China’s Wild and Wooly December

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 25, 2012

Back in the fall, most everyone who follows China’s film industry predicted a record-breaking December. Three films by three iconoclastic Chinese directors—Feng Xiaogang, Wong Kar-wai and Jackie Chan—would sweep audiences into the multiplexes, with each picture grossing around US $100 million or more. Confidence was high that 2011’s December box office record of $218 million would be shattered and that a $350 million record-setting month was in store.

Now, as December draws to a close, the prognosticators can congratulate themselves at least on the latter point: China’s box office is running a scorching 70 percent ahead of last December, and the $350 million record should be in the bag before New Year’s Eve. But the path that China took to get there was one that no one could have foreseen.

Box office week ending 12-23-12

The first step in December’s long march to glory was the surprising performance of Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s film, Life of PiPi enraptured Chinese audiences with its lush 3D images and its weighty philosophical themes, becoming only the third non-Chinese film to achieve a higher gross in the PRC than in North America (the other two films are the American re-release, Titanic 3D, and the Australian shark attack thriller Bait). Pi would have likely reached $100 million in China if SARFT hadn’t clipped its run at 30 days on Sunday, so it finished with an $89 million final gross.

The next surprise was that Wong Kar-wai’s star-studded action pic The Grandmasters was pushed from its December 18th slot to January 8th, 2013.  At first this appeared a blow for Grandmasters, as it will completely miss out on the December box office bonanza, but the pushed date may actually be a blessing. Grandmasters would probably have gotten buried in the fierce pre-New Year’s competition, and January tends to be a strong month in China, as was proven by the early 2012 successes of  Flowers of War, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Mission Impossible 4, which launched last January and became the year’s first $100 million grosser.

Another shocker was the dismal under-performance of Feng Xiaogang’s war drama Back to 1942. The film’s grim and depressing themes, underwhelming marketing, and poor critical reception (my favorite quotes called it a “daisy-licking drama,” “a sledgehammer epic” and “an emotional strip-mine”) combined to diminish turnout. 1942’s $60 million gross would be heroic for most Chinese pictures, but with its reported $40+ million cost and $100 million expectation, 1942 caused the stock of distributor Huayi Bros to tank by 20 percent in the first few days after its release. Huayi’s stock regained some of its losses after it released CZ12 a few weeks later, but the stock of director Feng Xiaogang may not recover so quickly.Huayi Bros stock price

The biggest surprise of all was the emergence of sleeper hit Lost in Thailand, the low-budget comedy that has smashed dozens of Chinese box office records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing domestic Chinese film of all time. Only two weeks into its run, Lost in Thailand is now certain to surpass Titanic 3D and become the highest grosser of 2012. The little comedy that could has propelled the stock of its distributor, Beijing Enlight Media, to a 40 percent gain this month.Enlight Stock Price

The only detail that Chinese box office watchers predicted correctly was the success of Jackie Chan’s CZ12. The action-comedy opened to a $35 million first-week gross and, with little serious new competition this week, has a good chance of crossing the $100 million threshold by early January.

All told, December’s box office result will beat April’s prior monthly record by more than 35 percent. With the PRC’s box office record books being re-written on a weekly basis these days, film distributors can look forward to a very happy new year in 2013.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at

‘Pi’ Slices Up the Chinese Competition Again

Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Ang Lee and TigerBy Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 10, 2012

Screenwriting and producing assignments have kept me from posting here on China Film Biz during the past few weeks, but I’ll aim to catch up in the coming days. Much has happened since I last put virtual pen to paper.

First things first: the extraordinary box office performance of Life of Pi. The Ang Lee fantasy adventure is remarkable not only for its gravity-defying theatrical run in China, but also for what it reveals about the contemporary Chinese moviegoing audience. Not since Avatar has a film so captured the imaginations of China’s movie literati as Life of Pi, which has inspired more than 5 million tweet messages on Sina Weibo, the PRC’s leading Twitter-like site. The picture is well on its way to becoming only the second U.S. film this year to earn more in China than in North America, and its success underscores a broadening trend of the PRC’s mainstream audience beyond popcorn spectacles to include more thoughtful fare.

