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


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.