China Exhibits Modest Appetite For “Hunger Games”


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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.

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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.

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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 rob@pacificbridgepics.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.

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6 thoughts on “China Exhibits Modest Appetite For “Hunger Games”

  1. great article Robert… Chinese film companies lack the creative writers that are in abundance in America because of the very strict censorship of the past. I think that will change, I also think the current companies should work off of two ideas. first they should shoot a film that would be a hit in the USA, and second, censor that film in the cutting room for the Chinese market. That way they could release acceptable movies for the West and China and in effect double down on the investments they have managed to acquire for a film. Until censorship relaxes a little in China it will be hard for them to take the lion’s share of profit or place for films.

    • The comment below shows a lack of understanding of the circuitous and frustrating process of major film making in China, despite being a somewhat practical idea.
      First the script has to be approved and secondly the permit for the shooting has also to be obtained. There are other reviews and finally the distribution permit has to be applied for once the censors have reviewed. The issue with censorship is that there are no really firm guidelines of what and what may not be acceptable. While SARFT does publish general guidelines the level to which these are interpreted are varied. Hence most domestic film producers impose their own personal censorship on the film which may or may not be a correct way of doing things. However, this is an issue of DNA which even in the US people intrinsically have, rightly or wrongly.
      The other issue faced by the domestic industry is the lack of creative talent and mindset. It is well documented that the schooling system does not encourage independent thinking and quite the contrary, actually punishes you for it. Therefore the dreams and imaginations that Western-born people have are simply not shared by the mainland Chinese in their formative years.
      Rob is correct that by the Hollywood film industry the taking a Chinese view of things, i.e. get the money today, not care about tomorrow, the market runs the risk of the Central Government imposing restrictions on the import film industry in the future which will curtail the opportunity of a vast market in the mainland.

      • that is true, I have never worked under he constraints of the Chinese Film industry and its censorship. I am giving an answer to the article and I am also sure that the vast majority of American writers would see it that way also. I am glad that you are in the know as to the inner workings of film in China, and with a lot more answers to articles such as the one Robert wrote, by people like yourself, American writers will come to understand to situation as it does exist in China. Also, I did not think about or realize that free thinking (creativity) in China was frowned upon in early school life. That is something that most writers here would never imagine, despite what we know about China. Thank you for expanding my knowledge…

      • Mike: First let me offer apologies for the brusque response from me! I read Rob’s columns often and I know he knows the Chinese industry from his work there, so I had phrased the response based on someone who is familiar with the Chinese film industry.
        But you are right in that the inner workings of the film industry in China are difficult to even follow at times whether in country or out. Looking at the level of self-imposed censorship exerted by Chinese directors and producers, based on readings of the SARFT rules and regulations perhaps helps explain why there are so many ‘period’ films made in China.
        The censors pay less attention to these as they cannot say whether things like corruption, nepotism or sexual favors that are portrayed actually took place before the current regime or not. These films put the censor into a corner because supposedly the current regime came to power because of corruption and so on, so if the censor bans this, and makes it all “clean” then it kills history and shows no respect for the Party. If they let it go through, it shows how life was, but this is often a parody of current life thinly veiled which the director is trying to get across and the censor knows they are doing this but cannot effectively do anything about it. How the censor must hate this two edged sword!
        You will also note that a majority of Chinese films are shot using what is best described as the French technique which distances the actors from the audience as though one was peering in to something that was happening through a series of shots zooming in and out. On the other hand, Hollywood films take you straight in and make you part of the movie in a way that often has you grabbing the chair handles on tense scenes. Why this technique has not been learnt by people like Zhang Yimo, and others, I have no idea.

  2. No need to apologize Wang, I always read Robert’s articles and even watch the video interviews he is a part of. He knows the ins and outs of the problems with Chinese film and the people that produce them. He and his partner Daxing have tried to stay abreast of everything that is happening in regards to the China film industry and with great hope maybe someday they will make an impact and the industry there would possibly open up a bit. It is indeed a monumental task that lies ahead, but it is a possibility that things may change and that would greatly benefit everyone involved in film from the writers to the producers and directors in China.

  3. after all of that, It does not surprise me that Hunger Games wasn’t the block buster in China that it was here in the USA. I think it is a whole different mindset that the movie going public in China has as compared to audiences in the States. I truly think they seek more (more, meaning more than simple mindless entertainment) in a film than we do and I think the box office receipts reflect that. That also begs the next question, exactly what do the Chinese public look for in a film? I would like to know that secret myself…

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