'Lost In Thailand' set records in China with more than $200 million… (Enlight Pictures )
When "The Avengers" hit theaters in China last May, the same weekend it opened in the U.S., moviegoers there were bombarded with advertisements featuring Iron Man and the Hulk. Chinese audiences packed cinemas, buying some $90 million worth of tickets and helping make the superhero movie the top-grossing film worldwide in 2012.
This weekend, the most successful Chinese film of 2012 will arrive in American theaters — but more than six weeks after its Chinese debut, and with considerably less fanfare. "Lost in Thailand," a comedy that has drawn comparisons to "The Hangover" franchise, follows two young men on a mission to find their boss in the Southeast Asian country.
The film, which has grossed $201 million in China and is the second-highest grossing film ever there behind "Avatar," is being released stateside Friday in 29 AMC theaters nationwide (including six in the L.A. area). AMC Entertainment was purchased last May by China's largest movie theater circuit, Dalian Wanda Group.
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In an unusual move, AMC arranged the distribution deal itself, announcing the film's opening less than a week ago. But the company seems to have little hope that the movie can cross over beyond Mandarin-speaking moviegoers to a mainstream American audience; there are no plans for traditional advertising, just promotions via AMC's website, YouTube and Facebook. AMC also did not arrange for advance screenings for American critics.
The sudden opening may reflect an impulse to get the movie into theaters before "Lost in Thailand" is so widely pirated that anyone interested in the film has already seen it. AMC is also to be seeking to lure in patrons looking to see a film over the Chinese New Year, which begins Sunday.
"We felt there may be some interest among guests in enjoying the film this weekend," said Ryan Noonan, the company's director of public relations, adding that AMC sought the movie out "to satisfy specific guest requests."
AMC has released 25 Chinese films with its L.A.-based distribution partner China Lion since 2010, but none have managed to do major business in the States. The biggest success, "If You Are the One II," a sequel about a May-December romance between a millionaire and a flight attendant, only collected $426,894 from 21 theaters in 2010.
Noonan said AMC licensed the U.S. rights to "Lost in Thailand" from Beijing-based Enlight Pictures in partnership with AMC affiliate Wanda Media.
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So why continue to release Chinese films in the U.S. if they aren't making big box office?
"These Chinese companies [like China Lion] want to keep trying to break open the international market," said Robert Cain, an independent film producer who runs a blog about the Chinese film business. "They want to appease the Chinese government," Cain added, which he said is "desperate" to spread Chinese culture through movies and "extend soft power."
Cain surmises that the demographic who would most want to see "Lost in Thailand" in the U.S. this weekend — Chinese exchange students — has likely already seen it on pirated sites.
"Lost in Thailand" has succeeded despite poor reviews in China, a low budget — pegged by various media outlets at about $4.5 million — and hardly a superstar director. The movie was directed by Xu Zheng, who also plays one of the two men searching for their superior. The other two main actors are Wang Baoqiang and Huang Bo, in the boss role.
The movie is a sequel to the 2010 film "Lost on Journey," which earned just $5.5 million at the box office. Since then, China has doubled its number of movie screens.
Still, some observers chalk up the success of "Lost in Thailand" in China mostly to good timing.
Raymond Zhou, a top Chinese critic, noted in an email that "Lost in Thailand" was released immediately after "Back to 1942," a "historical tragedy about the 1942 famine that was so depressing."
The director of "Back to 1942," Feng Xiaogang, had previously been recognized as "China's king of urban comedy," Zhou said.
"Feng had single-handedly created China's year-end holiday season for movies and [was] largely responsible for conditioning the Chinese public for a laughfest, which is deemed by most to be appropriate for the holiday season," Zhou explained. "So by the time 'Lost in Thailand,' a moderately budgeted slapstick comedy, opened, there was this palpable thirst for this kind of fare."