Who is La Peikang and How Did He Get Here?


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La Peikang

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 11, 2013

There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is La.

OK, that didn’t quite have the gravitas I was going for. The point is that China’s New Year’s holiday week is over and the dominant organization of China’s film industry, China Film Group, has a new Chairman, La Peikang (喇培康).

La’s appointment to the PRC’s top film job signals a new direction and some interesting potential changes in the years ahead, both for Chinese filmmakers and distributors and their overseas counterparts. Namely, La’s extensive international experience overseas and in China’s co-production bureaucracy point to a likely increased focus by CFG on international cooperation and expansion.

Variously described by those who know him as “serious,” “educated and academic,” “quietly effective,” “well-liked” and “outward looking,” La could scarcely be more different than his predecessor, Han Sanping.

In the role he held for ten years, Han Sanping was a hustler, a mover-and-shaker who presided over the massive rise of China’s film industry from its status as a tiny backwater with a mere 0.7 percent share of the global box office in 2003 to its emergence as the world’s most dynamic movie territory, with a 10 percent (and rapidly rising) share of the worldwide pie in 2013.

I remember the early days of his tenure when Han Sanping would show up in Hollywood unknown and barely acknowledged, begging for meetings with studio execs, agents, movie stars, anyone who would pay attention. Most dismissed him in those days as unworthy of their time, because China was so negligible as a territory, let alone as a potential source of financing. But Han’s “Baqi” (覇气) loosely translated as “lord’s air” or “domineering spirit,” drove him to oversee the incredibly rapid modernization of the Chinese market, with the construction of 16,000 new cinema screens and a corresponding 2,700 percent increase in domestic box office receipts. Nowadays, thanks largely to Han’s contributions, China is on everyone’s mind, and it would be difficult to find a serious agent or executive who doesn’t know his name.

Given the legacy that Han created, La will find that the tables have turned and that studio heads and movie stars will eagerly, if not desperately, court his favor. Those who meet him will experience a completely different breed of Chinese movie czar. In contrast to Han’s bulldog approach, La is a more sophisticated executive, a fluent English and French speaker who is apparently viewed by China’s leaders as the right person to lead their country’s movie business to maturity and, they hope, to increasing global influence.

Before his appointment was announced, few anticipated that La would be the one to win the top job. It’s not that he lacked credentials—he was Deputy Chairman of the SARFT Film Bureau, and he had previously run an important CFG subsidiary, the internationally focused China Film Co-Production Company. But other candidates were more in the public eye, perhaps because they were more effective at outwardly promoting themselves.

When it came down to it though, it was La’s connections, his political skills, and his perceived loyalty to his Chinese Communist Party bosses that ultimately allowed him to prevail. He was chosen for the job by the Party’s ultra secretive, extraordinarily powerful Organization Department (中国共产党中央组织部), China’s political king-making office. Richard McGregor of The Financial Times described the Organization Department’s status thusly:

“To glean a sense of the dimensions of the Organization Department’s job, [imagine] a parallel body in Washington…that would oversee the appointments of every US state governor and their deputies; the mayors of big cities; heads of federal regulatory agencies; the chief executives of General Electric, ExxonMobil, Walmart and 50-odd of the remaining largest companies; justices on the Supreme Court; the editors of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the bosses of the television networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities and the heads of think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.”

This Organization Department controls more than 70 million party personnel assignments across the country, and it is no small matter to win their approval for senior party roles like La’s. Although, as McGregor wrote, “their vetting process takes place behind closed doors and appointments are announced without any explanation about why they have been made,” it’s not difficult to imagine intense lobbying, backbiting, mudslinging, and all manner of political fisticuffs. And La would have had to pass intense scrutiny– the Organization Department has access to dossiers and background checking capabilities that put the CIA and NSA to shame.

So don’t let La’s quiet, academic demeanor fool you; he’s undoubtedly as tough and effective as they come in China’s political bureaucracy. And that’s saying a lot.

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.

Keanu’s Big Swing and a Miss in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 8, 2013

Nearly a decade in development and more than two years in production, Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, was supposed to accomplish several ambitious goals:

  1. Enable Reeves to make the leap from actor to respected film director.
  2. Propel Reeves’ friend and Matrix kung fu mentor Tiger Chen to his own breakout as an action star.
  3. Establish a China beachhead for Reeves and enable him to make more movies there.
  4. Earn lots of money for the film’s investors, who include China Film Group, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, and Universal Pictures.

