Coming attractions: How long before most movies are translated from Chinese?

March 13, 2015
A boy and his father pose for a photo next to a model of the Transformers character Bumblebee in central Beijing

A boy and his father pose for a photo next to a model of the Transformers character Bumblebee in front of Qianmen Gate in central Beijing, June 20, 2014. The replica is part of a promotional campaign ahead of the world premiere of the movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction” on June 27 around the globe. REUTERS/Jason Lee

China’s fingerprints are everywhere in the global economy, and the movie business is no different. But the movies are a particularly hot ticket in China these days, and the Motion Picture Association of America confirmed that this week with its roundup of global box office revenues for 2014 that showed Chinese ticket sales rose by more than a third last year. Chinese moviegoers still only amount to half of the North American box office, but that’s changing fast. In February, Chinese monthly box office revenues surpassed those in the United States — for the first time ever

While this is far from spelling doom for Hollywood — after all, it was the major holiday season in China compared to just any old month in the United States — it does indicate a long-term trend that’s already having an impact on the Hollywood film industry: The rising importance of foreign audiences. Last year, some 70 percent of the $36.4 billion spent globally on going to the movies was outside the United States.

This growth in foreign markets is changing not only how Hollywood distributes its movies, it’s having an impact on which movies get made, who stars in them and how they get produced.

If the international business environment just got more competitive for Hollywood, making movies has always been a risky business. Six-out-of-10 movies don’t break even; most of the money comes from just a few blockbusters. The studios have tried every strategy to reduce the risks and increase the predictability of returns. Bigger budgets and bankable stars help. So does the reworking of recipes that have worked before, such as sequels and prequels. Repurposing of popular content from other media — books, TV shows, video games, comic books — also helps.

With an eye towards Chinese moviegoers, Hollywood has already seen a noticeable spike in big budget productions that repurpose well-worn plot lines using recognizable characters, such as the 2014 top-grosser Captain America based on the Marvel Comics brand, or the recent series reworking the 1968 classic, The Planet of the Apes.

But that’s just the beginning. Take, for example, the 2014 movie, Transformers: Age of ExtinctionParamount shot at many locations in China, hired popular Chinese stars, and worked with local companies including a subsidiary of the Chinese network CCTV as production and promotions partners. The strategy of catering to local audiences in China paid off and the movie was the all-time top grossing film in the Chinese market, earning $320 million at the box-office.

China’s growing interest in movies has been good for Hollywood so far, particularly at a time when domestic box office revenue is waning. Movie theaters are being built across China at lightning speed — 25,000 new cinemas are on the way over the next five years — to corral newly disposable income in the country, and more foreign films are being allowed on Chinese screens.

Hollywood’s success in China and elsewhere is part of its decades-long domination of the global trade in films and television programming. Hollywood’s glitzy, action-packed, big budget movies are the default option for weekend entertainment the world over. Even in markets with strong domestic film industries, such as France or Italy, American movies have always commanded a significant market share.

There are many popular theories for why the United States dominates the international film trade — better production values, the attractiveness of American youth-oriented culture, the appeal of American movie stars, the cartel-like distribution practices of the MPAA, the status of English as a world language, and so on. In my research with David Waterman at Indiana University, we tested an economic model of the international film trade and found, when production costs of films are similar, audiences prefer domestic movies, but imports can overcome this “cultural discount” with bigger budgets and better production values.

For years, Hollywood has been able to rely on its well-produced big-budget blockbusters. And it was able to produce those more than anyone else, in part, based on the peculiarities of its own domestic market. Hollywood’s initial advantage was the size and wealth of the American market was such that Hollywood studios had an incentive to increase production budgets for their films. Americans’ cultural insularity also helped. Historically, few Americans spoke a second language, and dubbed or subtitled foreign movies never gained much traction. With its home turf protected, Hollywood was able to venture out to conquer the world and has so far had an unchallenged run of international film markets.

The recent increases in international box-office revenues challenge this American dominance. In the short run, Hollywood is still likely to benefit the most, since its movies already dominate most markets. However, in the long run, local industries will begin to invest more in film production as they look to capitalize on local audiences’ preference for domestic fare and American movies will need to retool its strategies to continue to reach a global audience.

So far, Hollywood has faced little challenge to its cinematic ascendancy; Chinese films have not moved aggressively into international markets, yet. But when they do, that’s when Hollywood studios will have a real fight on their hands. So will Captain America.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see

Probably when China starts actually paying for the movies they watch instead of pirating them off the street for a quarter?

Posted by EndlessIke | Report as abusive

chinese movies have no chance in global markets? why ? culture bareer, humor principles,and lastely……Asians are not an object of beauty nor celebrity

Posted by Jingan | Report as abusive

Thanks for your post. What I want to say is that when evaluating a good on the web electronics retail outlet, look for a internet site with total information on key elements such as the personal privacy statement, protection details, payment methods, along with other terms and also policies. Often take time to look into the help plus FAQ pieces to get a superior idea of how a shop works, what they can do for you, and just how you can use the features.

Posted by prestige woodland park | Report as abusive

Thanks for your write-up. What I want to comment on is that when searching for a good internet electronics go shopping, look for a website with comprehensive information on key elements such as the security statement, safety details, payment procedures, as well as other terms and policies. Always take time to see the help plus FAQ pieces to get a better idea of how the shop performs, what they can perform for you, and the way you can maximize the features.

Posted by prestige woodland park | Report as abusive

Something else is that when searching for a good on-line electronics retail outlet, look for web stores that are frequently updated, maintaining up-to-date with the most recent products, the perfect deals, and also helpful information on products and services. This will make sure that you are handling a shop which stays atop the competition and gives you what you should need to make knowledgeable, well-informed electronics acquisitions. Thanks for the critical tips I have learned through your blog.

Posted by prestige woodland park | Report as abusive

Via my observation, shopping for consumer electronics online may be easily expensive, nevertheless there are some principles that you can use to obtain the best discounts. There are always ways to find discount offers that could help to make one to have the best electronics products at the cheapest prices. Interesting blog post.

Posted by prestige woodland park | Report as abusive