by Robert Cain for China Film Biz
June 21, 2012
Lionsgate’s Hunger Games debuted last week to a middling $10.4 million box office total over its four-day opening in Chinese theaters, edging out Madagascar 3 ($8.8 million in its second week) for the #1 spot during the week ending June 17th. This marked the 22nd week in a row that a Hollywood film has topped the Chinese box office, and the 7th week in a row in which the top 3 spots were all occupied by American movies.
During the just ended 13-week Spring quarter, U.S.-made films dominated the Chinese market like never before, taking 82 percent of all box office receipts. Domestically made Chinese films barely managed to eke out a 10 percent share, with only one local film, Galloping Horse’s action comedy Guns ‘N Roses, qualifying as a bona fide box office success, ranking 7th among all releases in the quarter with a total gross of $24.4 million.
The rapidity with which homegrown Chinese films have been marginalized in their own market has been truly startling, and has left local producers, financiers and exhibitors confused and nervous for the future. Speaking this week at the Shanghai Film Festival, prominent film director Lu Chuan, (The City of Life and Death) warned that “2012 is a very dangerous year for the Chinese film industry. What if we are defeated in every season by foreign films? Nobody would like to invest in our films anymore.”
The trend should be equally worrisome for foreigners exporting their movies to China. Even though they may be winning the box office battle in the short term, there will be deleterious long-term effects if the domestic Chinese film production industry is suffocated by imports. On the one hand, theatrical revenues will only continue to grow if there is a balanced mix of local films and foreign ones; if there are just 34 imported films each year that draw meaningful business, then revenue will plateau as commercial breadth stagnates.
And on the other hand, backlash from the sensitive state-run government movie administration seems ever more likely as frustration grows over China’s inability to reliably make films that anyone wants to see. State measures designed to crimp the dominance of Hollywood films could be quickly and easily implemented as a way to quell the Communist Party’s persistent concerns about the encroachment of western culture.
Censorship continues to be a major handicap for Chinese filmmakers, who are severely limited in their choices of topics, genres, and overall permission to portray truly human characters and situations that reflect life as audiences recognize it. In a recent article for China’s “Global Times,” screenwriter Xiao Yezi explains that he often feels he is “dancing in chains” because of the severe restrictions that shadow his choices of story topics. As Xiao puts it, “Without breaking the hidden rules that damage the authority and rights of writers, it’s impossible for Chinese entertainment to satisfy even the domestic audience, let alone become popular elsewhere.”
As of this writing, it has been 8 weeks since a local Chinese film opened with even $2 million in nationwide receipts, and the numbers continue to fall at an alarming rate as Hollywood’s film releases predominate. But far from congratulating themselves, American producers and distributors should be scrambling for ways to help jump start the local Chinese cinema before they find they have completely worn out their welcome.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.