The family blockbuster "Monster Hunt" was the biggest movie ever in China with $381 million in theater ticket sales, but what arrived with a splash in its home country barely made a ripple in the U.S.
Independent distribution company FilmRise, which acquired the U.S. rights to the movie, hoped that the computer-animated, live-action hybrid would cross over into local Chinese communities and appeal to consumers of fantasy films.
It didn't. The movie opened in 44 theaters in January to just $21,000 in its debut weekend, for a dismal average of less than $500 per location. It only lasted about a week in limited release.
"It's probably the biggest movie most people in North America have never heard of," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at ComScore.
China's filmgoers are highly coveted by Hollywood, which sees that country's fast-growing cinema industry as an opportunity. Box-office receipts in China, already the world's second-largest film market, rose nearly 50% to $6.8 billion last year.
However, the theatrical flop of "Monster Hunt" illustrates the difficulty of delivering China's homegrown blockbusters for American audiences. Whereas Hollywood pictures such as "Furious 7," "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Jurassic World" continue to draw massive crowds in China, the country's own movies have met with little success in the U.S.
Chinese hit "Detective Chinatown," for example, has pulled in less than $500,000 from its U.S. run.
Martial-arts action movies tend to have a certain amount of pull, with the 2000 Chinese-language hit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" as the most striking example. The Ang Lee-directed movie grossed $128 million in the U.S. and Canada. More recently, the kung fu sequel "Ip Man 3" has grossed $2.1 million in its limited U.S. release.
"We were told at the beginning that this was a long shot," FilmRise Vice President Bob Jason said. "We never thought it would be that big in theaters, but it generated tremendous awareness."
Among the many challenges facing "Monster Hunt's" prospects were mixed reviews from critics and online piracy. The movie hit Chinese theaters in July, so anyone who was interested and had an Internet connection could illegally download the film and watch it on his or her computer or tablet.
"Originally we were targeting this thing toward the Chinese market, but apparently a lot of Chinese folks have already seen the film," Jack Fisher, president of FilmRise, said in an interview.
"Monster Hunt" was a first for New York-based FilmRise, which has released small indie pictures and documentaries.
The firm had hoped to draw people to theaters by releasing the picture in 3-D and 2-D, offering a better big-screen experience that could entice people who have already seen a lower-quality version online. The company partnered with the West Hollywood company Asia Releasing to target the film at U.S. moviegoers, posting fliers in Chinese restaurants, grocery stores and other small businesses.
A major social media campaign emphasized the appeal of one of the featured monsters — a cute, marshmallow-colored baby that looks a little like a smiling radish. The distributors also used the popular Chinese social media site Weibo to get people excited.
The distributor took pains to remove elements that would turn off American filmgoers. A scene in which puppies are put up for sale in an outdoor meat market did not make the cut, for example, out of fear that it would alienate too many people.
"That was one of the things that was kind of obvious," Fisher said. "An older audience might understand that it might be a cultural thing, but for the kids, we decided to take that out."
Still, interest was muted, despite efforts to increase turnout.
FilmRise executives said they were encouraged by English-language audiences who appeared to enjoy the movie's fantasy-action elements and its wacky humor. Having found that the movie won't work in multiplexes, the company plans to shepherd the film into independent theaters around the country for one-time engagements. This weekend "Monster Hunt" will play at the Film Bar in Phoenix and the Pelham Picture House in Pelham, N.Y.
The company is also placing its hopes on the home video market, where executives think the movie will find more success.
"We're not in a rush to put it out there," FilmRise's Jason said. "It's going to be a slow build."