Starring Christian Bale, the most expensive movie ever made in China is a tough sell to U.S. audiences
"The Flowers of War," a dark and violent Chinese-language movie about the Rape of Nanking that cost more than $90 million to produce, grossed an anemic $48,558 in 30 U.S. locations last weekend. Its per-location average: A mere $1,619.
"The Flowers of War" belly flop — and the problems it has faced on the way to the U.S. market — underscores the challenges Chinese movies can face in America.
When it comes to attracting Stateside audiences, some Chinese movies, no matter how lavishly produced, get lost in translation.
Set in China during the 1930s, "The Flowers of War" revolves around a mortician (Bale) who protects convent girls and prostitutes from the invading Japanese army.
It has grossed nearly $100 million in China, making it one of the highest-grossing films in the country's history.
That might sound impressive, but producer and China film-industry expert Rob Cain called it underwhelming for a movie with a production budget of that size. His company, Pacific Bridge Pictures, estimates the movie's China gross at $95 million, a few million short of "Aftershock."
"They're going to need the picture to do $200 million in China to recoup that in China, and there's no way they're going to get that, so they need it to be a real international hit," he said.
"As long as the distribution work is done well, you can always make the money back in China," he told TheWrap through a translator. "China will be the largest market besides the U.S. in the next five years, so for me, I have the confidence to know that the market is going to be in play for my movie."
Jay Cohen, who is putting together a film finance fund with basketball star Yao Ming points out that the Chinese market is different than Hollywood, where the focus is firmly fixed on the bottom line.
"They make movies for specific reasons," Cohen, head of independent film for Gersh, told TheWrap. "Sometimes, it's to introduce the culture of China to other markets, sometimes for cultural history. No one is going to lose money, but sometimes they do it for a sense of cultural pride."
The U.S. rollout for "Flowers of War" has been marred by false stops and starts, not to mention negative reviews. Domestic distributor Wrekin Hill moved up the movie's U.S. theatrical release date from early March to last Friday, in the second U.S. date change for the film, which was China's Oscar entry for foreign language film and was a Golden Globe nominee.
Heading into last weekend's 30-theater release, Wrekin Hill President and CEO Chris Ball insisted to TheWrap that date change had less to do with box office and Oscar prospects, but more about demand for the film.
"It's absolutely nothing to do with the Academy or otherwise, it's just that we have a film people want to see," he said. As announced earlier this week, the film did not receive a nomination.
But Ball did concede that the company had Oscar ambitions.
He said Wrekin Hill originally wanted to give "The Flowers of War" a wide release in March "to allow a little more breathing space between the initial release, perhaps get some nominations and go from there after the Christmas rush."
But then "The Flowers of War" grossed $90,000 when it was released in three U.S. cities in December for a qualifying run.
The release-date conundrum was just the latest in a series of hang-ups for "The Flowers of War."
In late November, New Pictures Film requested that the minimum ticket price be raised, prompting Chinese cinema circuits to threaten to boycott the movie. At the order of the film bureau of China's government-controlled State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television, a compromise was eventually reached.
The following month, the Los Angeles Times published an interview with Bale in which the actor said he participated in the film because he wanted to collaborate with Yimou — not that he specifically wanted to work in China.
Bale's promotional efforts backfired when he visited China in December. After attempting to visit activist Chen Guangcheng, who was under house arrest, Bale was roughed up by police and scolded by the Chinese government.
"If anyone should be embarrassed [by the incident], it's the relevant actor, not the Chinese side," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.
The movie faced the obvious challenge of trying to market a movie that features dialogue mostly spoken in Mandarin. The film is 145 minutes long, features a cast of mostly unknown actors and, according to some critics, is a pro-China propaganda film.
New Pictures Film took steps to position the film for success in the U.S. Originally titled "Nanjing Heroes" and "13 Flowers of Nanjing," the film's name was changed in an effort to appeal to U.S. audiences. Also, a substantial portion of the script is in English — 40 percent, according to the filmmakers.
The original Wrekin Hill goal was to expand "The Flowers of War" into theaters located close to Chinese communities, after first trying to appeal to the arthouse crowd.
Anna Chi, a Chinese writer/director who has written scripts for Miramax and John Woo, acknowledged the challenges. Although "Zhang has certain followers who will go see his movie regardless," she said, "for general audiences, I think it might be challenging, because of the length and the subject matter. It's a pretty hard movie to watch — and I actually knew the story."
For his part, Bale did not.
"I had heard of the Rape of Nanking, but I didn't know much about it," he told TheWrap. "I knew Yimou's work, so they sent me the script and asked if I had an interest. And Yimou … came over to visit, and we sat together, and I decided to do it."
Regardless of "Flowers of War's" ultimate take in America, Chinese filmmakers and American companies will continue trying to make crossover films. After all, Cohen notes, there are 1.3 billion people in China.
"And they enjoy movies about Chinese history," he said. "They enjoy looking at how insiders look at Chinese culture."
(Additional reporting by Sharon Waxman, Steve Pond and Brent Lang)