Local Rom-Com Breaks Out As U.S. Films Fade at Chinese Box Office

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 27, 2013

For the first time since 2011’s Love is Not Blind, a Chinese romantic comedy has broken out in a big way at mainland theaters. Finding Mr. Right, a modestly budgeted rom-com starring Tang Wei (Lust Caution, Late Autumn) debuted in the number one spot with $12 million in its four-day opening last week, beating out U.S. holdovers A Good Day to Die Hard and Resident Evil: Resurrection.

The plot of the Seattle- and New York-set Finding Mr. Right borrows liberally from the iconic 1993 American film Sleepless in Seattle and its 1957 progenitor An Affair to Remember—even down to the final romantic encounter atop the Empire State Building—in weaving a familiar tale of two damaged souls who heal each other through love. finding mr. right

Produced by Hong Kong’s venerable Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Flowers of War), Finding Mr. Right is the sophomore directing effort of Xue Xiaolu, who also wrote the screenplay. Strong reviews and good word of mouth have propelled the film to successively higher grosses each day, putting it on a trajectory to reach a final gross of at least $40 million, which would make it the second highest grossing romantic comedy in Chinese history after Love is Not Blind’s $55 million.

Although A Good Day to Die Hard provided a brief respite two weeks ago, U.S. and non-Chinese films have yet to shake their 2013 PRC box office doldrums. Both Die Hard and Resident Evil dropped sharply over the weekend, and Jack the Giant Slayer managed just $1.4 million on its opening day this past Monday. Die Hard will likely finish in the mid- to high-thirty millions, down at the low end of the range I had projected for it.Box office week ending 3-24-13

Sunday brought an end to the Chinese run of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which grossed just under $50 million in the PRC, for a rather modest 4.7 percent of its worldwide total. Friday will bring the release of Oz the Great and Powerful, which will encounter some healthy competition from the popular Finding Mr. Right and Drug War, a Chinese crime thriller directed by Johnny To (Romancing in Thin Air, Life Without Principle) that debuts next Thursday, April 4th.

Total nationwide box office amounted to $42 million for the week, a 35 percent increase over the same week last year. Year-to-date China is still running a massive 45 percent ahead of last year, while North America is running 14 percent behind its 2012 total. I’ve often noted on this website that China’s box office will surpass North America’s by the end of this decade. If current trends continue the eclipse will occur by 2019, and possibly even in 2018. It’s becoming an inescapable fact that if you want to succeed in the film business in the near future, you’re going to have to contend with China.

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.

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

Chinese ‘Flowers’ Wilt in U.S. Theatrical Release

by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 25, 2012

If the message hadn’t fully gotten through yet, last weekend’s box office results confirmed it: China has no idea how to make movies that Americans—or the world—will pay to see.

The latest Chinese film to crash on the rocks of U.S. shores is The Flowers of War, the mainland Chinese blockbuster that opened on 30 North American screens this past Friday. The film seemed tailor-made to captivate global audiences, and with its $90 million price tag, it needed to. But despite its international star (Christian Bale), its world-renowned director (Zhang Yimou), a major U.S. producer (David Linde) who had massive prior success with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and a veteran distributor (Chris Ball), Flowers drooped on arrival with a paltry $48,448 and a per screen average of just $1,615.

Flowers continues a 5 year long string of international misfires from China. Chinese releases in the U.S. have rarely grossed more than $500,000. Even those that earn $50 million or $100 million in their home country typically fail to travel.

It’s not that Chinese films never work in the U.S. and internationally, but successes are extremely rare. The last real hit to emerge from the PRC was Jet Li’s Fearless, which sold $43 million worth of tickets in the U.S. back in 2006.  Hero (also starring Jet Li) grossed $53 million in 2004, and House of Flying Daggers took in $11 million that same year. The highest grossing Chinese language film of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was in fact not a Chinese film at all: its producers were from America and Hong Kong, its director a Taiwanese-American.

The failures are not for lack of trying. Most every Chinese producer, director, and financier desperately wants a meaningful slice of the international market. More than anyone, China’s Communist Party wants to export Chinese culture to global audiences in order to counteract the “creeping cultural influence of the West.” But they’re going about things all wrong.