But the tepid audience response to Man of Tai Chi’s opening in China last weekend spells disappointment for everyone involved.  Although Reeves may still have a directing career ahead, his first film now appears more hindrance than help in advancing him toward that goal. I haven’t yet seen the movie so I can’t comment on Reeves’ directing capabilities, but the trailer has an odd direct-to-video feel to it and, according to Weibo chatter, lacks appeal for many in its targeted demographic.

At a reported $25 million budget, the picture will need to do a much better job drawing audiences in the U.S. and other territories if it is to turn a profit.  Wanda is said to have put up a substantial percentage of the negative cost in exchange for Chinese distribution rights, and turned over some 60 percent of its 1000+ screens to the picture. In hindsight that looks to have been a costly decision; given its $2.87 million nationwide total for the 3-day weekend, Man of Tai Chi will likely finish with less than $10 million in theatrical gross receipts over its entire China run. Wanda would have been better off allocating more of its screens to local hits Blind Detective and Tiny Times, or to the popular Warner Bros release Man of Steel.

Wanda and its partners in Man of Tai Chi  made a bet that audiences would turn out for Reeves because of his Chinese heritage and his track record as an action star with a genuine martial arts pedigree. My feeling is that the core moviegoing audience may simply be too young to know who Reeves is, and so he didn’t draw as well as had been hoped.

The U.S. market probably won’t offer much support, as the film still doesn’t have a scheduled release date there. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Weinstein Company’s Radius division picked up U.S. rights at Cannes with intentions for a fourth quarter U.S. release, but has not yet announced any firm plans. Universal’s decision not to handle the film despite having invested in it suggests they lack confidence in its North American prospects.

In Reeves’ and his backers’ defense, their task was not an easy one; few recent action or martial arts films have been successful both in China and abroad. Here’s hoping  Man of Tai Chi finds better luck in the global 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.

‘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.

No Climbing, No Dabbling in China’s Movie Biz


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

May 8, 2013

I spotted the sign shown above as I was exiting Shanghai’s Pudong airport last week, and although the signmaker’s translation skills are sorely lacking (the bottom sentence should read “Please don’t play in the water.”), the message stuck with me as an appropriate one for those looking to earn their fame and fortune in China’s movie business.

No climbing, no dabbling. Precisely! Understand the hierarchy, especially the government culture, don’t try to overstep your bounds, and don’t dabble because things are moving so fast here that if you fail to move and adapt quickly you’ll get left behind. It’s a culture that Hollywood’s studios generally abhor, and for that reason they’re mostly opting out of the China boom, leaving the money and opportunity to entrepreneurs and risk-takers.

And there’s so much money and opportunity, even (perhaps especially) for foreigners who respect the rules. From small private startups to the biggest state-owned enterprises, China’s film industry is awash in cash, hungry for success, and eager to partner with people who possess know-how and international access.

In my recent China travels I’ve met a 30ish entrepreneur who has poured at least $25 million of his own money into a state-of-the-art post facility; a former government employee who controls an enormous production facility and sizable production fund; and countless others who are prepared to fund movies and entertainment ventures if they can only find investable projects.

Recognizing that commercial filmmaking skills and business savvy are in short supply in China, most of these folks are happy to collaborate with–and in many cases finance–foreign professionals. Even the huge and stodgy China Film Group, the supposed dinosaur of China’s film industry, has aggressively embraced foreign talent, reportedly placing more than two-thirds of its upcoming film projects with international directors. One of the biggest budget films in China’s history, Beijing Forbidden City Film Company’s Wolf Totem, is in the hands of French director Jean-Jacques Annaud. It’s a sign of the heady times in the PRC that Annaud was granted approval to direct Wolf Totem even though he’d been previously banned for making the anti-PRC film Seven Years in Tibet.

One major way that foreign influences have seeped into China is the increasing prevalence and success of Hollywood-style storytelling in locally made films. Pictures like Lost in Thailand, Finding Mr. Right, So Young, Drug War and American Dreams in China have attracted giant Chinese audiences by co-opting western storytelling techniques, and in some cases adapting Hollywood hits to the local culture. This an encouraging trend, one that bodes well for skilled western writers and filmmakers who are willing to give China a go.

Of course there’s a catch to all of this. To play in China one must be willing to play by the rules. Here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Meet them more than halfway. Chinese investors tend to be more likely to place their capital at home than overseas. Co-productions are fine, whether in Mandarin or English, but don’t expect them to finance your quirky indie comedy or heartfelt drama unless it can shoot in China with Chinese elements. Chinese movie investors neither understand nor trust the foreign marketplace; most will only invest if they’re confident they can make their money back in China.

