China’s Looming Toon Boom


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Boonie Bears one sheetBy Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 30, 2014

Back in the early 1990s, at the request of film critic Michael Medved, I researched and then published a strategic and statistical analysis demonstrating that Hollywood’s studios were distributing too few children’s, family, and animated feature films. My analysis was picked up by the industry trades and the national press, where it attracted quite a bit of attention and stirred up controversy.

In a matter of days I received calls from the heads of Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures, the MPAA and Blockbuster, and within mere months after that most of the major studios had established new family divisions and ramped up their production of animated features and PG-rated family films.  In the years since, these genres have consistently accounted for the studios’ very highest-grossing and most profitable films.

Recently, spurred by intuition, I decided to take a closer look at the situation in China’s film market. After delving into the numbers and the trends, it quickly became clear to me that China’s distributors would profit by distributing more quality films aimed at the family audience.

In fact, if my intuition is correct, family features, and animation in particular, ought to be among the fastest growing segments of the PRC’s film business over the next 3-5 years. Despite heavy investment and rhetorical support from China’s federal and provincial governments, these types of films currently capture a much smaller share of the market in the PRC than they do in North America. But I believe this is beginning to change as the Chinese audience broadens both geographically into the third and fourth tier cities, and demographically to families with children, and as marketing to these audiences improves.Animation Share of B.O. 2009-2013

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Animation is off to a rousing start in the first quarter of 2014, clearing $186 million in revenue in just three months, which puts it on pace to easily beat the previous full-year record of $261 million that was set last year. Given the line-up of animated features still to be released through December, I expect the cumulative gross for animation in 2014 will run to around $400 million. This would put animation’s share of China’s full-year gross at about 8.2 percent, up from 7.3 percent last year.

The first-quarter spoils have gone not just to imported big-budget Hollywood pictures, but increasingly to home-grown fare like The Boonie Bears, ranked third among animated films so far this year with a Chinese record-breaking $40 million gross, and Pleasant Goat: Meet the Pegasus, ranked fourth with $14 million in box office. It’s worth noting that both of these movies are spin-offs of popular Chinese children’s TV series.

Top Grossing Animation Q1 2014

Highlights for the rest of 2014 include the recently opened Dreamworks’ pic Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is well on its way to a China gross of at least $24 million, Blue Sky and Fox’s Rio 2, opening on April 11, South Korea’s Koala Kid (aka The Outback) opening in early May, and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, expected to open in August. Mr. Peabody‘s stronger-than-expected results will make it China’s third highest grossing non-sequel, non-spinoff animated release to date after The Croods and Frozen.Average BO per animated film 2009-2014

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Since China’s film authorities allow only 5 or 6 Hollywood animated films to be imported each year as revenue sharing “quota” films, it will fall to locally produced features to drive most of the family market’s future growth. And there are signs that China’s animation houses are getting ready to play their part. Although technical capabilities and story quality have been lacking in prior Chinese releases, the tide is turning with several new films in development based on screenplays by talented American writers, and funding and services from top Chinese animation houses.

Indeed, I’m so convinced of the scale of this opportunity that I have personally initiated two new animated film projects for China, one in partnership with a multiple Oscar winning animation producer and with a theatrical release commitment from a major Chinese distributor, and a second that has attracted Chinese investors even before the treatment is finished.

If, as I expect, animation’s share of the Chinese market rises to match that of North America, by the end of this decade the PRC will become the world’s biggest audience for animated feature films, with $1.5 billion and more in annual revenues. And that’s not kids stuff.

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.

 

China’s Dismal December Gives Way to Jubilant January and Fantastic February


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 13, 2014

If you were keeping tabs on China’s box office activity back in December you might have concluded that something was seriously wrong. Expected blockbusters like Personal Tailor and Police Story 2013 did fine, but fell short of expectations. Many other pictures failed to click. It seemed that the inexorable rise of cinema-going in China was finally, inevitably, slowing down. Unlike December 2012, which smashed all previously monthly records to become China’s highest grossing month of all time, December 2013 saw a precipitous 12 percent year-on-year drop in ticket revenue, despite a 39 percent increase in operating cinema screens.