For one thing, there are virtually zero writers in China who know the first thing about writing film stories that would appeal to international filmgoers. Cultural barriers are certainly an issue, but an even bigger issue is that Chinese studios and investors on the whole have no understanding of the development process. With little respect for writers and even less desire to invest in them, China is doomed to keep making films that are mostly mediocre at best, and terrible at worst.

Another major problem is that China’s film censors scrub out so much of the realism, titillation and thrills from their countrymen’s films that they leave them bland and tedious. Their need to micro-manage and sanitize the themes, characters and genre elements of films is anathema to good storytelling.

A third factor is the unquestioned primacy of Chinese directors, who shoot and edit their films with totalitarian disregard for the input of others. While Hollywood’s collaborative approach to filmmaking is far from perfect, its process of allowing cinematographers, editors, production designers, composers, and other craftsmen to meaningfully contribute and even challenge the director usually leads to better results than the Chinese approach of empowering the director to run roughshod over everyone else.

Chinese filmmakers know that their films don’t travel, and the smart ones know they need help. Hollywood has much to offer to them, if only they would listen.

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 www.pacificbridgepics.com.

China’s Box Office: Zhang Yimou’s ‘Flowers’ Still Smell Sweet

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 27, 2011

For the week ending December 25th, 2011, Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate once again held the first and second spots in what was a very good but not great weekend at the Chinese box office.

The $71 million cumulative box office total may look good at first glance—indeed, it was the second best week of 2011 after Transformers 3’s opening week in July, and Flowers set a new single-week record for a Chinese film. But the total box office was actually up only 4 percent on a Chinese RMB basis compared with the same week last year. And considering that there are 45 percent more movie screens operating across China now than at this time last year, the past week’s box office looks downright unimpressive by comparison.

The problem may have been the oversaturation of Flowers and Flying Swords. Those two pictures grabbed up more than 80 percent of China’s 9,000 screens, leaving little else in the theaters for moviegoers who might have wished to see a different film. The strongest new opener, China Film Group’s romance Dear Enemy, managed just $6.5 million in sales, and the second best, The Allure of Tears, brought in $3.8 million. The rest of the field, a mix of 3 holdovers and 3 new releases, every one of them Chinese, brought in a grand total of $600,000.

Flowers of War will pass Beginning of the Great Revival this week to become the highest grossing Chinese film of 2011. With a couple more strong weekends it could possibly challenge Kung Fu Panda 2’s  $92 million China gross for the number two spot among all films released this year. But even if it does reach that lofty height, Flowers will only recoup a third or so of its negative cost in China. In order to break into the black it will have to gross, at minimum, $120 million in the international marketplace. This has only happened once before for a Chinese film, when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a breakout hit in the United States back in 2001. Flowers of War lacks the compelling narrative, the exotic appeal, and the universally resonant themes that Crouching Tiger offered, so the possibility that Flowers might replicate those numbers seems remote.

The most important box office news this week is that China’s cumulative gross for the year has definitely crossed $2 billion, making it only the third country in history, after the U.S. and Japan, to reach that mark. Even more remarkably, it was only last year that China crossed the $1 billion mark for the first time ever. The above analysis notwithstanding, a $71 million box office haul in one week would be extraordinary anywhere in the world outside North America; it’s indicative of China’s incredible growth that the number fails to impress only by comparison against last year’s numbers.

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 Third Affliction and the Soft Power of Film

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 11, 2011

China’s increasing focus on exporting its values could ironically spell opportunity for foreign filmmakers. Read on to learn how and why.

Back in 2008 the term “three afflictions” began appearing in the Chinese press to describe the major impediments that hampered China’s national strength during the past century. These were foreign aggression, poverty stemming from a weak economy, and the demonization of China by ‘hateful’ and ‘ignorant’ Western nations.

As the press stories told it, the first affliction was conquered by Mao Zedong when he unified China under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and expelled the last of the foreign occupiers, the Japanese. The second was thrown off when Deng Xiaoping declared “to get rich is glorious” and engineered the great Chinese economic miracle that continues to the present day.

With the first two afflictions licked, the CCP has now set its sights on tackling the third, which can be summed up as poor global public opinion. Government leaders are concerned that China’s negative image stands in the way of its international influence, and they’ve decided to do something about it.

A major party initiative to project China’s ‘soft power’—that is, its ability to shape global events by promoting its cultural values around the world—was announced in November by President Hu Jintao when he delivered a policy speech urging the country’s artists and writers to “get closer to the realities and lives of the masses, to uphold the spiritual torch of the Chinese nationality, and to produce a greater number of excellent works that live up to the history, the times, and the people.”

