Why it takes more than the force for a foreign film to fly at the box office

Unlike most products, films are embodied with elements that are distinctive to a particular culture

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 10:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 10:01am

Star Wars sequel The Force Awakens has become the fastest film in history to earn US$1 billion, beating Jurassic World. With the help of the Christmas season, the force could not be stopped, crossing the US$1 billion mark in just 12 days.

With a slew of other blockbusters set to hit the cinemas this summer, Hollywood is back to making movie magic.

But of course the Los Angeles dream factory is not the only place where films are made. India churns out far more films every year and China too has a thriving movie industry.

Since 1979, China has submitted 88 movies to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for nomination in the best foreign language film category. Zhang Yimou’s films – Hero and Ju Dou among others – have been favourably received.

So-called “foreign films” – let’s not forget that, outside the United States, American movies are foreign too – can often be a tough sell.

Would Sholay or Zanjeer, both Bollywood blockbusters starring iconic actor Amitabh Bachchan make it big in China? Or would The Monkey King, a Chinese movie starring Donnie Yen and Chow Yun-Fat, draw crowds in India as it did in Hong Kong?

Unlike most products, films are embodied with elements such as language, locations, customs and plot that are distinctive to a particular culture. The Monkey King, for instance, draws on Journey to the West, a literary classic well known among Chinese but not to the rest of the world.

Humour also can be particularly troublesome – what might have audiences in one country rolling in the aisles can fall painfully flat elsewhere.

More often than not – and again with the general exception of American-made films – these cultural characteristics limit the international reach of movies.

Foreign audiences are not sure what they will get before they watch the movie, while lead actors and directors will be seen as unknowns – irrespective of their celebrity back home.

Hence, there is a lot of uncertainty whether the foreign film is worth watching.

What might have audiences in one country rolling in the aisles can fall painfully flat elsewhere

In the movie business, being foreign can be a liability.

Given this cultural disconnect, foreign films are frequently pitched in the “art house” category, limiting their distribution even though they may be mainstream films in their domestic markets.

How then can films minimise this “foreignness” liability and what characteristics should be emphasised to sell them to overseas audiences?

In our research we looked at some 1,669 films produced and traded in 19 European countries. We found several factors affecting a film’s exportability.

Not surprisingly, winning major awards such as an Oscar or featuring acclaimed directors and actors increased the likelihood of export.

Films with a larger distributor market share were also more likely to be exported, while films that were independently distributed were less likely to be.

The genre of the film also affected export likelihood. Action films were more likely to be exported than comedy, documentary or drama.

A film-producing country with a history of importing films from other markets was also more likely to export its own films. Countries that co-produce a film or share the same language are also more likely to export films to each other.

Importantly, we found that prospective movie-goers use two market signals to help them guess whether they will like a foreign film: commercial success in the home country and artistic accolades.

If a film received commercial success domestically, it signals well to audiences as does one that is artistically acclaimed – for example by having been selected to open at the Cannes Film Festival. Hence, such movies are more likely to be exported.

However, we found that such export likelihood is not similar across the board. Although the general trend is that the larger the domestic box office is, the higher the export probability, a critical variable is whether the foreign audience is culturally similar to that in the producing country.

The more successful the domestic box office sales, export likelihood will increase when the foreign audience is culturally similar rather than culturally distant.

The reverse holds for films with artistic acclaim. Although the more artistically acclaimed a film is the more likely it is to be exported, this is particularly evident when the foreign audience is culturally distant rather than similar to that in the producing country.

This is because domestic box office success is used as a reliable screening mechanism for culturally similar countries. Hongkongers would consider a box office hit from China as something interesting to watch but not a box office hit from Norway.

But artistic acclaim is a more universally reliable signal. Hongkongers might be drawn to a Norwegian film that won the Best Film Award at Cannes because it signals that the film offers qualities to audiences above and beyond its own domestic market.

People also interpret film promotion messages differently from different types of distributors.

If a major studio – one usually associated with blockbuster mainstream films – distributes a foreign film, then the movie does not benefit at all from touting its film festival accolades.

In such cases, our research shows it would be better off highlighting how popular it was in its domestic market.

On the other hand, a movie handled by a smaller, independent distributor should tout the film’s artistic awards because that plays well with audiences who enjoy “art” films.

What lessons might these findings have for Asian movie-producing countries?

Asia is culturally diverse. Besides major players India and China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand have distinct cultures and their own movie industries.

Asian film distributors should not merely rely on domestic commercial success as a criterion to export their films.

Foreign success is also dependent on how similar the target audience is to the domestic audience. How similar both audiences are is an indicator of its likely foreign success.

Thus, a film from China is more likely to be exported to Hong Kong, Taiwan or Singapore than to Indonesia or India, but especially so if it was extremely successful at home.

For films that have achieved artistic acclaim, such as Bollywood’s Masaan that made its debut at Cannes, audiences in Hong Kong and Thailand are more likely to connect with it than audiences in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh.

Further, such critically acclaimed films are better off being handled by an independent or smaller distributor.

Kim Heeyon is assistant professor of strategy and policy at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School