If you were following all of this as it happened you might have said to yourself “All good things must come to an end.” Right?

Oh ye of little faith!

Mainland moviegoers shrugged off the December doldrums like they never happened, and halfway through 2014’s first quarter they’ve set a ticket buying pace that’s galloping along like, well, a horse.  A Kentucky Derby winner, that is.

To wit: January 31st, the first day of Chinese New Year, set a new box office record  set as the biggest single day ever in Chinese history, at 258 million RMB ($43.7 million); The Monkey King 3D set a new single-film record for the biggest ever opening day in China at 122 million RMB (besting Iron Man 3’s 121 million), and the ultra low-budget Dad Where are We Going enjoyed the best opening day ever for a 2D film, at 87 million RMB.

For the full week, grosses totaled 1.41 billion RMB, 81 percent higher than last year’s prior New Year’s record. According to Rentrak, Monkey King and Dad ranked #1 and #2 at the worldwide box office during their opening weekend. Almost every day of the week notched a new high water mark in Chinese movie history.New Chinese Box Office Records

Over the first 6 weeks of 2013, Mainland receipts are now a sizzling 70 percent ahead of the same period in 2013, a rate of growth nearly 10 times faster than China’s GDP growth. Right now China’s movie industry is one of the world’s most dynamic businesses.Box office for week ending Feb 9, 2014

In addition to Monkey King and Dad Where Are We Going, other bright spots of the year so far include Despicable Me 2’s very respectable $53 million gross despite a 7 month release delay; The Boonie Bears’ impressive performance as China’s highest-grossing domestically made animated feature ever with a $40+ million tally; and Man From Macau’s extraordinary run, the PRC’s leggiest in recent memory.Macau's leggy run

Dad, Where Are We Going also merits special mention because it is such a surprise hit. Inspired by the popular Chinese reality TV series, which is in turn a format licensed from the hit South Korean TV show, the film is said to have shot for just 5 days in the beginning of December, 2013, with a budget of less than $1 million. Fewer than 8 weeks later it arrived on thousands of Chinese movie screens, to generally poor reviews and word-of-mouth. But never mind all that; in less than two weeks the movie has gone on to become one of China’s biggest grossing films ever.

The big grosses should keep rolling as a raft of new films hit the theaters on Valentine’s Day, including Beijing Love Story, which got off to a solid start in box office pre-sales. Given the tough comps set last week, Valentine’s Day 2014 may not set a new all-time record, but it’s likely that it will come close.

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.

‘Gravity’ defies ‘Storm’ and Staves Off ‘Hunger’ in China For Second Straight Weekly Win


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 3, 2013

Strong word of mouth helped Gravity to float to a modest 36 percent decline in its second week, enabling it to fend off newcomer The White Storm and land its second straight win at the Chinese box office. Still going strong in its third week, Gravity should have no problem surpassing $70 million, even in the face of heavy competition from new Chinese openers.

This total would lock Gravity’s place as the 3rd biggest foreign release in China this year, behind Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim. But it probably won’t be enough for the film to score a top 10 slot overall, as so many local films have performed well in 2013.

The Benny Chan directed action-crime thriller White Storm debuted to good but not great numbers, eking out a slim lead over Gravity during the past 3-day weekend, when they competed head-to-head. Blue Sky Studios’ animated adventure Epic fell far behind, mustering just $3.65 million in its 3-day weekend debut. The 7-month delay in Epic’s PRC release was undoubtedly a factor in its modest showing.

Box office for week ending Dec 1, 2013

Escape Plan will finish up its PRC run with an impressive $41.5 million, nearly double its U.S. total. Considering all the love China has shown in recent years for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie’s sexagenarian stars, it will be a good idea for Hollywood to dust off its old two-hander action scripts and re-set them in China for this dynamic action duo.

For the first time since early September the weekly box office tally fell short of last year’s comps. Cumulative box office for the week ending December 1st saw a 7 percent decline to $58.5 million from the 63 million total in week 48 of 2012, when Life of Pi reigned.

