significant strides, and in 2015 seven of the top 10 box office earners in China were homegrown, led by “Monster Hunt” with $385 million. Lighthearted comedies “Lost in Hong Kong” and “Goodbye Mr. Loser” racked up huge numbers.
And while “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opened at No. 1 to $52 million in China on Jan. 9, it was knocked out of the top spot after just a week by the Chinese animated film “Boonie Bears 3,” despite a massive marketing effort by Disney.
Still there’s no question that Hollywood has dominated both the global and Chinese box offices in the last decade. Universal’s “Furious 7” took in $391 million there last year, topping its U.S. haul and overtaking “Transformers: Age of Extinction” to become Hollywood’s top-grossing film ever in China.
“There’s no question that American movies are the gold standard when it comes to major, blockbuster-type releases that are filled with action and effects,” Elliot Tong, who heads the Beijing office of Arclight Films, told TheWrap. “Where the Chinese have excelled, and what is driving much of the current growth for their industry, are comedies and family films that center on aspects of Chinese culture and lore.”
But what has driven the success of Chinese hits at home — essentially counter-programming the U.S. blockbusters — makes them a tougher sell in the U.S. and abroad.
The nuance and subtleties of Chinese road comedies and family tales tend to be lost on American audiences.
That’s a major obstacle for “Monster Hunt,” a sci-fi fantasy directed by Raman Hui (“Shrek the Third”). It is set in an ancient time when humans and monsters lived in separate kingdoms.
When a child born to a human father and a monster mother is hunted by both species, a civil war erupts. The story is loosely based on “Shan Hai Jing” (Classic of Mountains and Seas), a well-known but dusty Chinese literary classic to which American audiences will be oblivious.
The film’s myth may not resonate in the U.S., but the simple message — see the world through others’ eyes to foster understanding — is delivered in an artful mix of CGI, special effects and live action. And who isn’t going to love the Monster Queen’s Baby, a key character who looks like a cross between an elf and the Pillsbury dough boy?
FilmRise is doing all it can to make “Monster Hunt” accessible to North American audiences, said Jason, who admits his company acquired the North American rights in September based on “a gut feeling.”
“We thought some of the scenes might take audiences here aback or confuse them, so they were cut in the dubbing process. That’s actually streamlined the story and we’re very happy with the English version.”
“Monster Hunt” will have a PG rating in Canada, but will be unrated in the U.S. because of the time constraints involved with getting it into theaters before next weekend’s Chinese New Year.
The plan is to hit major cities with significant Chinese populations like L.A., San Francisco and New York this weekend, point for roughly 120 theaters the following weekend and then to reassess the rollout. The release has drawn articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, so the awareness is solid. The reviews of the English-language version have been mixed-to-good, and it is at 60 percent positive on Rotten Tomatoes.
Its social media profile here isn’t much, but it’s huge on Weibo, the equivalent of Twitter in China. One of the film’s actors, Jiang Wu, has 160 million followers, and that should help with wired Chinese audiences here. In marketing the film to the mainstream, FilmRise has focused on the spectacle in its campaign for the mainstream with the tagline, “You’ve seen it on your iPhone, now see it in 3D on the big screen.”
FilmRise executives are happy with their efforts but know they’re facing an uphill battle. Asked how he expected “Monster Hunt” to do this weekend, Jason said “I haven’t got a clue.”