2. Brand name drop. If you want to get a Chinese investor’s attention, there’s no better way than to trot out some brand names with which you can claim some association. Can you get a major movie star involved? Are you or have you ever worked for one of the major Hollywood studios? Did you get a masters degree at Yale (or better yet, at Beijing University)? Can you work the words “Goldman” and “Sachs” into the conversation? Few PRC investors have the ability, or even the interest, to assess the quality of your screenplay, but a strong brand name they recognize will help you to swiftly cut through the clutter.

3. Be sensitive to the culture.  Just as in Hollywood, there are many cultural, social, and business rules that must be obeyed if you’re to have a reasonable shot at success. Too many foreigners show up with little understanding of how things work in China and reveal themselves as ‘barbarians’ who are best avoided.

4. Bring protection. China can be a rough-and-tumble place, and foreigners are often treated as targets for exploitation (and sometimes amusement). It’s best to have a local partner or ‘sherpa’ to guide you through the minefield. A great source of information and advice is the Harris Moure law firm’s China Law Blog.

Several friends recently asked me if I’d be attending Cannes this year, and I felt compelled to reply “What for?” The action is all in the East these days. Of my scores of Chinese film business contacts I’m only aware of two who bothered to attend the Cannes festival this year. Better to spend your time at the Shanghai Film Festival in mid-June, where you can participate in a relevant and rapidly growing scene. So don’t dabble, book your ticket and hotel room before everyone else squeezes you out.

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.

Big Trouble in Movie China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 26, 2012

Crisis in China’s movie business was narrowly averted on Friday when the country’s film authorities announced that they will award performance-based box office bonuses to domestic film distributors and to theaters, ending a weeks-long dispute that had each side threatening to boycott the other over revenue splits. Thanks to the feds’ intervention, the eagerly awaited release of Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 will proceed as planned on Thursday, and Chinese moviegoers will enjoy a normal December movie season,

Tensions were high in mid-November when five of China’s biggest film distributors banded together to demand an increase in their shares of box office revenues from 43 percent to 45 percent. The five companies—China Film Group, Huayi Brothers Media Group, Bona Film Group, Stellar Mega Films, and Enlight Pictures—told theaters that if they didn’t get their way they would immediately start withholding the releases of their blockbuster movies, including Back to 1942 and Jackie Chan’s China Zodiac, both of which are expected to be major holiday season hits.

In a notice issued to theater chains, the five film distributors said that China’s domestically-made blockbusters have contributed significantly to the nation’s film market. Yet, they complained, as they continue to produce films using state-of-the-art technology, production costs will continue to rise. “Therefore,” the distributors asserted, “In order to boost the creation and production of domestic movies, improve their quality and gradually smooth over the economic relationships between the stages of producing, distributing and screening, we five companies have reached the consensus that the profit share proportion for distributors should not be lower than 45 percent.”

Theater operators responded by holding an emergency meeting of their industry organization, the China Film Circulation and Projection Association, on November 17th in Guangzhou. They published a combative response (copied below) to the distributors’ demands and offered some choice words to reporters, with veteran Wanda Cinema salesman Liang Liang telling a reporter, “I have only three words [for the distributors]: Go to hell!”

In their declaration, the theater operators deemed the distributors’ demands unacceptable, for the following reasons:

  1. The five film distribution companies failed to follow the rules; without any attempt at consultation, they simply went ahead and gave the theaters an ultiimatum.
  2. The five film companies failed to consider that the industry’s current revenue split has been formed over an extensive period of trial and error and therefore any change in pattern would require adequate preparation.
  3. The five film distribution companies only took into consideration their own interests, without considering the challenges faced by theater operators. Most theaters are unprofitable due to the exorbitant rents they must pay their landlords.
  4. The distributors failed to use the correct method to address their grievance. They could have easily taken their request for a raise in revenue shares to China’s Movie Special Funds and apply for the increase in rates there.
  5. The distributors exchanged friendship for profit. China’s movie industry has always supported these five major players in film distribution. However, their actions showed how they have seemingly left behind their integrity when the temptation of personal gain showed its face.

Note that most of these objections are moral and ethical ones, not legal arguments. It’s an interesting example of how business operates in a country like China, where contractual obligations are usually less important than relational ones.

Civil war was ultimately prevented when the National Film Development Funds Management Committee (NFDFMC) stepped in and offered a solution in the form of bonus compensation to both sides, as follows:

For distributors of domestically made 3D and IMAX films 

If a film grosses RMB 50mm to 100mm , a RMB 1mm bonus

If a film grosses RMB 100mm to 300mm, a RMB 2mm bonus

If a film grosses RMB 300mm to 500mm, a RMB 5mm bonus

If a film’s box office gross surpasses 500mm, a RMB 10mm bonus

For theater operators

If at least 50 percent of a theater chain’s total annual box office gross is earned from domestic films, 100 percent of fees paid during the year by the theater chain to the NFDFMC (a straight 5 percent of every RMB of ticket sales) will be reimbursed to the theater chain.