Today saw the long-awaited debut of director Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, an adventure thriller that has survived two major revisions and six aborted theatrical release dates over the past four years as DMG, CFG, Galloping Horse and the filmmaking team struggled to conform to the SARFT censors’ restrictions. Originally slated to release in 2010, the film stars the hugely popular Huang Bo and Xu Zheng, who co-starred in last year’s megahit Lost in Thailand.

With its excellent $3.5 million opening day, No Man’s Land should easily top Ning Hao’s prior personal record gross of $24.7 million for last year’s Guns ‘n Roses, though the director claims he doesn’t care how much the new film earns.

“If I wanted to make big money, I could have stayed at home (in coal-rich Shanxi province) and mined coal with my classmates, who are now all billionaires,” Mr. Ning said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. I just want to do something that I like.”

Of course, what China’s theater operators would like is a big December for local Chinese pictures. With nearly 18,000 movie theater screens now in operation (35 percent more than at this time last year) and an average of 12 or 13 new ones opening every day, they are increasingly reliant on local films to help them pay off their investments.

November’s box office totaled $250 million, a 36 percent increase over 2012, and cumulative year-to-date box office now stands at $3.22 billion. If December’s revenue merely matches last December’s total—a distinct possibility given the tough comps established in 2012 by Lost in Thailand—then China’s total for 2013 will wind up just shy of $3.6 billion.

If, on the other hand, expected hits No Man’s Land, Personal Tailor and Police Story can each draw $80 million to $100 million in ticket revenue, then the year-end total could, just possibly, reach $3.7 billion.

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.

Warner Bros’ Stellar Year in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 21, 2013

Having already clinched bragging rights as the top-grossing Hollywood studio in China this year, Warner Bros further cemented its lead with the excellent rollout of Gravity on Tuesday.  With nearly $10 million in ticket sales in its first two days of PRC release, and what I’m estimating will be at least a $70 million final tally, Gravity should push Warners’ 2013 total in China to around $325 million.

This will mark the first time I can remember when Warners will have won the China box office crown. It will also reflect an impressive 80 percent revenue boost over Warners’ respectable, albeit distant second-place finish to Fox in 2012. With such box office hits as Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now Gravity, Warners will average about $54 million in ticket sales per picture.

Second place in the studio derby this year will go to Disney, whose Marvel superhero offerings Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 will account for around $175 million of that studio’s $250 million annual take.

Sony and Fox will finish third and fourth, respectively, with Fox falling off precipitously from its record-holding $376 million China gross in 2012. Sony had only one strong release with Skyfall back in January, but it was able to get more films into China than any other studio and in aggregate managed to cobble together more than $200 million in gross revenue. Although Fox got solid results in 2013 from The Croods (a Dreamworks animated picture) and Wolverine, it couldn’t match the huge numbers of last year’s Titanic 3D, Life of Pi and Ice Age 3 and wound up with less than half of last year’s gross with around $176 million.

Universal and Paramount, the two studios with the least active presence in China, received the fewest import quota slots and grossed the least among the majors, with about $159 million and $129 million respectively.

At last week’s box office, U.S. films captured the top three slots, although two of these were buyout films. Thor: The Dark World and Escape Plan won the top two spots for their second week in a row with $24.9 million and $13.3 million, respectively. New entry Red 2 picked up $5.9 million in its first three days, enough to handily beat the $4.9 million that Red collected during its entire run in 2011. Total nationwide box office was $54 million for the week, a 57 percent increase over the same period last year.

Box Office week ending 11-17-13

U.S. films will see another week or two of relative prosperity before the year-end Chinese tent-poles move in and grab all the spoils in December and January. Look for big results from The White Storm, which releases on November 29th, followed by big December debuts from No Man’s Land, The Four 2, Firestorm, Personal Tailor and Police Story. By year’s end, Hollywood movies will land only 2 of the top 10 spots at China’s box office in 2013, down from 7 last year and 6 in 2011.

In aggregate, U.S. distributors will manage only a meager 5 to 6 percent increase in their China sales this year, a mere fraction of the 60 percent gain that Chinese language films have enjoyed. Hollywood has let yet another year go by doing little more than lobbing movies into China from across the Pacific, and it has paid the price with a precipitous drop in market share.

