Warner Bros’ Stellar Year in China


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Gravity pic

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 21, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box Office week ending 11-17-13

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

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

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

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

China Swoons With ‘Iron Man’ Fever


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Wang Xueqi and IM3

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

May 1, 2013

I didn’t dare say it until now as I’ve been holding my breath for my friends who handled the Chinese production and release of Iron Man 3, but “WOW!” Their picture has just set new PRC revenue and attendance records for midnight screenings with over $2 million, and initial reports indicate it has easily surpassed Transformers 3’s full opening day record of $15 million, with a nearly $20 million haul in its first-day plus midnight receipts.

And after so many disappointing PRC releases of Hollywood films in the first quarter, IM3 now appears likely to become the first U.S. film in 12 months, since Titanic 3D last April, to crack $100 million at Chinese multiplexes.

I’ve gone on record several times here with the opinion that So Young might beat Iron Man 3 in total China box office revenue. But now it’s a real horse race, and I may wind up eating my words.

Barely a year ago it was conventional wisdom that super hero films don’t play in China, because audiences didn’t grow up with the characters and weren’t familiar with their stories. And until recently this was true; the last Iron Man movie grossed only a fraction of what Avatar, Inception, and several Chinese language hits did back in 2010.

But Disney and Marvel have worked hard to edify the Chinese audience with films like Captain America, Thor, and especially The Avengers, and together with the invaluable efforts of their Chinese partner DMG they made Iron Man 3’s release into a major cultural event. Despite increasing their initial midnight screen count from 1,500 to over 2,300, there was scarcely a ticket to be had in most theaters, and commentary about the film has lit up China’s social media networks.China B.O. Perf of U.S. Films

The China-U.S. collaboration on Iron Man 3 faced numerous challenges and risks, and its success was far from a sure thing, but today’s box office results have vindicated the Disney/Marvel/DMG strategy. Congratulations to all involved for boldly and successfully pioneering new ground in the China-Hollywood relationship.

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

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


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.So Young - Iron Man posters

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will ‘Iron Man 3’ Get China Co-Pro Status, and Does it Really Matter? Most of the Co-Pro Benefits Have Come Already


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

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 7, 2013

Two thoughts on all the media speculation about whether Iron Man 3 will get official co-production approval from SARFT for its China release this spring:

  1. It won’t, in my opinion.
  2. I doubt that Disney, Marvel and DMG—the film’s backers—really care.

A while back Disney, Marvel and DMG had to decide whether to comply with the strict SARFT co-production rules, or to sacrifice some of the benefits of official co-pro status and instead optimize Iron Man 3’s potential for the global market. Not surprisingly (as was revealed by a flood of press coverage that included some untimely revelations at last summer’s Comic-Con), they decided on the latter approach, making a film broadly aimed at the global audience.

Although they shot scenes in China last December with local actors—most notably the venerable Wang Xueqi and even a rumored appearance by movie diva Fan Bingbing—the partners’ overall creative and business approach precluded full adherence to the co-production rulebook. Namely, their strategy made it impractical to hire enough Chinese citizens to comply with the rule requiring that one-third of “major actors” be Chinese nationals, and they didn’t incorporate the requisite level of Chinese cultural content to qualify the film as an official co-pro under the Chinese guidelines.

But by working closely with the Chinese government, the co-producing partners have already secured many of the benefits they would have received with official co-pro status. These include:

  1. Iron Man 3 will almost certainly enjoy a rare day-and-date release, perhaps even a pre-U.S. release date. Current chatter on China’s movie blogs and chat sites has speculated that the film will release in China in April, before its May 3rd U.S. debut.
  2. The Chinese government has allowed the parties to promote the film since April of last year, whereas most U.S. imports only get a 2-3 week marketing window prior to release.
  3. IM3 has enjoyed a high degree of media access in China, at a level usually reserved only for high-profile local films. This has included various web and digital promotional activations; uncensored “leaks” of photos and news items to the national press; and an unprecedented promotional segment on the most watched TV program of the year, CCTV’s annual Chinese New Year Gala.

CCTV Gala-Downey and WangThey managed to work in a smart show of goodwill toward China on the Gala program by presenting the “Iron Man Hero Award” to a young Chinese boy who committed a heroic act worthy of Iron Man’s approval, as pictured below.Iron Man AwardThough no one at Marvel, Disney or DMG are talking publicly about their plans for IM3 in China, I’ve confirmed through other sources that they’re planning a major worldwide premiere for the film in Beijing, something that has rarely if ever happened before for a major U.S. studio.

The one major thing that these three companies presumably won’t get is the full 43 percent rental fee that comes with co-production status. But with all the other promotional consideration and support they’re receiving, by my estimation they’ve positioned the film to very likely become one of the top 3 U.S. films in China this year. Given the way things have been going for U.S. action films in China lately, that’s a very big advantage indeed.