If the percentage of box office earned from domestic films is between 45 percent and 50 percent, the NFDFMC will reimburse 80 percent of the fees a theater has paid to it.

If the percentage is below 45 percent, but the domestic film revenue is still more than last year’s, the NFDFMC will reimbursed 50 percent of the fees.

Both sides were apparently satisfied with this solution, and the show will go on. China’s theaters will continue to run films from the five distributors, and Back to 1942 will unspool on the 29th.

Having witnessed an endless string of financial shenanigans in China’s movie business, I can’t help feeling that this whole dispute was staged as a ploy to justify an end result that undeniably favors domestic films over imported ones. After all, China’s film regulators have for years twisted and strained to get around the WTO rules, and have often simply reneged on their legal obligations, in order to keep foreign films’ revenues below a 50 percent aggregate share of the box office.

With the attractive NFDFMC bonuses to tempt them, it’s hard to imagine that any theater chain in China will ever again submit an annual report with a domestic film box office share of less than 50 percent. The new rules give them powerful incentive to under-report the grosses of the foreign films they exhibit (if they aren’t already doing so) in order to maintain the desired balance and win their juicy year-end spoils.

As if this shift against the interests of foreign distributors wasn’t injury enough, I’m also hearing rumors that SARFT is planning to find ways to roll back the 25 percent share it pays foreign films to a somewhat lower rate. If you’ve heard anything about this please write me at the email address below.

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.

On the Money Trail: Are Chinese Distributors Paying Producers What They Owe?


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

November 5, 2012

With the American Film Market going on this week, Chinese buyers are in town in L.A., haggling with non-Chinese producers over prices for their films and reportedly making record-breaking offers. As the non-Chinese producers enter into these deals, one thing that is sure to be on their minds is the concern as to whether Chinese distributors will pay them their fair, contractually negotiated share of box office receipts.

No other aspect of the film business is more important than collections, but when it comes to China, Hollywood has been uncharacteristically quiet on this topic. As far as I know there has been no public complaint from the studios, no claims of cheating, no audits.

Does this mean that producers are getting their fair share. The answer, I am certain, is an emphatic “no.”

This is an incendiary topic, one that few producers are willing to address publicly for fear that China’s major distribution companies will take offense and ban them from conducting further business in the PRC. None of the U.S. producers, studio executives or industry representatives with whom I’ve spoken on this issue would do so on the record.

But one bold Chinese producer did speak out, presumably because he felt he had nothing else to lose.

I’m referring to Hao Yaning, Chairman of United Film Investment, which co-financed and produced the Chinese comedy My Own Swordsman. China Film Group (CFG) released My Own Swordsman in 2011 to great success, at least for itself. Hao, who put up 30 percent of the film’s $2 million budget, was entitled to a commensurate 30 percent share of net distribution receipts, after marketing and distribution costs. But Hao claims he was paid only a minute fraction of what he was owed; although the film grossed at least US $30 million according to CFG’s reports (Hao believes the actual figure was more like $48 million), CFG paid him only US $800,000.

To put the numbers in context, distributor rentals in China typically amount to about 40 percent of gross after the exhibitor’s share and box office taxes are deducted. Using CFG’s figure of $30 million, then deducting an estimated $1.5 million for P&A (ad expenditures are typically very low in China), and another 20 percent (again, my estimate) for CFG’s distribution fee, that would leave a pool of at least a $8.4 million for Han and his company to share in. His 30 percent would amount, very conservatively, to over $2.5 million.

Hao believed that the profit pool was actually $16 million, not $8.4 million, and he was understandably less than thrilled with what he felt was CFG’s retention of at least 80 percent of the money it owed him (or at least 68 percent if we use CFG’s own numbers).

Fed up with the situation, Hao did what no one else had done before. In June he sued China Film Group, alleging that the studio violated a number of terms of their agreement for My Own Swordsman, including “severe falsification” of box office profit reports. Hao demanded that CFG pay him a sum working out to more than RMB 102 million, or roughly US $16 million.

A Chinese court accepted the case, which would never have happened unless higher-ups in the Communist Party wanted it to. Apparently, someone at or near the top has taken an interest in this issue.