Meanwhile, aggressive non-Chinese players like Australia’s Village Roadshow and Korea’s CJ Entertainment have stepped into the breach with highly successful Mandarin language co-productions. And local Chinese players are rapidly growing in competitive strength, as exemplified by Huayi Brothers’ massive increase in its stock market capitalization to $5.2 billion from only $1 billion a year ago. Many of these companies have established beachheads in the U.S., and it won’t be long before their growing financial strength in China will enable them to compete effectively with the stodgy U.S. studios and further erode their diminishing dominance of the global film market.

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.

China’s Monster Summer


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

August 22, 2013

The disturbing drought that plagued Hollywood’s movies in China through the first half of 2013 has been quenched, at least temporarily, by a string of box office successes that began in July. Chief among these has been Pacific Rim, a monsters-meet-robots spectacle that couldn’t have been more perfectly aimed at Chinese moviegoers. In its first three weeks of PRC release (as of Thursday August 22nd) the film has devoured $109 million in receipts, good enough for 2nd place this year among all Hollywood imports, and better by far than the $98.7 million the film has earned in North America.

While some might attribute Pacific Rim’s PRC success to its giant CG robots—the Transformers franchise is after all the highest grossing movie series in China’s history—I’d like to make the case that the film’s massive monsters are at least as responsible for scaring up Chinese ticket sales. Chinese audiences love a good monster movie as much as anyone, but the country’s strict censorship policies have restricted the homegrown monster movie quotient to practically zero. It’s a quirk of the Chinese film administration’s policies that monsters can invade China—or its theaters, anyway—from overseas, but they’re generally prohibited from breeding, hatching, or emerging from slimy lagoons onshore in the Middle Kingdom.

Further proof of my theory can be found in this week’s monster opening of Jurassic Park 3D, Universal’s reissue of the 20-year old Steven Spielberg dinosaurs-gone-wild classic. With almost $17 million in Chinese revenue in its first three days, the film ranks as the fourth biggest foreign opener of 2013 and is is well on its way to becoming the biggest grossing re-release of the past 12 months. Although the grosses for reissues tend to quickly fall off, the pattern so far suggests a final gross in the $30 million to $40 million range, which would make it China’s second highest grossing 3D re-release ever—albeit a far distant second—to 2012’s Titanic 3D.Top-grossing HW rel

The next ‘monster’ movie up is of a more kid-friendly variety, Pixar’s Monsters University, which is scheduled to open on Friday, August 23rd. China’s monster mania may help the film to break the Pixar curse, which has seen most of that animation studio’s films open poorly in the PRC and quickly fade away. With little family-fare competition I expect Monsters U to take at least $25 million in China, which would put it well above Toy Story 3’s $16.7 million gross in 2010, Cars 2’s $11.9 million in 2011, and Brave‘s dismal $4.7 million in 2012.

Last week’s box office saw Pacific Rim win its third week in a row, the first time that’s happened for a Hollywood film in 2013 (the China/Hong Kong co-pro Journey to the West won 5 straight weeks in February and March). Tiny Times 2, the sequel to July’s teen girl-oriented hit Tiny Times, ran up its total to $44 million with a $17 million second place finish. And Fan Bingbing’s romantic comedy One Night Surprise from writer-director Jin Yimeng (Sophie’s Revenge) took third with $15 million, proving the rom-com genre’s continuing strength with Chinese audiences.Box office for week ending Aug 18, 2013

Bona’s boxing flick Unbeatable took fourth place with $9 million on generally positive reviews. Rounding out the top 5 was Wanda Media’s disappointing release  The Palace, which managed just $7.4 million in its first 7 days despite the huge opening screen count allocated by its sister company, theatrical exhibitor Wanda Cinema Line. This marks Wanda’s second flop in a row after Man of Tai Chi. Wanda is new at the feature production game, and with its deep pockets the company presumably has the staying power to get enough at bats to eventually generate some homeruns.

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.

