China’s exploding box office should hit $6.2 billion this year and is poised to overtake the U.S. movie market before the end of the decade, while Hollywood blockbusters like “Furious 7” make more money behind the Great Wall than at home.
But how long will it be before Chinese movies start beating American movies at the U.S. box office?
The first tests come soon, with Friday’s rollout of the critically acclaimed “Wolf Totem” by Sony Pictures and IMAX and FilmRise’s purchase of North American rights to “Monster Hunt,” the top-grossing Chinese film in history.
For now, frequent China alarmist Donald Trump can rest easy. Neither the animation-live action hybrid “Monster Hunt,” from “Shrek” animator Raman Hui, nor “Wolf Totem,” an adaptation of a controversial Chinese best-seller directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, is expected to make a big box office dent in the U.S.
While U.S. films regularly score big at the Chinese box office, only two films from China — 2000’s “Crouching Tiger: Hidden Dragon” and 2004’s “Hero” — have grossed more than $50 million, and that was more than a decade ago.
But both “Monster Hunt” and “Wolf Totem” should be commercially successful and raise the profile of Chinese imports with American audiences.
“We see potential for ‘Monster Hunt’ to be a mainstream hit,” Max Einhorn, vice president of acquisitions for FilmRise, told TheWrap. “But today, with all the VOD and so many other platforms available, a movie doesn’t have to do great at the box office to catch on and be appreciated.”
FilmRise is planning a theatrical release for “Monster Hunt,” which has taken in more than $370 million so far and is on track to top “Furious 7” as China’s top-grossing film ever. A dubbed English version might be created for U.S. audiences, Eichorn said, while the subtitled original will be offered in markets that have a large number of Chinese speakers.
Though it has taken in $110 million in China, “Wolf Totem” is an unlikely film to be carrying China’s banner. It uses the fate of thinning wolf packs to illustrate the toll of government-driven industrial progress has taken on China’s environment. In addition, Annaud was persona non grata with Beijing officials for years after directing the Brad Pitt drama “Seven Years in Tibet.”
The spectacular sprawling landscapes seen in “Wolf Totem” make it a natural for IMAX, and Sony is augmenting that 100-theater run with special college screenings. AMC Theaters, owned by China’s Wanda Group, is also offering $5 admission for college students.
Despite the push, BoxOffice.com senior analyst Phil Contrino is skeptical that Chinese films will be a force in the U.S. market anytime soon, and China has been more focused on generating domestic hits — which it has done — than exporting blockbusters.
“The production standards, with few exceptions, don’t compare with American films,” he said. “The best shot that Chinese filmmakers have for reaching American audiences is by investing in U.S. companies and through co-productions.”
Still, executives at Sony, IMAX and FilmRise executives said they were driven less by the desire to score hits than forging opportunities for the future.
“More and more, the Chinese and U.S. film industries will be targeting the same audiences,” Einhorn said. “It won’t be about how American movies did in China, or vice versa, but rather whether they can make and market movies that appeal to global audiences.”
Contrino said the Chinese could easily crack the U.S. box office code. “If you put any one of their stars into a comedy with Kevin Hart and released it here, you’d have a hit,” he said.