For its part, China Film Group issued an aggressive statement of its own:

Before the courts have determined the relevant facts and passed judgment, United Film investment has repeatedly publicized remarks on CFG not giving the sufficient percentage to United Film as well as other complaints inconsistent with the facts. This has led to a serious misleading of the public, and has severely harmed the rights and interests of CFG. CFG retains the right to investigate legal liability on the part of United Film for severe infringement of CFG’s reputation.

CFG’s concerns are presumably less about My Own Swordsman and more about the potential grievances that could come from their major foreign suppliers in Hollywood (not to mention CFG’s own pending IPO, which could be negatively impacted by the lawsuit).

For their part those at the studios who spoke off the record had comments like this:

“I’m hearing the same things you’re hearing, that there is significant box office cheating going on.”

“Collection has been very slow in China, typically more than 90 days.”

“Skimming is one of the issues that’s an ongoing anxiety, it’s a reality of what’s going on not only in China but in a number of our territories.”

“China Film Group told us after a certain point that we had made enough money on our picture in China, and that even though the film was still making money they were not going to pay us any more.”

“The common wisdom is that there is skimming and under-reporting. No one knows exactly how much it is.”

As I wrote back in February, what I heard directly from box office reporting company executives was that skimming of receipts runs as high as 40 percent.

It’s not like the studios to stand by and do nothing when they believe they’re being short-changed. So what’s going on here?

For one thing, the studios do understand that this is a fraught and potentially dangerous issue for them in their most important international territory. As one studio executive put it, “The problem is that if you complain, you risk being put out of business in China.”

But the studios also have an ace up their sleeves, and they’re considering when and how to play it. The WTO memorandum of understanding on audiovisual products that was negotiated between China and the U.S. earlier this year includes a provision that allows U.S. companies to audit the records of Chinese distributors. Although they haven’t yet invoked this provision, one well-placed industry representative told me this:

The audit provision was a specific ask we had that was expressed through the United States government. It’s there because we want it and feel it’s important. There have been conversations about what to do and when and how to do it. We want to make sure we are able to conduct an audit in a way that will be definitive and dispositive.

This same individual told me that there have been cases in the past where several studios had concerns about whether full payments were being made, and there is an ongoing concern about the timeliness of payments, but he felt that “the process is getting back to normal.”

2012 has been an unusual year owing to the major changes wrought by the WTO MOU, and also because of the leadership transition that is now under way in the People’s Republic. The timing simply hasn’t been right for raising the collections issue. Once the dust has settled and China’s new leaders are in place, perhaps at some point early next year, the major studios will take action and enforce their rights to ensure that they are being paid properly.

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.

Hollywood’s Looming China Syndrome


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 11, 2012

In the 1979 Oscar nominated thriller “The China Syndrome,” a pair of journalists played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas stir up a hornet’s nest when they expose a nuclear plant accident that they fear could result in a “China Syndrome,” a worst-case scenario where the reactor core melts through its containment structures and drops into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.” The nasty end result would be a nuclear explosion that would render Southern California completely uninhabitable.

The film’s frantic tension arises from the conflict between the journalists’ efforts to obtain justice, and the nuclear plant operator’s self-preserving, sometimes violent attempts to maintain a cover-up of the accident. Fonda and Douglas characters’ righteous ambition winds up getting Jack Lemmon’s well-intentioned plant supervisor killed, and ultimately jeopardizes their own lives and careers, with the film’s final shot suggesting that nothing has really changed.

Hollywood’s major studios have set in motion a similarly risky and probably fruitless course of action by complaining publicly about what they feel is unfair treatment of their films in China. In pressing the U.S. Trade Representative to take diplomatic steps, the studios are escalating tensions in a situation that, if continued, could well result in a “China Syndrome” of their own that would poison their long-term prospects in the world’s fastest-growing and soon to be largest movie market.

The source of the studios’ discontent is their perception that recent moves by China Film Group have aimed to reduce the grosses of American films at Chinese multiplexes, by setting “blackout periods” during which Hollywood movie releases are limited, and by pitting at least two of these movies, “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” against each other on the same weekend.

According to the Los Angeles Times, MPAA Chief Policy Officer Greg Frazier admits that the Chinese haven’t really done anything illegal. “Are they violating WTO obligations? Probably not.” To his credit, Frazier has been much more restrained and diplomatic in his statements than his studio counterparts have been.

The timing and tenor of the Americans’ complaints betray a complete disregard for the facts, a pronounced insensitivity about current events in China, and an alarming level of ignorance about how to win favor and get things done there.