‘Tiny Times,’ Gargantuan Grosses


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July everyone, it’s America’s Independence Day. As a person who enjoys the uninfringed right to express my thoughts to readers around the world, I’m extremely grateful for the precious freedom America’s founders fought for and bequeathed to their descendants.

On another note, I’m dedicating this post to Dominic Ng, Bennett Pozil, and their superb team at East West Bank. They recently hosted me at two of their events and made invaluable introductions for me to their clients. Dominic was kind enough to publicly recognize my work in a room full of heavy hitters at his “U.S.-China Economic Relations“ summit at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. And since Bennett has been after me to keep writing this blog, pleading that in its absence he’s been forced to read trade papers like the Hollywood something-or-other and another thing whose name I forget that starts with the letter “V”, I suppose anyone who gets some use out of this humble publication should thank Bennett for his persistent cajoling.

It has been an eventful month or so since I last wrote about China’s film biz. In recent weeks Iron Man 3 finished its run at $121 million, edging out local romantic drama So Young to become the second highest grossing film of the year so far behind Journey to the West. Dreamworks’ animated movie The Croods defied everyone’s expectations, including my own, running up a magnificent $63 million, which places it among the highest grossing animated films in Chinese history. Legendary East announced a partnership with China Film Group; local film American Dreams in China ran up an $86 million gross; Man of Steel opened on 6,500 screens, the biggest launch to date in China; and Paramount’s World War Z was barred by the censors, despite the producers having made pre-emptive changes to avoid offending them.

Also, the July release schedule was announced, and with four big Hollywood titles opening (After Earth, White House Down, Fast and Furious 6, and Pacific Rim) the U.S. studios might finally get a chance to make up some ground against their Chinese competitors. Finally, the release schedule for December 2013 has been set, and it looks to be a blockbuster holiday, with Tiny Times 1.5, Jackie Chan’s Police Story 2013, mega-director Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor, and possibly Overheard 3 and the star-studded Monkey King (with Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok) all set to open within a two-week period. My Chinese correspondent Firedeep predicts that four of these five films will wind up out-grossing Iron Man 3.

Which brings us up to the present. China’s exhibitors and producers are enjoying another stellar year so far, with almost $1.7 billion in grosses in the first half, nearly 40 percent ahead of the first half of 2012. Given the patterns of prior years, I expect a $3.7 billion final tally for the year. It’s worth noting that China is now routinely grossing more each month than it did in the entire year of 2006. At the current rate of growth the PRC market will surpass North America as the world’s largest territory in 2017, and even if growth slows considerably the succession will take place in 2018 or 2019 at the latest.

The week ending June 30th was the third biggest so far this year, at $87.5 million. Tiny Times set new records for the opening day of a local film at $12.4 million, and went even wider than Man of Steel, running on nearly 50 percent of China’s 15,000+ screens. Look for the teen female oriented Tiny Times to wind up at around $100 million when its run ends.Box office week ending 6-30-13

Man of Steel continued strong, with $21.1 million in its second week. Heavy competition from Tiny Times will curtail its grosses, and it will likely finish in the $55 million to $60 million range, which is where many recent U.S. blockbusters have settled.

Star Trek Into Darkness finished up its run right in that same range, with $57 million. To the surprise of many observers Star Trek outperformed in China, earning a healthy 13 percent of its worldwide gross in the PRC. Compare this to, say, Skyfall, Oz the Great and Powerful, and The Hobbit, each of which earned only 5 percent of their respective worldwide totals in China.

In the coming days I’ll write more about China’s first half results and the U.S. studios’  performance. Until then, happy independence day!

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.

China’s Theaters Rev Up For Holiday Bonanza; ‘Iron Man 3′ Blasts Off


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A giant standee outside a Wanda theater promotes Iron Man 3‘s May 1 debut.

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 30, 2013

Because the PRC is currently in the middle of its Labor Day holiday, official box office reporting is delayed, so I’ve cobbled together numbers from my own sources to provide a snapshot of what’s been happening in China. Please bear in mind that the numbers that follow are subject to adjustment when the official figures are released.