In any case, for Disney and Marvel theatrical revenue is only a small part of a bigger picture that includes their interests in the Shanghai theme park and their consumer products business in China, both of which I expect will benefit nicely from the exposure and interest they’ve generated in the Iron Man franchise.This is exactly the sort of hustle and outside-the-box thinking that are required to ride the China wave. If Disney keeps up this level of focus and commitment to the market, this could be the year they win bragging rights as the top-grossing U.S. studio in 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.

‘Cold War’ Off to Hot Start in China


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

November 13, 2012

The Hong Kong cops and robber thriller Cold War got off to a hot start last week with a $15.4 million 4-day debut, enough to make it the 3rd best Chinese language opener of 2012 and 12th best among all PRC debuts this year. For first-time writer-director Sunny Luk and his all-star cast, Cold War warmed up what had been a moribund Chinese box office, marking the strongest opening for any film on the mainland since Expendables 2 knocked off $25 million in its opening weekend two months ago.

 

Produced and distributed by Bill Kong’s EDKO Films and starring Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Byron Mann and Aarif Lee, Cold War will likely rack up another strong week before serious competition shows up at Chinese theaters, with the 3D re-release of 2012 arriving on November 20th and Life of Pi drifting in on the 22nd. Mega-director Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 will almost certainly freeze out Cold War when it debuts on November 29th.

Reaching $31 million in its third week, The Bourne Legacy is now Universal’s 2nd best performer in China this year after the surprise hit Battleship. With a few more weeks left in its run, Bourne should easily surpass the low end of the $35 million to $50 million range that I had predicted for it.

Wreck-it Ralph’s 6-day opening tally of $5 million continues Disney/Pixar’s long string of misfires in China. The only consolation for Wreck-It Ralph is that it didn’t open as poorly as Brave, which managed a tepid $4.6 million over its entire PRC run back in June. Disney/Pixar’s last truly successful animation release in the PRC was more than two years ago when Toy Story 3 tallied a then respectable $16 million box office total over its 4-week run in 2010.

 

Bait 3D wound up its extraordinary run by biting off another $500,000 to finish at $25.7 million, by far the best performance ever in China for an Australian film, and the biggest gross for any non-Hollywood import.

Aggregate weekly national box office was $39.3 million, down 23 percent relative to the same week last year. But the year-to-date tally of $2.13 billion is already 3 percent ahead of the full-year total for 2011, and with 7 weeks left in the year, China is well on its way to setting yet another annual box office record.

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.

Studio Report Card: The Widely Varied Performance of U.S. Distributors in China


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

June 18, 2012

Hollywood’s studios are all benefitting from China’s box office boom, but they’re not benefitting equally. Some have been much more effective than others at getting their films into Chinese movie theaters, and their financial results from China distribution have varied widely. The top grossing major studio, Paramount, has over the past couple of years earned more than four times as much from its China releases as the sixth place studio, Universal.

Hollywood needs to pay close attention to how it’s doing in China, and to invest time and energy to figure out how it can do better there. While there are certainly other important territories, none comes close to matching China’s torrid growth and rapidly swelling global importance. The analysis presented below provides what I hope is a valuable snapshot, and a few useful insights, about where American distributors stand in China today.

To conduct this analysis I reviewed the box office results of the more than 60 American films that were released in China during the nearly 18 month period from January 1st, 2011 through June 10th, 2012. These included both revenue-sharing ‘quota’ films and ‘flat fee’ imports. I classified each film as belonging to a single U.S. distributor—a task that was not as easy as it sounds, because quite a few films are released by one company in the U.S. and by an entirely different company in China. My test was to assess, as best as I could, which company was receiving the distribution receipts from China, and to assign that company as the American distributor of record for the purposes of this study.

During the 18-month study period, Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros and Disney each exported 7 or more films to China, while Fox placed just 4 films there and Universal only 3. The ability to obtain quota slots has been a key factor separating the most financially successful studios in China from the least successful ones.

Image

Also important, of course, is the relative box office drawing power of each American studio’s films with Chinese audiences. On that score Paramount was also the leader with an average of $59 million per release, while Sony brought up the rear among major studios with barely a third of that figure, at $23 million per release.

Image

Another useful measure to examine is China indexing, that is, the share of total worldwide box office earned by each company’s films in China. This figure tells us how ‘China friendly’ each company’s slate has been; the higher the number, the greater the China appeal. By this measure Twentieth Century Fox, with its out-sized China release of Titanic, led the way. Had it not been for Titanic, Paramount would have led on this score too.

Image

When the studios started making the films that are the subject of this study, it’s unlikely that any of them were thinking much about China. But the world has changed in the past two years. Given China’s rapid emergence, all of the studios will need to fully incorporate China into their strategies for developing, producing and distributing their global films. While the film genres, their stories, and their overall suitability for China are all important, of equal or even greater importance are the studios’ continued access to distribution, and the effectiveness of the marketing and releasing of their films. Toward this end, co-producing movies with Chinese partners will become an increasingly important tactic for American companies to enhance their standing and to exercise greater control over their results in the PRC.

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.