Bollywood is speaking to Chinese film-goers with a Hindi-language hit that’s outdrawing “Star Wars" in a market that Hollywood has staked out for making big-budget blockbusters pay.
“Secret Superstar,” the tale of a 14-year-old Muslim-Indian girl who strives to become a singer, has topped China’s box office since its local release on Jan. 19, surpassing sales for “Star Wars: Last Jedi,” according to ticketing-data provider Maoyan.
The second straight hit in China for Bollywood actor-producer Aamir Khan, “Secret Superstar” underscores how quickly the world’s second-biggest film market is evolving from franchise fare like Universal Pictures’ “Fast & Furious” installments to a taste for films from all around the world. Based on results from the past 12 months alone, hits from India, Thailand and Spain show China’s box-office may already be less blockbuster-centric than America’s.
The official Xinhua News Agency made a diplomatic connection in an editorial: “Chinese filmgoers’ appreciation of Aamir Khan’s films reflect the common aesthetic pursuit of the two countries, which should be extended from the cultural aspect to broader areas, including politics and the economy.”
Khan’s 2017 “Dangal” drew $193 million in China last year, according to Boxofficemojo.com. By comparison, the biggest take for a foreign-language film ever in the North American market was $128 million take for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” almost two decades ago. “Secret Superstar” is on track to become the second-biggest selling non-blockbuster in China with box office revenue of about 743 million yuan ($117 million), Maoyan estimates.
Thailand’s “Bad Genius,” about two poor but brilliant students who make a living helping rich kids cheat on standardized tests, generated $41 million in 2017 -- 13 times its Thailand sales. Spanish-language thriller “Contratiempo” (The Invisible Guest) grossed $26 million in the mainland in 2017, sixfold more than at home, according to Boxofficemojo.com. Those respective Chinese grosses would be enough to rank among the all-time top 10 for foreign-language releases for North America, where only three films have ever exceeded $50 million.
English-language films from Hollywood remain the dominant import to China, helped by an agreement under World Trade Organization rules under which China has imported about 34 films a year on revenue-sharing basis from the U.S.
There is still no magic formula for success in Chinese theaters.
Two tales from Hollywood’s “Fast and Furious” series rank among the country’s top 5 earners in history. But some “Star Wars” tales have been lackluster. Pixar’s animated “Coco" scored about $190 million in China last year, almost matching its North America sales, while Walt Disney Co.’s “Cars 3” barely reached $20 million, compared with more than $150 million in the U.S., according to Boxofficemojo.com.