Nationwide box office last week totaled $56.6 million, 16 percent more than the same week last year, which was boosted by Titanic 3D. The year-to-date total for 2013 is now running 35 percent ahead of last year, with most of the year’s biggest movies still to come.

Youth romance So Young led the week with its exceptional 3-day opening weekend total of $22 million. Including its Monday and Tuesday grosses So Young has reached $43 million in just its first 5 days, which points to a likely $100+ million run. Lost in Thailand grossed $47 million in its first 5 days and went on to a $201 million total, though So Young faces a more competitive market so I don’t expect it will hit that lofty mark.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation took second place with $10.9 million, a 67 percent drop from its $33.4 million debut week. G.I. Joe will fade fast now that it has been knocked off most of its screens by Iron Man 3 (which opened with a massive midnight screening campaign in the wee hours of May 1st), but will finish up its China run with a respectable fifty-plus million total, second best among American films so far this year and fifth best overall.

Dreamworks Animation’s The Croods has enjoyed strong word of mouth and picked up nearly $10 million in its second week of release for a $16.6 million cume. Because it will continue to hold many of its screens—roughly 1,500 or so—through the end of this week, Croods should continue to draw well and finish with over $25 million.

Films winding down their runs this week include romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right, which rang up roughly $84 million, and war comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, with $44 million. Box office week ending April 28, 2013

The biggest story today is Iron Man 3, which after a confusing series of release date announcements by China’s film authorities finally kicked off its midnight screenings on May 1st. The film’s producers were concerned that with all the conflicting news, moviegoers might not have been aware of the actual opening times, but they needn’t have worried. Nearly every single one of the 1,500 midnight screenings that were originally scheduled was completely sold out. To meet audience demand, theaters added another 500 midnight screenings, plus untold additional 2:30am and even 5:00am screenings.

It’s still too early to call, but initial reports are indicating very good things ahead for Iron Man 3. With all of those sold out auditoriums it has a good shot at beating Titanic 3D’s midnight screenings total of RMB 10 million ($1.62mm), and possibly even Transformers 3’s all-time midnight record of RMB 12 million ($1.95mm). And with a record 30,000 screenings set for May 1st, fully 40 percent of China’s total screen capacity, Iron Man should draw a very large first-day total.

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.

Lovers vs. Fighters in China, ‘So Young’ vs. ‘Iron Man 3’; and the Winner Is…


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 26, 2013

The PRC movie showdown between So Young and Iron Man 3 is now at hand. And what a showdown it is! The two movies combined couldn’t possibly generate as much drama, tension, and emotional angst as has the behind-the-scenes battle over IM3’s release date.

Although So Young has only just opened, and Iron Man 3 has yet to unspool in China, So Young has already won the battle, thanks to a relentless campaign by that film’s Chinese distributor Enlight to derail the Disney/Marvel/DMG machine. The story of the two films’ jockeying for position offers interesting (and somewhat damning) insight into how SARFT favors domestic movies over foreign ones.

Back in March it was announced that the romantic melodrama So Young and the Hollywood action tent-pole Iron Man 3 would open head-to-head on April 26th. This is an excellent date, just ahead of the three-day Labor Day/May Day holiday, when business is expected to be brisk.

As a local film, So Young’s debut on April 26th was locked. As a perceived foreign film, albeit one with a domestic Chinese investor and partner in DMG, Iron Man 3 was on shaky ground, subject to the indignities that several Hollywood movies have recently faced in China (see this article for a taste of how Hollywood movies have fared lately at the hands of SARFT).

After much lobbying by the producers of both films, and a confusing string of announcements by various parties about where Iron Man 3 would land, it now appears that the Robert Downey Jr.-starring action extravaganza has been granted a release at 12:01am on May 1st.

For So Young, this is great news. The low-budget romantic melodrama gets the holiday to itself, and five full days to rake in its spoils before the big budget Hollywood movie enters the scene. Indeed, early reports are saying that So Young has opened to an excellent $8 million Friday debut, and that it has a good shot at earning at least $100 million.

