Opinion & Analysis

New Zealand's demand for Chinese films

What Chinese-language films did we watch in New Zealand last year? Massey University media studies senior lecturer Dr Ian Huffer investigates.

2019 was a record-breaking year at the Chinese box office, producing a number of the highest grossing Chinese-language films of all time. But how did Chinese-language films fare in New Zealand last year, and what can survey data tell us about the viewing of Chinese films in New Zealand in 2019?

In total, 30 Chinese-language films were commercially released at New Zealand cinemas last year.

As the only Chinese-language films to gross over $200,000, Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth were clearly the two most popular, reflecting their status as the two highest grossing films in China last year.

Ne Zha2

Ne Zha is an animated film based on Chinese mythology and tells the tale of a boy prophesized to bring about destruction but who fights his fate.

The Wandering Earth is a sci-fi disaster movie about the earth being moved out of solar system via giant thrusters to avoid the imminent explosion of the sun.

Both were significant technological leaps forward for the mainland Chinese film industry in their respective genres and their success represents China’s growing ability to compete with Hollywood product.

The list of the top ten Chinese-language films at the New Zealand box office in 2019 is rounded out by the films My People My Country, The Farewell, The Captain, Better Days, Pegasus, More Than Blue, The White Storm 2: Drug Lords and The Bravest (in that order).

Seven of these films were produced by the mainland Chinese film industry, with the US, Taiwan and Hong Kong providing the other three.

The Wandering Earth2

This is in contrast to the top ten Chinese language films at the New Zealand box office in 2013 in which six films were either Hong Kong productions or co-productions. This underlines the ascendancy of the mainland when it comes to Chinese-language cinema.

However, the mainland’s triumph is tempered somewhat by the relative box office placing of these films in New Zealand when compared to their popularity in China.

Despite their incredible success in China, Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth only reached the position of 79 and 96 respectively in New Zealand.

This highlights the niche status of Chinese language film in New Zealand, and the release strategy for these films makes this clear. For example, the majority of the screenings for these top ten films were at Auckland cinemas located in areas with a high proportion of Chinese ethnicities, such as Event Cinemas Albany and Hoyts Botany Downs.  

Survey data from 2019 can tell us a bit more about the audience for these films.

Responses to an online questionnaire accessible only to those with New Zealand IP addresses (n = 150) suggest that the audience for such films in New Zealand primarily consisted of those born in mainland China.

For example, only 23.5 percent of survey respondents born in New Zealand had seen The Wandering Earth compared to 73.5 percent of respondents born in mainland China, and no survey respondents born in New Zealand had seen Pegasus, compared to 55.9 percent of respondents born in mainland China.

If questions remain over the ability of Chinese films to cross over to a wider audience in New Zealand, the survey results suggest that New Zealand audiences born in mainland China are reasonably content with the current availability of Chinese films.

For example, only 13.7 percent of Chinese-born respondents were dissatisfied with the availability of Chinese films at the cinema and only 4 percent of Chinese-born respondents were dissatisfied with the availability of Chinese films online. The former statistic is perhaps a result of the fact that 78.4 percent of the Chinese-born respondents lived in Auckland, where all 30 Chinese-language films screened.

The latter statistic is indicative of the regularity with which Chinese-born respondents accessed Chinese films online, revealed elsewhere in the survey. For example, among Chinese-born respondents, the most regularly used methods of film viewing were semi-legal free streaming sites, particularly those specialising in Chinese film such as Kan TV. 44.8 percent of Chinese-born respondents watched films at least once a week using these sites, whilst 24.7 percent used a VPN to access Chinese movie streaming services such as iQiyi.

This perhaps explains why 52 percent of Chinese-born respondents had seen the film Crazy Alien – a big hit from 2019 in China that did not receive a theatrical release in New Zealand.

The coronavirus has meant that 2020 is already shaping up to be a very different year for Chinese film, with the cancellation of all releases (and their simultaneous international runs) during the lucrative Lunar New Year holiday period.

Nevertheless, this snapshot of 2019 reveals that Chinese films have an importance within New Zealand’s cinematic and demographic landscape that should outlast this year’s disruptions.