The Secret Ingredients of a Blockbuster

It is no longer a secret that China has become the second-largest market for motion pictures. While the market size reached half of U.S. in 2014, the astonishing growth rate is what investors are drooling over. It took China only four years to triple its market size from 1.5 billion USD in 2010 to 4.5 billion in 2014; the trend continues in 2015 – as of November the country has already generated six of the top ten best-selling movies in its cinematic history. With increasing collaboration between China and Hollywood movie makers, investors are eyeing on China and exploring opportunities to take on a ride of the country’s fastest-growing movie industry.


Breakdown of China’s box office result 2004-2015, source: SARFT

We will present a series of articles dissecting the Chinese movie industry. As part one of the series, this article focuses on the top 50 best-selling movies in Chinese history to reveal the secret ingredients for their success. In fact, an overview of these top 50 movies already tells us a set of interesting facts.

Screenshot 2015-12-04 14.57.32

List of highest-grossing films in China, source: Wikipedia

Primarily, the market is dominated by Chinese and American film producers, with each contributing about half of the total market size. Hong Kong, the one-time largest contributor of China’s box offices, has fallen: only seven movies on the list involve Hong Kong movie makers, and all of them are made in collaboration with mainland producers.

Second, the market is growing at an unprecedented speed with strong momentum. Without adjusting for inflation, all the 50 movies on the list are made after 2009, and 31 of them within the last two years. With deeper penetration into smaller cities, this upward trend is expected to continue.

Third, an increasing number of foreign blockbusters are incorporating Chinese elements. These elements arise from ownership (e.g., China Film Group Corporation owns 10% shares of Furious and Speed 7), production (e.g., Transformers 4 is jointly produced by U.S. and China), directing (e.g., Ang Lee directed the critically acclaimed blockbuster The Life of Pi), etc.

Now, what are the ingredients for a blockbuster in China? Overall, three factors stand out as the key determinants of a blockbuster: qinghuaigrassroots stars, and visual effects. Domestic movies primarily rely on the first two, while foreign movies build up their box offices on visual effects. A combination of two or more factors seems to be crucial for success.


A blockbuster often promotes itself with a particular type of qinghuai, a word that is getting frequently used in the media and can be roughly translated as “having a personal touch”. Scanning through the list, we can spontaneously identify the qinghuai behind each Chinese blockbuster: Monster Hunt (Zhuoyaoji, 捉妖记), the best-selling movie in Chinese cinematic history, touches upon the thousand-year-old discussion on father-and-son relationship, with a twist of the ancient tale describing the co-living between monsters and humans (yes, it is culturally sophisticated). Similarly, Lost in Hong Kong (Gangjiong, 港囧), another blockbuster of 2015, tells a story of a man choosing between his wife and college sweetheart. As much as people despise this cliché storyline, Lost in Hong Kong leveraged on the growing tension between the mainland and Hong Kong, and advertised itself as a tribute to Hong Kong’s golden age by featuring classic Cantonese songs and famous Hong Kong characters.


Monster Hunt stands out as the best-selling movie in Chinese history. 

The caveat here is that the personal touch often centers on issues rooted in Chinese culture and society, rather than those derived from the American ideology. A good example that differentiates the two is the 2015 Pixar animation Inside Out, a story that challenges the American notion that kids must be happy all the time by advocating the need to experience various emotions. This does not work in China: in case you haven’t read Amy Chua’s hymn, Chinese kids grow up by getting beaten up all the time. Unsurprisingly, the box office performance of Inside Out was disappointing in China, if not disastrous. If Pixar were to win some tears from Chinese audience, they might as well switch the roles of Joy and Sadness and promote a childhood with fewer tears and more laughter. On the other hand, Fast and Furious 7, the best-selling foreign movie in history, promoted itself as a farewell to Paul Walker, the cast member who ironically died in a car crash, and achieved huge box-office success. After all, sympathy with a young actor who starred in a film about brotherhood is universal.


Inside Out, Pixar’s main production of 2015, turns out to be a box-office failure in China.

Grassroots Stars Work Better than Ziyi Zhang

Comedy stars with a grassroots presence have become the golden ticket to good box-office performance. The audience enjoys seeing famous people do stupid things. These stars tend to rise to fame through Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, or reality TV shows such as Running Man. It is not necessary that they are good actors; they just need to have a lot of followers on Weibo so that they will come and see their movies. Some of them even started directing their own movies, and their popularity largely helped turn these movies into blockbusters.

And the more stars, the merrier. Popular movies such as Monster Hunt and A Hero or Not (Jianbingxia, 煎饼侠) have gathered dozens of local stars, many of which only show up for five minutes. In the extreme case of Monster Hunt, the director decided to add extra roles independent of the main plot after the movie was done, simply to lure more audience into the theater.

The Hollywood Model Still Works

Avengers, transformers, avatars, all these creatures can still use their muscles and fights to lure fans into the theater. And so do visual effects. Chinese movie makers have been leveraging their cultural advantage in successfully making comedies and dramas, but they haven’t been able to pull off in fantasy/sci-fi/superhero movies. The industry has been fast-growing in terms of viewership, but so not much in production.

This Hollywood model cannot always work: the complicated institutional structure makes any entrance into the market into a mind-exhausting political game. Over time, American filmmakers will have to make compromises if they want to succeed in this market. While we return to this topic in our next article, we shall also point out that efforts have already been made by many American producers. It won’t be surprising that the next ten years will witness more collaboration between Chinese filmmakers and Hollywood.

Cameron graduated from Peking University in 2012 and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Finance at Yale. 

1 response to The Secret Ingredients of a Blockbuster

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