For Iron Man 3, the May 1st date has to be disappointing, but it’s much better than the May 3rd date that had been widely reported a few days ago. Never mind the rather silly assertion from “Deadline” that May 3rd was the date Disney and Marvel were “eyeing all along.” Why would anyone be happy to open just after a major box office holiday? That was pure face-saving spin, presumably from Disney’s PR folks. Credit DMG with fighting a nearly unwinnable fight and preserving at least one day of the holiday to bolster its debut.

Whether Iron Man 3 can overtake So Young and become the first Hollywood film in over a year to reach $100 million is an open question, but missing the first two days of the three-day holiday will certainly hurt its prospects.

According to ‘Firedeep’, my unfailingly reliable “deep throat” in China, Iron Man 3 was buffeted by a series of unexpected delays, which began with some late reshoots of its Chinese scenes. According to Firedeep, the locked print of the film wasn’t sent to the Film Bureau for technical censorship until the night of April 12th, which made the April 26th debut a rather iffy, although still perfectly possible, proposition.

Meanwhile, the translation and dubbing of the film ran into late hour delays when Marvel decided to replace the original translator.

But the biggest obstacle for Iron Man 3 emerged when So Young’s distributor, Enlight Films, decided to play the ‘local film protection’ card, putting up major resistance to its competitor’s holiday release date by appealing to China’s Film Bureau. It’s rumored that So Young’s celebrity director, Vicky Zhao, showed up at the Bureau and literally cried her way to sympathy and ultimate victory. The film authorities dithered and vacillated before finally announcing their ‘final’ decision about IM3 on Friday, causing great confusion amongst moviegoers and provoking howls of protest from Marvel’s Chinese fanboys.

As one sharp-tongued Chinese observer put it on a PRC film website, “Back and forth. This whole thing is a fucking mess. Fuck Enlight Pictures and fuck SARFT like every time.”

And as if to underscore the point, SARFT continued to torture Django Unchained by repeatedly approving and then un-approving that film’s re-release. On Thursday one announcement pegged Django’s theatrical revival for May 9th, and a day later it was supposedly pushed to May 12th.  It’s death by a thousand cuts. Meanwhile many frustrated Tarantino fans have undoubtedly downloaded the uncensored BD-rip from pirate sites, leaving one to wonder whether any among them will still be waiting to buy theater tickets if and when the movie finally goes back up on the big screen.

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.

Qing Ming Brings Bling to China’s Theater Owners


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.comDrug War poster

By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

April 9, 2013

Last week’s arrival of The Qing Ming Festival—a 2,500 year old Chinese holiday when celebrants honor their ancestors by sweeping their gravesites—also brought a big boost in movie going. The holiday ranks as one of China’s top five or six movie revenue periods of the year, along with such holidays as western New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentines Day and National Day. This past week’s national ticket sales totalled $73 million, good enough for the fourth biggest week of the year and an 88 percent increase over the same period in 2012.Box office week ending April 7 2013

Leading the box office once again was the sleeper rom-com hit Finding Mr. Right, which was down a mere 12 percent from last week, and which has only just started to show signs of slowing. I grossly underestimated this picture’s potential at $40 million; it’s now a sure thing to go over $75 million.

Also holding up well was the WWII action comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which tallied $18.4 million to extend its total to nearly $31 million.

New openers didn’t fare quite as well. Action/thriller Drug War scored a $12.9 million total in its first six days of release, a bit of a bust relative to expectations but still director Johnnie To’s best debut to date. And the Ronny Yu-directed costume action/war drama Saving General Yang  fizzled at just $5 million, perhaps putting the final nail in the coffin of that moribund genre.

The Qing Ming week capped off a surprisingly potent 8-week period during which China’s theatrical film business nearly doubled the revenues of the same period last year. The 95 percent boost over 2012 was driven mainly by such local language comedy hits as Journey to the West and The Chef the Actor the Scoundrel, and romances Finding Mr. Right and Say Yes. These four films have collectively grossed over $320 million, accounting for more than a third of China’s total box office in 2013.

Hollywood films also contributed, but not at anywhere near the level they did last year. The four biggest non-Chinese films of the past eight weeks were The Hobbit, A Good Day to Die Hard, Resident Evil and Jack Reacher, which collectively pumped $114 million into China’s exhibition coffers.