Let’s take a look at what’s been happening with American movies in China:

  • In the first half of 2012, U.S. movies took a 68 percent share of China’s box office receipts. After the summer blackout, their share now stands at 60 percent. Domestic Chinese films have a 15 percent share, and China/Hong Kong co-productions another 23 percent. The rest of the world: 2 percent.
  • “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” had China’s third and fourth best opening weeks, and after just 14 days in release the two films are already China’s 9th and 10th highest grossing pictures of 2012.
  • As I pointed out in an article last month, American films enjoy wider distribution, more screens and longer runs in China than do Chinese films.
  • During the past two weeks, U.S. films have taken 98 percent of China’s nationwide movie ticket revenues.
  • Of the 11 highest grossing movies in China this year, 10 are American.

Get the picture?

Now let’s look at China’s domestic scene:

  • The economy is experiencing an epic slowdown, one that is putting tens of millions out of work and raising serious questions about China’s financial viability.
  • The country’s communist party leadership is embroiled in the midst of an unwieldy succession crisis. With a once-in-a-decade power transition about to begin, one of the party’s top political stars has been disgraced with murder and corruption charges, and presumed president-to-be Xi Jinping has completely disappeared from public view, possibly due to a heart attack.
  • Territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea have escalated to frightening levels, with diplomatic and trade relations between China and Japan deteriorating to post-WWII lows.
  • The party’s legitimacy is under threat from rifts within its ranks and also from the public via social media. As Dr. Cheng Li, a research director at the Brookings Institute recently put it, “This legitimacy crisis is worse than in 1989, and may be the worst in the history of the Communist Party. People are afraid that it could lead to revolution if it is not handled well.”

With all this turbulence, do the studio heads really think this is a good time to complain about movie schedules? Last weekend, the studios made almost as much money in Chinese theaters as they did in U.S. ones. To the Chinese they must seem like unwanted houseguests who, after living in the guest house for a while, have commandeered the master bedroom, eaten almost everything in the fridge, and now they’re screaming bloody murder because the homeowners have told them to stay out of the kitchen on weekends and marked a couple of food containers as off-limits.

Meanwhile, the Chinese homeowners are overwhelmed with problems: uncle and auntie have murdered a foreigner in the living room, the phone is constantly ringing with calls from bill collectors, major cracks have appeared in the foundation, and the neighbors have figured out how to open the windows from the outside and hurl insults at them about their previously private bodily functions.

And what are these ungrateful Americans doing for them anyway? Only a few companies—most notably IMAX, Fox, and Dreamworks Animation—have made efforts to appease the PRC’s political leaders and make a contribution, by producing and distributing Chinese language films.

Xenophobia is on the rise in China, and anti-American sentiment has climbed to levels not seen in decades. The communist leaders can gain much-needed legitimacy at home by standing up to pushy foreigners. If the studios aren’t careful they could easily precipitate their own nuclear meltdown, with China Film Group punishing the studios by shifting their imports toward American indies and non-U.S. films. And a nationalistic boycott of American movies isn’t unthinkable; the territorial disputes with Japan appear to have resulted in lower car sales in China recently for Toyota, Mazda and Nissan.

It’s natural during tough times to scapegoat foreigners; both the Americans and the Chinese are guilty of that. The studios should back off and leave things alone until the 18th Party Congress has chosen its new chiefs and the dust has settled on other current crises. The MPAA has done a marvelous job so far and they should keep their powder dry for the times ahead when they can have a meaningful impact with the next generation of leaders. And all of us should learn to take a more conciliatory tone in our conversations with the Chinese. We may not like their style, but they hold the keys to the future of our business. Triggering a nuclear reaction won’t benefit anyone.

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

Spider-Man, Dark Knight Power China’s 2nd Best Ever Box Office Week


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 4, 2012

Pent-up demand for Hollywood blockbusters powered China’s box office to its second-highest grossing frame ever last week, as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises attracted nearly equal numbers of moviegoers in their long-awaited China debuts. Both pictures started slowly last Monday but drew better than I had expected throughout the week, finishing up with $35.9 million and $34.8 million respectively, good enough to notch the sixth and seventh best full-week totals of 2012.

Both pictures were handicapped in at least two ways: each had been in release for at least a month in the rest of the world, a lag that usually allows DVD and online piracy to severely impact the Chinese grosses, and the two films were pitted against each other on the same opening date by China Film Group’s release schedulers, forcing most filmgoers to choose one film over the other.  But after being starved of major live action tent-poles for most of the summer (due to a SARFT-imposed blackout of most Hollywood movies), Chinese audiences came out in huge numbers to drive a $76.7 million weekly aggregate, the highest nationwide gross since mid-April, when Titanic 3D earned $74 million and led the PRC’s theaters to a record $83.6 million weekly total.

