Pixar’s Inside Out, the story of a troubled teenaged girl’s life as told from the perspective of the emotions inside her head, will aim to get inside the heads of China’s moviegoers when it opens there on October 6th.
But although the animated feature has played to solid results in most major territories—it has earned $774 million in worldwide box office so far—it faces an uphill battle in China. Pixar’s films have consistently, severely underperformed in the People’s Republic. While other studios’ animated feature films have averaged better than 7 percent of their worldwide grosses in China, most of theToy Story studio’s movies have earned 2 percent or less there. Up, for instance, earned just 1.8% of its $731 million global box office take in China, while Brave took in just 0.8% of its $531 million international haul there. Big Hero 6 and Penguins of Madagascar, in contrast, each made more than 10 percent of their global box office revenues in Chinese multiplexes.
Image credit: Pixar
Pixar’s poor performance cannot be explained by inferior distribution or marketing, since virtually all major Hollywood animated films are handled in China by the same two companies, China Film Group and Huaxia, often working together. Rather, there seems to be something about the Pixar stories, and the way audiences perceive them, that leaves Chinese audiences cold. The trademark originality and whimsicality that have made Pixar’s films so successful in North America and many other territories appear to have worked against the studio in China.
Whereas the “New York Times” enthused about Inside Out by exclaiming “The film solves a thorny philosophical problem with the characteristically Pixaresque tools of whimsy, sincerity and ingenious literal-mindedness,” for China these elements are problematic for the audience. Judging by the list of films that have excelled there, it would appear that Chinese moviegoers prefer their animation stories to be more simple, straightforward, and traditional.
Inside Out also faces the challenge of a long release delay in the Middle Kingdom. While it debuted in June in much of the world, it had to wait out the 2-month government-imposed foreign film blackout–a lag of more than 100 days–before it could screen in China. The unfortunate result of the delay is that it has allowed pirates to obtain and circulate pristine HD copies of the film via digital distribution, allowing families in China the opportunity to see the film while avoiding the costly prospect of a trip to the multiplex.
Whatever the reasons, the performance gap for the animation studio is so striking, and so consistent, that Pixar will urgently need to address its shortcomings in China if it is to compete effectively against its rivals over the long term. China will soon be the world’s biggest movie territory, and if Pixar continues to lag behind there it will miss out on the industry’s biggest growth opportunities.