And you thought it was just North America. Or Europe. Nope, turns out that, even in other parts of Asia, Chinese-language films face huge barriers to wider exhibition.
On the first day of Hong Kong Filmart 2013, a conference was held on "The Selling and Branding of Chinese-language Films Internationally." Moderated by Patrick Frater of Film Business Asia, the panelists acknowledged the multitude of challenges.
For Doris Pfardescher of Well Go USA, as much as they might like to distribute films outside the comfort zone of North Americans, it simply doesn't pay -- or at least not in terms of finding an audience anywhere near the size of the audiences attracted by martial arts and action movies. "We know what we want," she said, as the company continues to focus on the widest target demographic possible, selling their releases through major U.S. retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy. That doesn't mean they don't want to buy the comedies that are so popular in Mainland China, but the reality is that the cultural references and linguistic-specific humor doesn't translate very well.
Korean releases actually do better in North America than Chinese films -- at least the ones that haven't shown up on Korean television yet. Once that happens, the market drops dramatically, since so many overseas viewers have access to the Korean networks.
Jeffrey Chan of Distribution Workshop said that Chinese producers "need the right mindset" to reach audiences internationally. If not, he won't work with them. "The right mindset" means a willingness to adjust marketing material so that it's not too China-specific, and searching for elements that will appeal more broadly. As to how Chinese censorship affects certain films, especially those with horror themes, Chan said that films that mix genres -- horror with action, say, as with Painted Skin -- prospects for the film increase dramatically. Doris Pfardescher noted that, with such genre-mixing films, they need to highlight the element that's most saleable, and, for the U.S. and Canada, that means martial arts and action. (On a related point, she mentioned that mainland Chinese martial arts films in general sold better than Hong Kong action flicks, unless the film is exceptionally well-made.)
Because of the dearth of horror films coming out of China and Hong Kong, that leaves a gap open that can be filled by other Asian territories, Lim Teck, managing director of Clover Films in Singapore, pointed out. Thailand has long produced a plethora of horror films, and Singapore is contributing a share as well. Clover Films distributes in Singapore and Malaysia, and he said that local films did better than imports; the five or six locally-produced films outgrossed the 15-16 films from China that they distributed in their territory. In part, that's because Chinese stars have priced themselves out of the market. Thus, he concludes that they have to take care of their own markets first.
The conference, well-moderated by Frater, covered all the bases of concern, even to the point of the difficulty of grooming Chinese stars for the international market when the stars themselves feel no particular compunction to share in the promotion of their films outside China and/or Hong Kong. The feeling seems to be that the stars are doing fine, so why put in the extra effort to promote themselves and their films in other parts of Asia, much less the international market?
Much of the ground covered was depressingly familiar to fans of Asian cinema in North America. These are the same things we've been hearing for the past dozen years, at least, which is the period of time that I've been watching and writing about Asian films. When will this ever get through to producers in Asia? Or does it really matter? Asian films don't necessarily need the international market, but it's a shame when it's not even take into consideration by so many. We're not talking about compromising the films -- but, really, it's all about taking what's made and highlighting what's likely to be most appealing to the widest audience possible.