Diao Yinan Berlinale 2014
Richard Huebner (c) Berlinale

HONG KONG – The Golden Bear victory by Chinese thriller “Black Coal, Thin Ice” has sparked new claims that China is growing as a film power. But it may be the case that Chinese box office gold counts for more than festival silverware.

At a news conference on Saturday after “Black Coal” was awarded the top prize in Berlin and its leading man Liao Fan took the Silver Bear for best actor, director Diao Yinan claimed Chinese films are becoming more popular globally.

“Chinese films are getting more and more popular, and it is a fact. We got this feeling when attending the film festivals. The enthusiasm for Chinese films among foreign audiences is beyond what we imagined. Film is a universal language, and everyone here cares about you like your family. It goes beyond national boundaries and races, so as long as you make a good film, they all support you.” Diao said.

Certainly there were three Chinese films in competition in Berlin, but recent data suggests Diao may be wrong to suggest that Chinese films are connecting more with foreign audiences.

Official figures from the State Administration for Press, Publications, Radio, Film and Television showed that overseas admissions to Chinese-made films declined for the second successive year. And that only 45 Chinese films, out of the 638 produced last year were licensed abroad, scoring a combined gross of just $173 million.

However, where China is increasingly weighty is as a component of global box office.

Rentrak’s chart of global box office for the weekend of Feb. 16 has two Chinese films in the top ten and four among its top 25.

Despite opening only in two territories — wide in China, and as a 9-screen specialty outing in North America – “Beijing Love Story” placed fourth on Rentrak’s world ranking with an estimated $25.1 million frame.

Five places behind it is “The Monkey King,” a Hong Kong-China co-production, on its third week of wide release in Asia with a $13 million (estimated) weekend and a $147 million cume. And in 11th place is another Hong Kong-China co-venture “The Man From Macau,” which Rentrak estimates enjoyed a $10 million weekend, for a cume of $67.5 million. (Aging star Chow Yun-fat features in both “Monkey King” and “Macau,” and proves he is still a major box office draw.)

A dozen places lower is “Dad, Where Are We Going,” a derivative of a Chinese reality TV show, which managed $4.5 million and with a four week cume of $95 million looks set to join the elite $100 million club before long – without having been released anywhere outside mainland China.

The China factor also applies to Hollywood and international movies. Right below “Beijing Love Story” in Rentrak’s chart is Disney cartoon “Frozen” which managed $5.85 million on its 12th weekend of U.S. release and $18.2 million overseas. Local data sources show more than $17 million of that total coming from its second weekend in Chinese theaters. After 12 days of play in China, “Frozen” has amassed a $31.7 million cume.

A good performance in China has arguably saved a number of Hollywood movies that might otherwise have been labelled disappointments.

“Pacific Rim” scored $112 million in China, beating its lowly score of $14.5 million in Japan and its good-but-not-great North American total of $102 million. Likewise, “Cloud Atlas,” which had equity finance from companies in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, took a sad $27.1 million in North America, but a soothing $27.7 million in China.

And even when a film does not need rescuing, the effect of adding Chinese elements (“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” grossed $145 million in China, “2012” took $68.7 million, “Gravity” took $70.7 million) can be substantial.

Chinese finance helps too: “Iron Man 3” (an assisted co-production) enjoyed $121 million on release in China, and “Expendables 2” (which had Chinese equity) grossed $53 million in China.

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