Which UK film performed the best at cinemas in China in 2019?

Bohemian Rhapsody, with a total box-office of 99 million RMB, approximately £10 million (its UK box-office was £53 million).

Although the Middle Kingdom market proves to be very large, with a total box-office revenue of 68 billion RMB (£7.4 billion) last year, foreign film distribution in China continues to be a complex business. The launch of the UK-China Film Collab Project in February 2019 was to set out to investigate the core blockages for more UK films to enter the Chinese market.

The challenges currently face can be summarised as the followings:

1) The global right for big budget UK films is normally owned by US studios. This has created a confusion when it comes to film importation to China which needs to go through a quota system. US studios are under the revenue sharing quota, while UK films (including co-productions) could potentially go under the buy-out quota (any Chinese company can purchase the right). There is therefore an unnecessary competition among studios backed films between the US and the UK for the revenue sharing quota.

2) Smaller UK productions normally rely on sales agents to approach international distributors. Although most agents are knowledgable about the EU and North American market, they are not necessary familiar with the Chinese market. In many occasions, sales agents sell the right to a Chinese company that can not guarantee a theatrical release, neither a VoD distribution. For other occasions, such as film Swimming With Men, which could have the potentials to be released at cinemas, Huanxi Media bought the right for China but only released it exclusively on its VoD streaming platform for subscribers.

3) The Chinese audience is more familiar with the UK’s TV series products rather than films. While most UK films are co-produced with other countries and mostly with the US, the artistic and cultural identity of a UK film is not clear to audiences in China. This is demonstrated by two previous annual surveys that I conducted regarding the receptions of UK films at the Shanghai International Film Festival (2018 & 2019).

In summary, UK films did not do well in China last year, comparing to other non-Hollywood foreign films. The best performing UK film was Bohemian Rhapsody, which generated approximately £10 million box-office. The overall best performing foreign film in China was the rerelease of Spirited Away from Japan, which generated 488 million RMB, approximately £53.5 million (5 times of Bohemian Rhapsody). For another reference, Capernaum, Jury Prize winner at Cannes Film Festival in 2018, grossed its highest worldwide box-office in China with £36 million, over 3 times more than Bohemian Rhapsody’s record.

The import of Bohemian Rhapsody was a deal negotiated between 20th Century Fox and China Film Group Co. under the US studio revenue sharing quota. However, the film was then exhibited across the National Alliance of Arthouse Cinemas (NAAC) network, which consists of over 3,000 cinema sites across the country. In China, this is the equivalence of a limited release in the UK. Personally, I do not think the film needed to go through the NAAC model as it certainly has the novelty to attract all cinema chains to schedule it. Exhibiting the film under the NAAC model, arguably prevented other non-member cinemas to schedule the film with a smaller release. This collaboration model itself was contradictory. Normally a revenue sharing import quota is for films that are expected to generate a large box-office. On the the hand, the NAAC model is a government subsidised project to support specialised films to be screened (both local and foreign). Although Bohemian Rhapsody did perform the best out of all other UK films distributed in China in 2019, it could potentially do even better.

The biggest surprise toward the end of last year was Downton Abbey, in which its global right is owned by Universal. The original TV series had their biggest followers in China and the film was expected to do well by default. The Universal team on the ground worked closely with China Film Co. for the film’s distribution but the box-office was too poor to even be mentioned here.

In comparison, Italian classic The Legend of 1900’s 4K restoration did better than both Bohemian Rhapsody and Downton Abbey, which grossed over 100 million RMB (£10 million). The right and distribution promotion for 1900 was handled by a relatively small company comparing to Universal, Hishow Entertainment. This result informs us that US studios and their global distribution network do not always work in China, at least not for UK films. This observation can be confirmed by another case of failure. Another film that was handled by Universal, Yesterday, while it enjoyed its success around the world but certainly not China. It only grossed 1 million RMB (£100K) box-office.

Furthermore, UK film companies need to consider the impacts owing to the on-going trade war between the US and China. The impacts are already evident in the decrease of interests toward Hollywood films in 2019.

As I share my opinions in each conversation that I have with a UK film company, in order to resolve the issues raised above, companies could consider separating the right for China from the rest of the world when it comes to negotiation with potential sales agents. Understandably, it might not be realistic at the moment for studios backed UK films to change their global distributor. But if with the best asset Downton Abbey, studio like Universal could not even break through the market with a team on the ground, certainly more innovative strategies are needed for a unique market like China.

Please do follow our website’s news update for a full report on how all UK films performed in China in 2019.

Note: I have explained the so called ‘censored’ four minutes in Bohemian Rhapsody’s release in China in another feature and condemn most international media that did not report accurately regarding the details. 


You may also be interested in this article: “Reason to be hopeful: when The Legend of 1900 overtakes Charlie’s Angels in China”

or “Making history: Bohemian Rhapsody’s Chinese release and the story of its translation