For the first time ever, a Hollywood movie has opened in both English and Mandarin Chinese in the U.S. Both versions of the animated film "Kung Fu Panda 3" are playing at AMC theaters in seven cities across the country.
Ivy Lu, for one, appreciates having the choice. The USC biomedical engineering student from China has been studying English since she was 10. But when she unwinds after a long week, she wants her entertainment in her native tongue.
"We speak English all day," Lu, who is 20, said. "We just want to watch a Chinese movie in Chinese."
Lu and her boyfriend picked up their tickets for the Chinese version of "Kung Fu Panda 3" opening night at the AMC in Monterey Park. The theater chain, which is owned by China's Dalian Wanda Group, chose four locations in California to play the Chinese version, the others being Puente Hills, Tustin and Cupertino. The other locations are Boston, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.
At theaters where both versions were available, one in 10 moviegoers chose the Chinese version during opening weekend, according to AMC. Viewers aren't getting a dubbed movie in the traditional sense. DreamWorks Animation, with its Chinese partners, tweaked the script for Chinese audiences. And artists reanimated the dumpling-loving panda hero Po and his friends so the lip movements match the Mandarin dialogue.
"You feel at every moment as it if it is a Chinese film," said Elizabeth Frank, head of programming and content at AMC.
Frank said the country's second-largest theater chain recognizes the market potential in Chinese consumers living in the U.S. Demographic trends show the scope: More people are coming from China than any other country. More than 300,000 of them are attending college or universities in the U.S.
Frank described the typical young Chinese moviegoer as "very plugged into Chinese social media and hear about new blockbusters in China and is excited to be able to see them in a theater."
Other target audiences are Chinese-Americans and U.S. university students who are "passionate about China" might also see Chinese versions of films, Frank said.
Offering "Kung Fu Panda 3" in Chinese in the U.S. does something else besides get people into seats. It also reduces consumer demand for bootleg versions of the movie, said Clayton Dube who directs the U.S.-China Institute at the University of Southern California.
"You don’t want them to just wait until it’s available in an illicit download," Dube said.
He said AMC’s decision to show the Chinese version of "Kung Fu Panda 3" is a smart move on another front. Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese real estate company, has strong ties to the central government, and recognizes that Beijing is trying to boost its cultural influence around the world.
"Since the Chinese government has, as one of its key aims, increasing the number of films from China exhibited in the United States, I’m not at all surprised that Wanda might be trying to help with this," Dube said.
AMC says, for its part, it’s in the business of entertaining and satisfying its shareholders. And that means planning to show more movies in both Chinese and English. Hollywood is betting some moviegoers will watch both versions. Sixteen-year-old Raven Zhou said she would.
"I have lots of free time," Zhou said in Mandarin.
Zhou, an international student at a private school in Torrance, took an Uber to Monterey Park with her friends to have a Chinese meal and maybe catch a film. She’s interested in seeing the difference between the Chinese and American versions. Chinese humor is more to her taste.
"It's better suited for children," Zhou said, laughing.
Zhou said American humor can be a bit coarser. For comparison, the Chinese version of Kung Fu Panda 3 features a scene where Po shows his excitement by sputtering something along the lines of "This is too much!"
In the American version of same scene, Po says: "I think I just peed a little."
If potty humor is what you like – specifically of the panda variety – the American version can’t be beat.