Mainland hopes to win American hearts and minds through cinema

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 4:52am

When The Avengers hit theatres in China last May, the same weekend it opened in the US, moviegoers there were bombarded with advertisements featuring Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk. Chinese audiences packed cinemas, buying some US$90 million worth of tickets and helping make the superhero movie the top-grossing film worldwide in 2012.

This weekend, the most successful Chinese film of 2012 will arrive in American theatres - but more than six weeks after its Chinese debut, and with a great deal less fanfare.

The comedy Lost in Thailand follows two young men on a mission to find their boss in the Southeast Asian country.

The film, which has grossed US$201 million in China and is the second-highest grossing film there, behind Avatar, was released yesterday in just 29 AMC theatres in the US. AMC Entertainment was bought in May by China's largest movie theatre circuit, Dalian Wanda Group.

In an unusual move, AMC arranged the distribution deal itself, announcing the film's opening less than a week ago. But the company seems to have little hope that the movie can cross over beyond Mandarin-speaking moviegoers to a mainstream American audience; there are no plans for traditional advertising, just promotions via AMC's website, YouTube and Facebook. AMC did not arrange for advance screenings for American critics.

AMC is seeking to lure in patrons looking to see a film over the Chinese New Year weekend.

"We felt there may be some interest among guests in enjoying the film this weekend," said Ryan Noonan, the company's public relations director.

AMC has released 25 Chinese films with its Los Angeles-based distribution partner China Lion since 2010, but none have managed to do major business in the US. The biggest success, If You Are the One II, a sequel about a May-December romance between a millionaire and a flight attendant, took just US$427,000 from 21 theatres in 2010.

Noonan said AMC licensed the US rights to Lost in Thailand from Beijing-based Enlight Pictures in partnership with AMC affiliate Wanda Media.

So why continue to release Chinese films in the US if they aren't selling tickets?

"These Chinese companies (like China Lion) want to keep trying to break open the international market," said Robert Cain, an independent film producer who runs a blog about the Chinese film business. "They want to appease the Chinese government," Cain added, which he said is "desperate" to spread Chinese culture through movies and its "extend soft power".