This week, my friend Raman Hui’s debut feature Monster Hunt has become the top grossing Chinese film ever in China, grossing over 2.4 billion RMB (approximately USD$377 million) and beating the previous box office record set by Lost in Thailand. Ironically, the same movie opened to number 4 in Hong Kong with a tepid 3.41 million HKD (approximately USD$43,991) compared to Minions, Ant-man and Terminator Genisys that all opened above Monster Hunt with respective grosses of 24.7 million HKD (approximately USD$318,644), 17.4 million HKD (approximately USD$224,470) and 3.58 million HKD) approximately USD$461,840).
The eco-political difference between Greater China and Hong Kong is that Greater China limits imported films to a quota of 34 titles while Hong Kong, a special Chinese administrative region of roughly 0.005% of China’s population, allows any film to be imported as in any free market economy. Comparing the box office performances of both Greater China and Hong Kong, it is clear that the so-so Hollywood movies can easily beat top performing Chinese movies in a global free market economy.
The previous Chinese box office record-setter Lost in Thailand grossed USD$197 million in China. The same picture grossed USD$85,479 in Hong Kong and USD$57,387 in USA. It’s clear that no one outside China has much interest in this movie, and this seems to be the case with most contemporary popular Chinese movies. They do not have a market outside Greater China, and not even in Hong Kong that is ironically part of China.
Let’s look at an example like Jurassic World that has been topping all the box office charts in both US, China and Hong Kong. Jurassic World has grossed 1.42 billion RMB (approximately 227 million USD) in China and 619 million USD in the US. It’s clear that a major box office hit in the U.S. tend to do robust business in China; but a major Chinese hit does close to zero beyond China.
If the Chinese government were to let any foreign picture and as many of them as distributors are willing to buy into China, Hollywood films would squash Chinese films like a dinosaur’s foot. I highly doubt that Chinese hits like Monster Hunt or Lost in Thailand would happen if China were a free market economy.
Little does America know, Raman Hui is a true success story of a Chinese American immigrant who worked for decades in the US animation industry and came back to make his first feature with producer Bill Kong and struck gold in China. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know Raman was featured in my documentary feature 0506HK. We met up whenever we bumped into each other in Hong Kong or China and I’ve been hearing about his making of Monster Hunt over the years.
Fate had it that I bumped into Raman in the elevator of my Beijng hotel on the night before leaving Beijing after right before his film’s opening. We were both surprised to see each other and gasped unanimously, “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been living here for a year!” said Raman. “And you.”
“I’ve been here for 2 weeks working on a script with a writer, but I’m leaving tonight. I’m throwing a party and please stop by later.”
“My movie is premiering tomorrow night.”
“Congratulations! I’ll see it in the theater!”
Later at my party in my hotel room, I was talking to a film executive friend from a major Chinese company and said, “I can’t believe I bumped into the director of Monster Hunt, who’s a friend and will dropping by earlier. Have you seen the movie?”
“Yeah,” said the film executive. “It was OK. I think it’s not going to make the money they think they can make. Not for the Chinese audience.”
Later, Raman did stop by the party… and his movie did just become the top Chinese grossing movie of all time in China.