By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
February 22, 2013
What a difference a year makes. Last February, Hollywood action pictures like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island dominated China’s multiplexes, seizing a 70 percent share of the market and leaving only crumbs for local Chinese films. Tom Cruise reigned as box office king with his Mission Impossible hitting $100 million, only the fourth film to reach that plateau in Chinese history. Hollywood’s long-term hegemony over the Chinese movie landscape seemed secure.
A year later, the situation could scarcely be more different. So far this month Hollywood’s share of Chinese theatrical revenue is barely 10 percent. Tom Cruise, whose new action flick Jack Reacher debuted to a tepid $5 million last weekend, has been supplanted by a Chinese star named Bo Huang, who has notched three successive breakout hits: Lost in Thailand, Journey to the West, and now the China-Japan co-pro (!) romance Say Yes. Chinese action-comedies are routinely cracking the $100 million threshold, while Hollywood action movies are underperforming to a troubling degree.
One non-Chinese player that has fared exceptionally well in China of late is Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, which nabbed the number one and number two box office rankings last week with its co-pro entries Journey to the West and Say Yes.
Journey to the West broke numerous records, including the biggest single-day gross with nearly $20 million on Valentine’s Day, the biggest weekly gross ever ($93 million) and the fastest arrival at the $100 million mark (8 days). As of Tuesday, its tenth day in release, the film’s cume stood at $122 million. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here in predicting that Journey will break Lost in Thailand‘s all-time record Chinese language film gross of $201 million.
Say Yes, a Chinese-language remake of the hit 1991 Fuji Television drama “101st Marriage Proposal,” debuted to an impressive $19 million. Journey and Say Yes combined gave Village Roadshow and its partners an 83 percent share of the week’s $135 million nationwide gross, also an all-time record. The previous weekly record gross was $84 million.
Year-to-date, China’s aggregate box office is up by 30 percent, while U.S. films are down by 59 percent. Some might blame the U.S. films’ decline on long release delays or on the individual films themselves (Skyfall, Gone and Jack Reacher), and they may be right, but I believe the most important factor is that Chinese audience tastes have shifted.
Not only have several Chinese language films caught on with audiences, but the non-Chinese films that are indexing well now are different than the ones that indexed well a year ago. During the past several months the foreign pictures that have over-indexed in China have been more offbeat or intellectual movies like Life of Pi, Looper, and Cloud Atlas, or the more quirky action films like Bait and Expendables 2.
The trend could turn again in favor of Hollywood’s tent-poles, with upcoming releases that include The Hobbit on February 22nd, Les Miserables on February 28th, and Oz: The Great and Powerful and a Good Day to Die Hard in mid-March (I had previously been advised that the latter two films might open on the same day, but I’m now told it’s more likely they’ll be spaced at least a few days apart). The only certainty in China is change, and for the moment, anyway, it is trending in favor of China’s local producers and those foreign producers who have committed to serving the Chinese market.
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.