And then he said something that must have jolted every Chinese artist and intellectual: “Let all flowers bloom together and let hundreds of schools contend.” This statement directly echoed Chairman Mao’s famous 1957 statement “Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend to promote progress in the arts and sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land.”

OK, enough history; what does all of this mean for filmmakers?

For one thing, it means money. Lots of it. Hu and his colleagues in the CCP are anxious that Western culture and values have gone global in a way that Chinese culture and values have not, so they are investing billions in the effort to export China’s own value system, building the world’s most modern soundstages, production facilities, post production houses, animation houses, and the like. ‘Soft power’ and the cultural means to promote it have been elevated to the highest level of strategic importance. This is tantamount to a war of words and ideas with the West.

But it takes more than artillery to win a war, it takes skilled personnel to operate the machinery. Winning minds takes the ability to generate creative ideas and the skills of persuasion, capabilities that the CCP sorely lacks. The post-1949 Communists have never before had to compete in the marketplace of ideas because in China they own and control the market.

To compete on the global stage China will need skills that it hasn’t needed before. Skills like story development and screenwriting for international audiences. Sophistication in marketing, advertising and distribution to successfully circulate movies to the far-flung corners of the globe. Above all, the ability to understand what makes international filmgoers tick: why they go to see the movies they do and why they don’t go to see Chinese movies.

These skills and capabilities aren’t going to magically appear inside China; they will almost certainly need to be imported. China’s top filmmakers—skilled directors like Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang—have generated huge and loyal followings inside the country, but they do hardly any business outside. For instance, Feng’s recent Chinese blockbuster melodrama Aftershock, which racked up nearly $100 million in ticket sales in China, earned a paltry $62,962 from its release in the U.S.

More than either side realizes, China needs Hollywood. And for Hollywood’s legions of skilled but underemployed writers, directors, producers, rotoscopers, sound editors, marketers, distributors and other talents, this means money and opportunity. If you’re one of these talents, China has a shortage of your kind of expertise, and piles of cash to pay you for it.

Will seizing these opportunities mean selling out your values and becoming a mouthpiece (喉舌) of the Communist Party? Hardly. The past decade’s two greatest examples of films that successfully promoted Chinese culture were made by outsiders pursuing their own self-interest.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Taiwan’s (!!!) Ang Lee, swept the world with beautiful and sensuous images of China, earning $200 million worldwide (nearly $300 million in 2011 dollars). And Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda films have been highly praised by CCP members for their ability to entertain audiences both inside and outside China while remaining faithful to traditional Confucian values. The two Panda films have earned $1.3 billion in worldwide box office receipts, and  Dreamworks’ Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg is in talks to set up a $300 million joint venture to make films in China. Although Katzenberg and Lee have done a great deal of good for China, no one is accusing them of being Communist Party lackeys or sympathizers.

Foreign filmmakers have an additional advantage over their Chinese counterparts: freedom. Remember Hu Jintao’s exhortation to “let flowers bloom and hundreds of schools contend”? His intent must have been to send a chilling reminder to the Chinese that their ideas and artistic contributions are welcome only so long as they toe the line of political correctness and espouse the party’s message. When Mao Zedong launched the original “100 Flowers” campaign in 1957, he encouraged uninhibited public discourse to uncover a variety of views and solutions to national policy issues. After six weeks of this ‘experiment’ with freedom of expression, Mao swiftly repressed or executed those whose views offended him. While Chinese artists must be extremely cautious to avoid a similar fate, the worst that can happen to foreign filmmakers is that their projects will be rejected by the censors.

As David Bandurski put it in his recent New York Times article, “China’s ‘third affliction’ is a self-inflicted malady” that it cannot cure by diktat. “Governments in countries with cultural censorship may no longer fear criticism at the hands of their own country’s cultural work, but they must endure the ridicule of the whole world.” China’s best hope for improving its global image will be to enlist outsiders—storytelling mercenaries, or modern-day de Toquevilles, if you prefer—to shine a light on that nation’s best, brightest, and most universal values. If you’re a Hollywood filmmaker, there is no shame in telling stories that explore the wonders of China’s magnificent 5,000 year old culture. If you can make globally successful films while you’re at it, China and its leaders will thank you.

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.