Widely expected before its launch to earn only middling numbers, Life of Pi has caught fire with multiple audience segments, including Ang Lee fans, 3D movie fans and, perhaps most importantly, sophisticated moviegoers who appreciate Pi’s symbolism and its exploration of weighty topics like faith and religion. China’s social media sphere has positively lit up with speculation about such topics as the metaphorical significance of the film’s carnivorous island, and its philosophical musings about the subjective nature of storytelling.

Three weeks after its debut Life of Pi has grossed nearly $70 million in China—$9 million more than it has earned in North America. It should wind up at around $95 million when SARFT’s regulators pull it from theaters after its sanctioned 30 day run. If—and this seems unlikely—SARFT allows the picture a 2-week extension, it could surpass Painted Skin: Resurrection to become the mainland’s second highest grosser this year after Titanic 3D.Box office week ending December 2, 2012

Pi’s success has not only dealt a serious blow to director Feng Xiaogang’s film Back to 1942 (not to mention his stature in China’s film industry), but it has also thrown a wrench in SARFT’s hard fought schemes to keep the market share of foreign films below 50 percent in 2012. Pi will outgross SARFT’s initial estimates by about $70 million, thus tipping the market share balance in favor of imports, much to the dismay of China’s bureaucrats who are responsible for market share manipulation .

If Back to 1942 manages a decent hold and if Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac performs at or near expectations, the mainland’s total 2012 gross could approach $2.6 billion.  That would represent a 29 percent increase over last year’s total, another record year for the PRC and another step closer to catching up with the $10+ billion North American market.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at

‘Life of Pi’ Washes Up a Wave of Cash in China

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 27, 2012

Strong word of mouth and a weekend surge in attendance led Life of Pi to a surprising box office win last week over the 3D re-release of Roland Emmerich’s 2012. The Ang Lee directed adventure-drama (Chinese title: 少年派的奇幻漂流, or “Young Pi’s Rafting Fantasy”) netted $17 million in its four-day opening, versus a six-day total of $14.7 million for 2012.

After two weeks at the top of the box office, Hong Kong actioner Cold War slipped by 49 percent to a $7.5 million haul. The film has edged out Silent War and now stands as the second highest-grossing Chinese language film so far this year, at $38.4 million.

A pair of animation imports from Hollywood, Wreck–It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians, landed in fourth and fifth places, with $1.37 million and $1.14 million respectively. As is so often the case with non-sequel animated films, neither film has indexed well in China: Ralph will finish in fifth place among all 2012 animated releases in the PRC—notably, behind the Chinese cartoons Pleasant Goat and I Love Wolffy—and Rise of the Guardians will be lucky to crack the top ten (although it will probably surpass Pixar’s latest China misfire, Brave).

Three significant factors are driving Life of Pi’s success: Its strong IMAX/3D footprint; high praise from critics and cultural influencers; and the drawing power of the film’s director, Ang Lee.

China is one of IMAX’s top countries, not only in terms of screen count, but also in revenue per screen. According to anecdotal reports I’m hearing, Life of Pi enjoyed IMAX’s third biggest ever launch in the PRC, behind Avatar and Titanic 3D.

Critics praised the film not only for its lush imagery and superb direction, but also for its Asian viewpoint and deep philosophical essence. And after viewing the film such high profile stars as  Lee HomCarina Lau and Shu Qi urged their millions of social media followers to come out and see the picture, helping to trigger a big weekend turnout.

Filmgoers wait on a long line to see ‘Life of Pi’ at a Shenzhen theater.

