It was almost midnight. The Emperor Cinema in Beijing was still crowded with people waiting to see the premiere of “Ne Zha,” an animated film about a smirking demon boy who breaks the bondage of fate. The film’s tagline “the rise of Chinese animation,” began trending on Weibo (Chinese equivalent to Twitter), after the premiere of the movie.

The blockbuster movie earned $700 million in China’s box office, making it the second highest grossing film in Chinese film history. “Ne Zha” was also the first animated film China entered for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“Ne Zha” was released on Sept. 6 in the United States. Tickets were sold out, but the audience was all Chinese.

Local audiences knew little about the movie. The film poster was not promoted at AMC theaters or its ticketing app. The box office only reached $3 million in countries outside of China, but it was the third highest-grossing Chinese film released in North America in the last decade.

For the Chinese film industry, the box office has seen remarkable growth, from $600,000 to $8.4 billion in China in the last decade. However, overseas sales only increase from $500,000 to $700,000, according to Box Office Mojo.

Inside the country, it appears there is little need for filmmakers to create movies that are going to succeed around the world. Yet it is a great desire for Chinese people and the Chinese government to make Chinese content to succeed around the world.

It was almost midnight. The Emperor Cinema in Beijing was still crowded with people waiting to see the premiere of “Ne Zha,” an animated film about a smirking demon boy who breaks the bondage of fate. The film’s tagline “the rise of Chinese animation,” began trending on Weibo (Chinese equivalent to Twitter), after the premiere of the movie.

The blockbuster movie earned $700 million in China’s box office, making it the second highest grossing film in Chinese film history. “Ne Zha” was also the first animated film China entered for Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“Ne Zha” was released on Sept. 6 in the United States. Tickets were sold out, but the audience was all Chinese.

Local audiences knew little about the movie. The film poster was not promoted at AMC theaters or its ticketing app. The box office only reached $3 million in countries outside of China, but it was the third highest-grossing Chinese film released in North America in the last decade.

For the Chinese film industry, the box office has seen remarkable growth, from $600,000 to $8.4 billion in China in the last decade. However, overseas sales only increase from $500,000 to $700,000, according to Box Office Mojo.

Inside the country, it appears there is little need for filmmakers to create movies that are going to succeed around the world. Yet it is a great desire for Chinese people and the Chinese government to make Chinese content to succeed around the world.

“It is very important that outside of China, we come to a much deeper understanding, on not only what makes Chinese culture distinctive, but also how modern China is not the same as most of us understand, ” USC professor of Communication Management specializing in china media industry and entertainment David Craig said.

"An Elephant Sitting Still" at the 4th China Onscreen Biennial. Photo by Xueyan Cheng.


China’s president, Xi Jinping, proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013. It is a global development strategy involving infrastructure development and investments in 151 countries and international organizations. One of the initial objectives is to establish confidence in Chinese culture and the dissemination of Chinese culture. To meet Xi Jinping’s goal of a global film marketplace, many Chinese companies have begun to invest in Hollywood and share the profit from the global film marketplace.

The Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate with extensive interests in the entertainment business, has acquired AMC Entertainment, North America’s second-largest movie theater owner in 2012, in a deal that is valued at $2.6 billion, including roughly $2 billion in assumed debt.

The strategy was simple but powerful. Wang Jianlin, chairman and president of Wanda, said at China Entrepreneur Summit in 2015, “we should change the phenomenon of western influence on China and turn it into ‘Chinese influence’ on the west.”

Ang Lee, the most famous Taiwanese director in Hollywood, proves the power of “Chinese influence” at the beginning of this century.

His movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” based on Chinese traditional Jianghu culture, described the love and hatred among a crowd of swordsmen. It brought the martial arts chivalry to Hollywood, which set off the kung fu fever at the beginning of this century. According to Box Office Mojo, eight of the top 10 Chinese films in the United States are martial arts films. Crouching Tiger grossed $128 million in the United States, becoming the highest-grossing foreign language film produced overseas in American history.

Chinese current government wants to copy the success and spread its culture worldwide again. However, after Lee, no one can make such an impact, and the distribution is often considered as political propaganda.

The way to go global

Visual effects and universal values are both ways to help Chinese films go global. Big-budget Chinese American co-productions are exercises in this practice.

“The Great Wall,” whose director is Yimou Zhang, wanted to set a successful model of co-producing a film. This action movie cost $170 million to produce. Despite having a star as big as Matt Damon, it ultimately failed in both countries.

“The Great Wall” is the beginning and the end of the Chinese co-production film,” Craig said. “It still thinks Hollywood uses a recipe, analyzing what elements make a movie succeed, and bringing them to the movie. We don’t just go to a movie because of the great visual effects, and Chinese don’t go to the movie because it mentioned something Chinese or the director is Zhang Yimou.”

The distribution dilemma

For decades, Hollywood’s impression of Chinese films has not changed. Only martial arts films can enter the massive North American film market.

With the decrease of martial-arts films in recent years, the opportunity to break into North America is declining. The last widely distributed Chinese movie was a 2013 kung fu film, “The Grandmaster.”

Well Go USA is a small distribution company specializing in bringing foreign movies to North America. It has distributed many Chinese films, such as “Ne Zha,” “Line Walker 2: Invisible Spy” and “Ip Man 3.”

But the target audience for Well Go USA is an overseas Chinese demographic who knows the film through domestic information channels. Due to the budget pressure, overseas distributors tend to select a small number of cinemas in the Chinese district to release films, so as to control publicity scale and reduce costs to guarantee profits.

Chinese films are exploring the path of internationalization, but they are facing multiple complicated factors like the film quality, cultural barriers and theatrical distribution. Till now, Chinese global movie domination is still a dream not yet realized.