HONG KONG - The surprise hit in Chinese theaters last year was a low-budget, wacky road-trip comedy that even beat out global blockbuster "Avatar" to become the country's highest-grossing film ever. But "Lost in Thailand" disappeared overseas.
The film that earned 1.26 billion yuan ($200 million) in China earned a paltry $57,000 during its U.S. theatrical release, joining other homegrown hits that have flopped internationally. It is the latest sign that while the country has become a box-office superpower, it faces a harder task fulfilling its leaders' hopes that its studios will be able to rival Hollywood for global influence.
Action-comedy "Let the Bullets Fly," starring Chow Yun-fat, grossed $111 million at home but $63,000 in the United States, while action-fantasy "Painted Skin: The Resurrection," starring Donnie Yen, earned $113 million domestically but $50,400 in the U.S., according to Hollywood.com.
Chinese movies' overseas box office receipts fell 48 percent last year, alarming regulators, who also worried about Hollywood movies taking more than half of ticket revenue, which totaled 17 billion yuan ($2.7 billion), for the first time in nine years. Tong Gang, head of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, urged filmmakers to "better express Chinese images and stories in line with the international film mainstream" and step up their marketing and publicity, according to state media.
China's film industry has been reaching out to Hollywood in search of co-production deals that would help studios make movies that both Chinese and global audiences like. They're hoping to make the next "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a 2000 U.S.-China-Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production that became a global blockbuster.
But film distributors say selling China's movies to the world is hampered by subject matter that doesn't travel well, different storytelling methods and the sheer size of its own market.
Lim Teck, managing director of Singaporean producer and distributor Clover Films, said China has become so lucrative that local studios don't need to think about other markets.
"China has become so big and so powerful. Basically a lot of movies nowadays are very China-centric," Lim said at a panel discussion at the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market, a major trade show.
"They're produced primarily for the China local market, which is nothing wrong because the market is so big, but with that in mind it sort of undermines the (appeal to the) rest of Asia," Lim said.
Doris Pfardrescher, president of distributor Well Go USA, said the kinds of movies that are popular in China today - romances, comedies and fantasy flicks - don't necessarily appeal to audiences in other countries.
"For the U.S. market, what primarily does well are your martial arts action films. ... Usually they have simplified stories. It's all about visual effect. They're just easier to consume as far as with the fanboys," she said, adding that China is making fewer and fewer such movies.
"The films that are being made now, the Chinese films, are these romantic comedies that just don't do well for us."
"Lost in Thailand" follows two businessmen who encounter a tourist while searching for their boss. While it has been applauded for depicting modern middle-class life in China, critics say its humor doesn't appeal outside China.
In an interview, director Xu Zheng said, "I didn't even think of the foreign market when I was making the film, because the budget was limited." Had he known it would have been released in other countries, "I might have changed some things in my script."
China's censorship system has also been blamed for limiting the kinds of films made, as filmmakers stay away from edgy subjects like in contemporary thrillers in favor of safer storylines.
Film distributors said there are also subtle differences in storytelling, especially with historical and cultural touchstones that differ among audiences.
"There are a lot of things you need to explain and tell to the Western audience (that) would be considered boring" to a Chinese audience, said Jeffrey Chan, CEO of Hong Kong-based Distribution Workshop.
Action movies aside, "you need social, historical, cultural background. Then the way you tell it to a Chinese audience and the way you tell it to a non-Chinese audience will be very different," Chan said.
Pfardrescher added that for "a lot of Chinese films that I see there is this assumption that Americans know maybe the history or the political humor or something, but unfortunately we don't. We don't understand. We don't know. So it doesn't translate.
"The only way to do that is to make a lot longer movie to explain it all, but it would be very boring for Chinese audiences."