Their reward for waiting out the blackout is that Spider-Man, Dark Knight and Prometheus will enjoy several weeks without competition from any other new Hollywood releases, and they should perform well into late September, when the National Day holiday will see the rollout of several Chinese language blockbusters.

In reviewing the box office figures of the past several weeks, one thing that is abundantly clear is that even when Chinese films are protected from foreign competition, they’re unable to generate enough interest to keep China’s multiplexes busy. Although there is an occasional Painted Skin or Silent War to draw meaningful crowds, China’s studios are still making far too few commercially attractive films to earn the 50 percent domestic box office share that SARFT expects of them.

Year-to-date China has passed the $1.7 billion mark, and with four months to go it should easily reach $2.5 billion by December. Whether it can overcome the damage done by SARFT’s blackout and reach the magic $3 billion level this year will depend largely upon whether Chinese audiences show up for home-grown hopefuls like director Li Yu’s Fan Bingbing starrer Double Xposure, Feng Xiaogang’s 1942, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and other Chinese language tent-poles.

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

Is Big Bad China Picking on Poor Lil’ Hollywood?


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

August 16, 2012

If you’ve read my previous columns you know that I’m no fan of the Chinese government’s film production- and distribution-related policies, and I’m certainly not a defender of the country’s tactics with regard to Hollywood. But I feel compelled to take exception to a recent series of articles in the American press that I believe unfairly characterizes China Film Group (CFG) as being single-mindedly devoted to curtailing the theatrical revenue of American studio films in the PRC.

In several recent articles (like this and this and this) the Los Angeles Times has decried China Film Group’s ‘aggressive steps’ to ‘curb the grosses’ of Hollywood tent-pole films by releasing pictures like The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man against each other on the same weekend.

The Times and Variety also cite CFG’s decision to open Ice Age: Continental Drift on the same date as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and a possible Bourne Legacy versus Total Recall showdown in September as further damning evidence that the Chinese are out to get Hollywood movies and put them in their place.

There’s no denyng that China’s film authorities wish to promote a healthy domestic film industry, and that part of making this possible means allowing room for locally made films to find an audience among Chinese filmgoers. Because few Chinese films this year have proven capable of competing head-to-head with American blockbusters, CFG has taken to coordinating release schedules to protect local films from Hollywood competition during key seasons like the summer school break, the October Golden Week holidays, and the year-end holiday season. As part of this effort, back in late June SARFT initiated a ‘film protection month’ (which will actually last for about two months) during which China will allow only 7 American imports to open at its multiplexes, and only two of these films—both 3D animated features—will be from major studios.

A key effect of this tactic is that it pushes back the releases of a handful of Hollywood tent-poles, squeezing several openings closer together than they might otherwise have occurred. But is China really targeting Hollywood films, as the Times put it, “to depress the box office receipts”? Is there a systematic campaign to punish American movies and drive down their grosses? I’m not seeing it, and on the whole the evidence doesn’t support this assertion.

Through the first 32 weeks of 2012, Chinese theaters released 54 films that were made in foreign territories. Of these, 25 were American films, and 7 more were U.S.-foreign co-productions like Killer Elite and Lockout. That works out to an average of exactly one American film every week, compared to barely one film every other week from the entire rest of the world combined. During this period American films took a 57 percent share of the nearly $1.6 billion in total PRC box office receipts, with the vast majority of that amount going to major studio pictures.

These are big numbers given that China’s obligations under the WTO don’t specifically require it to allow any American films into Chinese theaters. Yes, China must allow 34 imported revenue sharing ‘quota’ films annually under the updated (as of February, 2012) WTO agreement, but there’s no law that says these movies must be from major Hollywood studios.  If the Chinese were really intent on depriving Hollywood of renminbi they would be allocating a lot more of their quota slots to films from places like Iran, India and Brazil, or to indie films from specialty distributors like Magnolia Pictures and Strand Releasing. But they’re not doing that.

If anything, it seems to me that China has been surprisingly permissive with and solicitous of Hollywood’s studios. That such graphic films as The Dark Knight Rises (MPAA: “intense sequences of violence”) and The Hunger Games (MPAA: “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images”) are being allowed to screen at all came as quite a surprise to many Chinese filmmakers who would never be allowed, under China’s strict censorship rules, to indulge in the levels of violence and political commentary that these films enjoy. If China Film Group wants these films to fail, why is it going to so much trouble to bother releasing them, when it could easily and legitimately deny their releases on censorship grounds?