The 8-week run of hugely favorable year-on-year comparisons will come to an end this week because last April’s enormous $74 million opening of Titanic will be impossible to beat.  I won’t hazard a guess as to how Django Unchained (opening Thursday) and two new Chinese romance pics will do this week, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t pose any threat to Titanic’s record. Look for comps that will be significantly down from last year’s numbers for at least this week and probably next week as well, unless G.I. Joe 2 catches fire.

I’m hard pressed to say whether Hollywood’s relative malaise in China this year is specific to the films that have been imported or is reflective of a larger shift in the market. It’s been suggested to me that market manipulation or fraud are major factors in Hollywood’s rapid decline in China, but I’ve only seen sparse and rather anecdotal evidence of this (I’ll publish an article on this topic in the next few days).

Hollywood hasn’t done very well this year in Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia either, and Chinese manipulation can hardly be blamed in those territories. I’m inclined to credit the rapid rise of Chinese films (at the expense of Hollywood’s movies) to improving stories, good production values, and growing awareness among China’s movie goers that at least some local films are worth the price of admission.

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.

The Increasingly Astonishing Rise of China’s Film Business


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.com

Rocket liftoff

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 6, 2013

Year after year I keep telling myself that China’s box office growth has to eventually slow down. An industry that has been rising at a pace 4 or 5 times faster than its country’s GDP for over a decade can’t continue at that rate for long. But year after year I’m amazed that growth just keeps accelerating. From 2001 to 2007, theatrical revenue increased at a 34 percent compound annual rate (as measured in US dollars); from 2008 to 2012 the pace quickened to 43 percent per year. So far in 2013 China’s movie revenue has increased 51 percent, and there’s no sign of a slowdown.

This year, China’s theatrical movie business is growing more than 6 times faster than its GDP. North America’s theatrical business, in contrast, has been growing slower even than its recession-worn economy, at an annual rate of just over 1 percent since 2002

China vs N. America box office growth 2002-13

Over the past few days China enjoyed a national holiday, the Qing Ming Festival (清明节), and again moviegoers turned out in huge numbers, roughly doubling last year’s holiday box office total with over $31 million in revenue on Thursday and Friday.

There are three main factors driving this incredible growth:

  1. China is undergoing the largest and most rapid development of a middle class in human history. Hundreds of millions of people are moving up from subsistence to affluence before our eyes.
  2. Cinema construction is booming. Thousands of new screens are opening each year, affording millions of potential customers the opportunity—many of them for the first time ever—to enjoy the moviegoing experience in modern multiplexes.
  3. The Chinese population has embraced movies, both foreign and increasingly domestically made Chinese movies, with exuberance. High ticket prices and generally mediocre films haven’t deterred them from filling up theaters to capacity.

Things will eventually have to cool off, but with so many big cities still lacking multiplexes, it will be many years before China reaches a saturation point. The biggest factor constraining growth is the shortage of screens. There are currently about 15,000 movie screens in 3,700 theaters across the country, the second largest national total in the world, but with its 1.3 billion population China is still woefully under-screened, with just one per every 90,000 people. The U.S. has almost 40,000 screens, or roughly one per every 8,000 people, according to the MPAA. To reach the U.S. level of screen density per capita, China would have to build an additional 150,000 screens.

Even if we assume China never gets anywhere near that massive screen count, and even if we assume that the growth trend slows down, it’s inevitable that China will soon have a much, much larger movie business than North America. For the sake of illustration let’s make a few conservative assumptions:

1. Box office growth in China slows down to 30 percent for the next 3 years, then 20 percent for the following 4 years, then 10 percent for the following 5 years until 2025.

2. Growth in North America maintains its 1.5 percent historical annual growth.

What we wind up with is a picture like this:Projected b.o. China vs N. Am thru 2025

Under conservative assumptions, we’ll see China’s gross box office surpassing that of  North America by 2018, and going on to double North America by the middle of the next decade. No other territory will come close even to North America, except possibly India. Hollywood’s century of hegemony over the global movie business will clearly soon come to an end.

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.