How do you crack the secret formula of what will sell in China?

Considering how much Chinese money poured into Hollywood lately – successful Chinese co-productions are paradoxically a rare thing. And can those films also be a hit in the West? Is there a secret formula?

Photo by GrrlScientist CC BY 2.0

Even with “A” list stars and mega budgets – we’ve seen films fail as Chinese co-productions. What did they miss? I’ve come up with 6 strategies that are key to a Chinese co-pro.


Photo by Ojie Paloma CC BY NC ND 2.0

Action and horror films cross borders. American comedy, indie dramas are not as popular in China.
In the article, “What Chinese Movie Audiences Want to See”  Professor Michal Berry, Director of UC Santa Barbara’s East Asia Center and author of several books on Chinese film culture said, “There are bans on certain themes like time-travel, certain fantasy genres are frowned upon, anything dealing with politics that’s in any way critical is suppressed.”


The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television (AKA SARFT) usually frowns on cults, superstitions, and showing Chinese officials in a bad way.

The China Film Insider website (China Film reported in the article “China Censors Slash Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” that  “China has no rating system, meaning that films generally have to be classed as suitable for all before gaining a release.”

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

So, no ghosts, no zombies?  The censorship board is opaque so films that on paper seem to break certain taboos (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” (after cutting 7 minutes) did record box office in China.

Has China relaxed its censorship? No. With the lackluster box-office growth, this year – China has allowed these films to boost its ticket sales.

No bad Chinese cops? The South China Morning Post ran the article “China’s ‘House of Cards’ hits the TV screen as Xi Jinping whips his cadres” on the hit Chinese TV series “In the Name of People” which focuses on taking down corrupt Chinese officials. It’s been described as a “Gritty prime-time television drama pulls no punches about greed and power – with the Communist Party’s blessing.”

You can hope your zombie killing movies, bad Chinese cop TV series gets Chinese distribution – but these examples are the exception to the rule.


Personally, I think female empowerment is bulletproof. Plus, more than half the audience in China is made up of women. Why wouldn’t you target that audience…but then I’m a woman and love a butt-kicking heroine.


“Dangal” Movie Poster By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

Films like “Dangal” and “Fate of the Furious” did record numbers in China. Their emphasis on family ties which is integral to Chinese culture – was a huge hit with Chinese audiences.


Having an American only or Chinese only perspective could limit your film’s potential.  As reported on the East-West Bank website “Lu Chuan: Expanding the Universal Language of Film”  Director Lu commented on having a single-minded perspective. He said “If we want our cultural products, like film, to enjoy wider distribution, we can’t stay bound within the Chinese perspective. We have to consider the perspective of all humanity. The key is to do this without abandoning our Chinese background. That’s how we can create Chinese films with real value.”

A film with a myopic isolated point of view won’t cross any borders.


Give the Chinese stars and culture a boost. Don’t short change the Chinese star: This can be any nationality but if you add a Chinese star – don’t use them as window dressing – give them a key role.

The most expensive co-production to date “The Great Wall” was lambasted in the Chinese and international press. In the article “China’s epic ‘Great Wall’ Blockbuster Draws Epic Criticism”  one critic complained: “The Chinese cast were shortchanged on screen time, while the nods to Chinese culture were superficial at best.”

Photo by AJ Cann CC BY 2.0

There’s your secret formula for a successful film. However – the script is your foundation. It will make or break even the most “A” list star-studded, big-budget film. It all starts with the script.

In my next blog, I will talk about Hollywood and China’s strong points and how to combine forces.