The truth is that China has rolled out a big fat welcome mat for Hollywood movies for most of this year. The average major Hollywood film opens on nearly 50 percent more screens during its opening week than the average major Chinese film, and is allowed to run for an average of 6 more days, or 15 percent longer, than the biggest Chinese movies. And let’s not forget that all these Hollywood movies are squeezing out domestic films; more than three-quarters of the movies made in China never receive a theatrical release.

 

*Chinese and China/Hong Kong co-productions indicated in RED

*Chinese and China/Hong Kong co-productions indicated in RED

Yes, the Times is right that for a few weekends this summer and fall, a handful of U.S. studio tent-poles will be forced to compete with each other for the same audiences. But China Film Group routinely does the same thing with Chinese films. One only has to go back as far as last week to find a comparable example, when four new Chinese animated films were released against each other.

And back in December, two hotly anticipated Chinese language tent-poles, The Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, opened on the very same day. Both films did just fine, becoming respectively the 2nd and 4th highest grossing films released in China in 2011.

As much as China’s government authorities would like to see local films dominate the PRC’s multiplexes, they know that Hollywood movies are good business all around. Ticket sales from U.S. films help to build the country’s exhibition industry, which is still one of the most under-screened in the world. CFG makes far more money on each American film they release than they do on Chinese films, and that pays a lot of salaries and helps CFG build a war chest to fund domestic production. And tax revenues from ticket sales of American movies contribute to SARFT’s operating budget. In short, there are plenty of good reasons for CFG to maximize the revenues of Hollywood films.

SARFT and CFG do want to keep up appearances, and part of keeping up appearances is to help domestic films maintain a respectable share of China’s box office, ideally around 50 to 55 percent. When Hollywood movies squeezed Chinese films’ share down below 20 percent during the first half of this year, CFG was forced to take action, with the result that the major studio films will get a little less leeway for themselves for the rest of this year. Describing this shift as an attempt to ‘depress’ the grosses of American films overstates the situation and improperly encourages the impression of a hostile Chinese attitude.

The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man will be just fine. Each of these pictures will release on several thousand screens in China, and each will earn at least $50 million in box office receipts there, which will be more than they earn just about anywhere else outside North America. The time to raise the alarm will be when China starts rejecting studio films that it should allow, or ghettoizing them to small numbers of screens in lower-grossing secondary markets. None of that has happened yet, and so long as the studios are respectful and play fair with the Chinese authorities, China’s welcome will remain wide open.

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

Chinese Audiences Embrace Non-Studio Hollywood Movies


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

August 11, 2012

China’s on-again, off again love affair with Hollywood movies heated up last week, abruptly ending a summer fling with Chinese filmmakers, at least for the moment. After a month’s vacation from late June to late July when American films were embargoed from China’s multiplexes, Hollywood movies have roared back to reclaim the lion’s share of the box office, with 82 percent of last week’s total ticket revenue.

Even though SARFT has only partially, temporarily opened the door to US imports, allowing two animated features and two non-studio pictures into domestic theaters in the past few weeks, there’s been enough pent-up demand to propel three of those films—Fox’s Ice Age 4, the Simon West/Jason Statham crime thriller The Mechanic, and Lionsgate’s John Singleton action-mystery Abduction—to the top 3 ranks of the box office chart for the week ending August 5th.

The Mechanic and Abduction were only modest performers stateside, earning $29.1 million and $28.1 million during their North American runs in 2011.  But the Chinese audience is clearly hungry for new Hollywood fare, and in the absence of new live action American studio films, PRC moviegoers showered the two non-studio pictures with solid, if not spectacular, welcoming parties. At nearly $8 million, The Mechanic enjoyed the second best non-studio foreign film opening of the year so far, behind the $10 million June bow of Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games.

Ice Age 4 reached a key milestone by becoming the second highest grossing animated film ever in China, with almost $45 million in ticket sales in its first 10 days. With little real competition for the family market in coming weeks, Ice Age could challenge Kung Fu Panda 2’s Chinese box office record of $92 million.

This week the door will close again to Hollywood, although two non-Chinese films will debut: the China-US co-pro Shanghai Calling, and Europa Corp’s Guy Pearce starrer Lockout, which earned $14 million in the US and $25 million worldwide earlier this year. Four new Chinese animated features also bow this week and on August 15th another Lionsgate film, The Lincoln Lawyer, will open against a handful of new Chinese releases.

August box office will remain subdued until the 30th, when The Dark Knight Rises is scheduled to open. Whether China Film Group will move The Amazing Spider-Man off that same release date remains to be seen.  But the fickle attitude of China’s film czars toward Hollywood’s studios has become exceedingly obvious, and chatter about co-productions is now on the rise.

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