Finally, China’s filmgoers respond at least as much to top directors as they do to stars. Only a handful of directors have true drawing power, and Ang Lee is one of them. Life of Pi has a shot at topping $50 million in China; the only thing that might hold it back is a competing release from another marquee director, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, If You Are the One). It will be a surprise to many if Feng’s new film Back to 1942, which opens on Wednesday, November 29th, doesn’t break all records and become the highest-grossing Chinese language film ever.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at

China’s Box Office: A Simple Life’s Strong Debut

by Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 19, 2012

This past week saw Steven Spielberg’s War Horse repeat as the top film at the mainland Chinese box office, taking in $5.9 million to bring its total two-week haul to $14.7 million.  Falling one place from #2 to #3 was Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which earned $3.4 million for the week to bring its cumulative box office total to a cool $56.6 million over 31 days of screening.

Debuting at #4 was Robert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World in 4D, bringing in $3 million for the week, while Conan the Barbarian dropped to fifth place with $2.8 million in its second week of release to bring its total box office to $5.9 million.

Perhaps the most interesting news at the box office was the successful debut of  A Simple Life, starring Hong Kong star Andy Lau, which brought in $5.2 million in just 4 days.  This was good enough to earn the film the number 2 spot at the box office, making it the lone non-Hollywood film among the week’s top 5.

The success of A Simple Life serves as a reminder of the amazing talent that the Chinese filmmaking diaspora has to offer.  Ann Hui, the film’s director, is one of the foremost talents of the groundbreaking Hong Kong New Wave of the 1970s and 80s, which included Tsui Hark and John Woo among the film movement’s notable members.  For many Chinese people around the world, Hong Kong cinema has served as the de facto source of Chinese cinema for decades, and its influence on even Hollywood cinema has been well documented.

After about a decade of depression in the Taiwan film industry, Taiwanese cinema has seen a significant revival, starting in 2008 with the highly popular Cape No. 7 breaking Taiwan box office records despite its lack of name celebrities.  This trend of successful films that eschew established Taiwanese stars continued with Monga (2010), Night Market Hero (2011), and Seediq Bale (2011).

As was previously mentioned in China Film Biz, Taiwanese films have also found recent success at the mainland Chinese box office.  In just the first 8 weeks of 2012, three films by Taiwanese directors each grossed $8 million or better, and have collectively grossed almost $40 million. Hong Kong/China and Taiwan/China co-productions have collectively taken in over $139 million at the Chinese box office this year for about a third of the overall box office.

Chinese-American filmmakers must also be mentioned in this context. NYU educated and long-time U.S. resident Ang Lee as been on the global stage for nearly two decades, and his game-changing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a catalyst in the conversations about global Chinese cinema.  And Justin Lin has established himself as one of Hollywood’s more successful directors with his popular installments in the Fast & Furious series. Lin has also made it a priority to cast Asian Americans in supporting roles in his globally popular movies.

Mainland China also has the talent necessary to make globally successful movies, with filmmakers like Feng Xiaogang and Zhang Yimou often leading the charge at the domestic and global box offices.  And there are other talented filmmakers who haven’t had the box office success of the aforementioned directors but who would probably be just as capable of directing a successful “global Chinese film”, if given the right opportunity.

But what will a global Chinese cinema look like?  It can’t and shouldn’t be a mirror image of what Hollywood has created with its big-budget blockbusters, movies that are often focused more on grand visual spectacle than on the intricacies of a well-told story.

Rather than just pumping money into the film industry while simultaneously imposing creativity-stifling restrictions on its local filmmakers, the Chinese government needs to have a clearer vision of what it hopes to achieve with a global Chinese cinema, so that it can give all the filmmakers in the Chinese diaspora a greater license to creatively explore and produce groundbreaking “Chinese” cinema that the whole world can enjoy.

