China Film Business Struggles With Asia Collaborations Despite Box Office Boom

Money may flow across borders, but crossover movies are hard to come by

Flying Sword of Dragon Gate

While the explosive growth of China’s film industry — its box office hit $3.57 billion in 2013 — is attracting the attention of its Asian neighbors, challenges including censorship, as well as cultural and social mores, have so far prevented a unified Asian market. For films that can play well on the mainland, that’s not necessarily a great problem, but filmmakers with pics made for regional auds are finding that they are unable to achieve scale.

“China is like a big magnet due to its size and potential for richness,” says Albert Lee, CEO of EMP, a Hong Kong-based group that has long worked in Chinese film finance.

There are certainly directors and producers from Hong Kong and Taiwan who have benefited from increasing their activities in China — notably H.K. filmmakers Tsui Hark and Gordon Chan, and Taiwan’s Leste Chen, whose comedy “Say Yes” — distributed via China Film — minted more than $31 million on the mainland. Hong Kong mainstays like Peter Chan and Johnnie To are making movies with mainland auds in mind.

For Chinese filmmakers such as Xu Zheng (“Lost in Thailand”), Guo Jingming (“Tiny Times”) and Vicki Zhao (“So Young”), success at home keeps turnstiles clicking. But those films barely register with audiences even in nearby territories like Hong Kong, where cultures demonstrate a different sense of humor. Blockbusters from China’s top name directors, such as Feng Xiaogang, rarely make a ripple at the Hong Kong B.O.

For filmmakers outside the mainland whose pics play more regionally, the situation is more economically constricting.

Taiwan maintains a 10-per-year quota on the number of films that can be imported from China, even though Taiwanese films can be more freely imported into the mainland. Increasingly, successes such as 2011 teen romance “You Are the Apple of My Eye” are the exception rather than the rule. “Apple” was snipped by Chinese censors, but it still mustered some $8.2 million, making it the top Taiwanese film on the mainland that year. Still, it was dwarfed by Hong Kong-China co-productions “Flowers of War” ($100 million-plus) and “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” ($70 million-plus).

Yet  “Apple” was a full-blown hit in Hong Kong ($7.9 million), and it did well in Singapore ($2.3 million), which has a large Chinese-speaking population.

While Singapore has enjoyed strong B.O. performance from local commercial fare like Jack Neo’s comedy “Ah Boys to Men” and its sequel, and Anthony Chen’s arthouse hit “Ilo Ilo,” there is no sign that such films are connecting with mainland Chinese auds.

In addition, the influence of Chinese regulators remains an issue. While censors clearly discourage certain subject matter (in particular drugs, sex, religion), some formerly taboo themes now regularly appear on Chinese screens if filmmakers are careful to include the right explanations (“it was all just a dream”) or comeuppances for wrongdoers.

But even that amount of censorship is enough to create differences in movies that become turnoffs for filmgoers outside the mainland. “We meet many filmmakers and producers who are keen to make movies for all the three markets (China, Hong Kong and Taiwan),” says Shan Dongbing, production exec at LeVision Pictures, a mainland shingle. “But the audience would not accept them.”

Still, there are signs censorship is easing. Two of this year’s Berlin fest selections are cases in point. Lou Ye was previously a banned director, and while his competition film “Blind Massage” deals with sensitive topics including mining accidents and illegal money transactions, it was made as an official Chinese film. Ning Hao’s “No Man’s Land” questions the morals of those who worship money and power —  but after being kept on the shelf for three years, it was in December to respectable B.O., grossing $23 million in its first week in December.

Still, most industryites agree that for now, money and talent can transcend Greater China’s internal borders more easily than the stories themselves.