January 2, 2013
During my first 15 or so years working across the Hollywood-China divide, I heard countless times that China would never be a major cinema-going country. That going out to the movies simply wasn’t part of the culture. More than conventional wisdom, China’s aversion to the movie-going experience was widely regarded as fact.
I plugged away for years in the Chinese entertainment market because I was a contrarian. I didn’t believe that Chinese people weren’t like people everywhere else; I was sure they’d enjoy going out to the cinema for a good comedy, a good drama, or a good action spectacle just as much as Americans, Germans, French, Koreans, and Brazilians do.
Of course the conventional wisdom was wrong. The thing that had held Chinese audiences back was that they lacked movie theaters. And now, with 13,000 screens in the PRC and an average of 7 new ones being added every day, they have proven China to be a powerhouse, the fastest growing and soon to be the most important movie-going nation in history. Attendance and revenue records are dropping faster than eggs drop into soup.
Until just a few weeks ago the records belonged to Hollywood films like Titanic and Avatar. And new conventional wisdom formed; that Chinese audiences loved movies, just so long as they were American blockbusters.
And then came Lost in Thailand. On December 12, this little Chinese slapstick comedy with a budget barely one one-hundredth the size of Avatar’s has sunk Titanic’s re-release record in China, and shattered Avatar’s all-time China attendance record. In another ten days or so it will break Avatar’s long-standing record as China’s highest grossing release ever. And in doing so it proved that Chinese audiences love Chinese movies at least as much as American ones.
Anyone who makes a living anywhere in the film business should be asking themselves, “how did this happen?” Because sooner or later it will happen again. And again. And before we know it China will be the world’s movie kingmaker, the land of the billion dollar blockbuster. And many of those blockbuster movies will be Chinese.
Lost in Thailand wasn’t supposed to be December’s big hit. That title was expected to go to Jackie Chan’s CZ12, or to Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942. Produced and distributed by indie studio Beijing Enlight, Lost in Thailand was the sequel to 2010′s Lost in Journey, a comedy that barely grossed $7 million. With the same cast–well regarded comedians Huang Bo, Wang Baoqiang and Zheng Xu—and with star turned first-time director Zheng Xu at the helm, the movie would reasonably have been expected to gross maybe $10 million or $15 million. Factoring in Fan Bingbing’s brief cameo appearance one might have generously estimated a $25 million tally.
But Lost in Thailand grossed nearly $50 million in its first 5 days, and it has powered on to cross the $160 million mark in 19 days—more than Titanic 3D grossed during its entire 55 day run. It now appears a lock to beat Avatar’s 2009-2010 PRC record of $209 million. Along the way it has broken many of China’s records for attendance and revenue.
So what happened?
More than anything, Lost in Thailand stood out simply by being a well-made and well-regarded movie. In a market where most locally-made films are viewed by moviegoers as ranging from bad to awful, Lost in Thailand is a truly funny and engaging comedy. Set in Thailand, the film tells the story of two Chinese businessmen who go searching for their boss in the north, and then link up with a tourist eager to fulfill his ‘bucket list’ by exploring the country. Along the way they cause a maelstrom of comic trouble. It’s not exactly a critical darling, but a solid crowd-pleaser.
Timing was also critical to Lost in Thailand's success. December is the most important season for local language films, as it is a time of both heavy attendance and a blackout period for Hollywood films. Many of the year’s biggest tent-poles open in December. In 2009 Chinese audiences got Avatar; in 2010 it was romantic comedy If You Are the One 2 and crowd pleasing action-comedy Let the Bullets Fly. But last year was a different story. There were no comedies, only the heavy and depressing drama Flowers of War and costume martial arts film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. No comedy, no escapist fantasy. And throughout 2012 the only big local hit was the action fantasy Painted Skin 2. Despite its $115 million gross, Painted Skin 2 was generally considered a mediocre cash grab, a much-reviled movie that many regretted having spent their money to see.
So by December Chinese audiences were clearly looking to have some fun. Opening against he unrelentingly sad Back in 1942, almost any properly marketed comedy would have succeeded. As Enlight’s Chelsea Tan put it, “Besides Lost in Thailand’s quality, I think its success is mostly due to its having a good releasing date, its lack of genre competition, and our vibrant use of social networks to interact with the audience. And Lost in Thailand delivers jokes and scenes that make for good word-of-mouth discussion.”
Lost in Thailand‘s breakout success can be viewed as a populist reaction to an overabundance of big budgeted historical dramas and Wuxia/martial arts flicks. These kinds of movies have become tired, with fewer and fewer ticket buyers showing up. The commercial failures of Back to 1942 and of recently released costume dramas The Last Supper and The Flying Guillotines should signal the end of the current cycle for these genres.
In its own way, Lost in Thailand proves that Chinese audiences care about local films. They want to see Chinese faces in contemporary Chinese situations, films that reflect their own culture, their own sense of humor. Sure, they will continue to attend the mega-budget, effects-driven Hollywood spectacles. But when they go for a local movie, they don’t care about scale, budget or effects. They just want to see stories that they can connect to, stories that reflect their modern day circumstances, stories that are uniquely Chinese.