Even if the government wishes to continue to exercise ultimate control over the content being turned out by its film industry, China needs to make explicit and streamline the rules by which it wants its filmmakers to abide.  If the rules can be made less arbitrary and less antagonistic to entertainment, even with these restrictions Chinese filmmakers will find a way to flourish, just as Hollywood was able to flourish (and even experience its Golden Age of Cinema) under the restrictive Hays Code established in the 1930s.  If the government can’t find a way to give its filmmakers at least some artistic license, the best and most influential Chinese films will continue to come from places other than the mainland film industry.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at

Memo to China: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Start Making Watchable Movies

by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 8, 2012


To: Those calling the shots in China’s film industry

From: A concerned foreigner

Re: Unsolicited but well-meaning advice


Dear Chinese Film Honcho:

I’ve just read a report from an official-sounding Beijing organization called the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture, which tries to explain why “many good Chinese film productions have not yet reached the mainstream audiences overseas.”

Excuse me, but do they know something I don’t? What good Chinese movies? Your movies don’t reach mainstream audiences overseas because they’re generally unwatchable. Even your own people, who have extremely limited movie-going choices thanks to your restrictive quota system, are staying away from these mediocre pictures.

It’s not that Chinese filmmakers can’t make good movies. People like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Wu Tianming, Liu Jiayin, Lou Ye, Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Justin Lin, and others have shown the world that they know how to make artistic and crowd-pleasing films. In perhaps the ultimate compliment, Hollywood gave a Best Foreign Language Oscar to your Taiwanese brother Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a while back. More recently the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie (The Departed) that was adapted from a film (Infernal Affairs) written and directed by three of your own Hong Kong brothers, Alan Mak, Felix Chong and Andrew Lau.

No, Chinese filmmakers and storytellers aren’t the problem, it’s the rules and threats you shackle them with. And your often atrocious behavior. You just can’t seem to play nice with others.

So, herewith, some unsolicited advice on how you can do better. Follow these rules and before you know it you’ll be making films that people may actually want to see.

  1. Cut the Hypocrisy – What’s with all the censorship when you let your people watch anything and everything they want on the internet and pirated DVDs? How come I can buy a copy of Saw 4 or The Human Centipede on any street corner in Shanghai but I can’t depict a character in my movie carrying a gun or smoking a joint? Do you really think your people are so sheltered and chaste that their minds are in danger of being polluted by a two-hour movie theater experience?
  2. Stop Treating Everyone Like Children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children from inappropriate content, but do you really need to apply rules that are appropriate for 4 year-olds to prevent everyone over the age of 17 from seeing images of sex, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ activities? We all know you’re having sex; there are 1.4 billion of you for heaven’s sake! Stop pretending it doesn’t exist. An intelligent film rating system would be a big improvement.
  3. Feed the Writers and Artists – You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China. Please stop locking them up. Try investing in them instead. Let one hundred flowers bloom, and don’t cut them down when they do. Good movies need good stories and creative thinking. Here in Hollywood we have a thing called ‘development.’ It means investing in a writer and his or her story before you start making the movie.
  4. Take Risks – Stop asking us to guarantee you a 30 percent secured return on movie investments when you know we need risk capital. Don’t plead ignorance of capitalism—you guys are the best capitalists the world has ever seen. And show some imagination. Aren’t you tired already of backing Ming dynasty kung fu retreads or anti-Japanese WWII propaganda films or the 215th remake of The Monkey King?
  5. Learn Some Manners – Let’s face it, you know you need Hollywood. We’ve already figured out how to make movies the world wants to see. So show us a little respect. You keep coming over here saying you want to do business with us, making promises, signing contracts, then disappearing off to Vegas and Disneyland never to be heard from again. Or you seduce us into coming over to you with promises of investment when all you really want to do is milk us for information and ideas or ask us to work for you for free. We’ve got enough bullshitters over here, thank you. If you believe in guanxi then start acting like it!
  6. If You Have Money, Stop Talking About It and Start Investing It. If You Don’t, Then Please Go Away! – Okay, we get that you’ve figured out how to publish press releases about your supposed new billion dollar fund and your Goldman Sachs advisors. We get that it’s fun for you to see your name in bogus stories in Deadline. Enough talk. If you really want to participate in the global film market, then put your money where your mouth is.

You think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Fine. Why don’t you ask Feng Xiaogang, your most commercially successful filmmaker? I know he’ll agree.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at