Chinese films have been losing the plot in terms of revenue overseas despite box office success at home, industry specialists say.
China’s box office receipts this year hit 15 billion yuan ($2.4 billion) by September, while revenue for last year was 17 billion yuan, said Luan Guozhi, vice-president of the State Film Bureau.
Luan was addressing a keynote forum at the 17th Beijing Screenings, an event to enhance cooperation and understanding between Chinese and international filmmakers.
He said he expected box office returns for 2013 to reach 20 billion yuan.
But Chinese films were not so well received internationally, he added.
In a good year they grossed about 3 billion yuan overseas, but normally it was around 1 billion yuan, less than domestic receipts for some films.
According to a report by Beijing Normal University, 59 Chinese films were released overseas in 2012, a 13 percent increase from 2011.
But receipts, including box office and copyright sales, were only 1.06 billion yuan, about half of the 2011 gross.
The report also found that fewer than 10 percent of the 500 films produced in China last year were distributed overseas.
No Chinese film had overseas revenue of more than 100 million yuan in 2012.
"Many Chinese films do not deliver universal values, and suffer from loose structure and childish logic," Luan said.
Stanley Rosen, director of the East Asian Studies Center at USC’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, said that neither Chinese language nor other foreign language films, with very rare exceptions, made inroads in the North American market, even if they had Hollywood stars.
For example, Zhang Yimou cast Christian Bale in The Flowers of War in 2011 and Feng Xiaogang Adrien Brody in Back to 1942, but neither film was well received at the North American box office.
The cultural difference is the most important reason for the poor performance of Chinese films, Rosen said.
"Chinese period epics are unfamiliar to Western audiences: the drama, romance and comedy of a developing country isn’t always relevant to the world," he added.
Jiang Yanming, president of China Lion, which has distributed 30 Chinese films in North America, stressed the difficulty of overcoming the language barrier.
"North American audiences are not used to reading subtitles. This is also the reason why action films are still the most popular genre of Chinese films overseas," he said.
Some Chinese filmmakers have been exploring better ways to approach their international audiences.
Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai made The Grandmaster, the story of Bruce Lee’s mentor Ip Man, 22 minutes shorter when releasing it in the United States in August. He added inter-titles to explain Chinese history and onscreen identification of characters.
The film was heavily promoted, with front-page reviews and full and half-page advertisements over several days in the New York Times.
Wong and the film were written about extensively in the Los Angeles Times and movie legends Martin Scorsese and Jack Nicholson endorsed the film.
It has grossed $3.6 million, a very decent income for a Chinese film in the US. But this paled in comparison to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. Both grossed more than $50 million.
Rosen suggested Chinese filmmakers should not worry about soft power through films at present.
Jiang remains optimistic.
He has been developing a script based on an incident in San Francisco in the 1980s, when a Chinese noodle shop and an Italian pasta restaurant went head-to-head.
His company lost $4 million in the first two years distributing Chinese films in North America. But he is unbowed.
"It needs time to find a good story that audiences identify with," he said.
His optimism stems from the fact that he believes talent and expertise will win through in the end and besides, the industry is about happy endings.