China’s Wild and Wooly December

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 25, 2012

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

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

Box office week ending 12-23-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleeper Hits Put China Box Office Growth Back On the Fast Track

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Lost in Thailand poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 18, 2012

China’s December box office rally is shaping up to be the biggest story of the year in the global movie biz. After the fall’s SARFT-induced coma threatened to dampen theatrical revenues for the rest of the year, a pair of films that barely anyone saw coming has electrified PRC audiences and kept theaters filled and queues brimming for over a month.

Back in the summer and fall SARFT crushed Chinese exhibitors’ hopes for a $3 billion aggregate 2012 box office when it set extended “domestic film protection periods” that kept Hollywood movies out of local theaters. Audiences mostly stayed away from the bland domestic product that was on view, and I revised my estimate of total year box office revenue down to $2.5 billion.

Hopes were raised in December, when many box office watchers anticipated that a trio of Chinese language films—Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942, Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters, and Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac 12 (now known as CZ12)—would dominate theaters. December did in fact bring good tidings, but not exactly as expected.

Firstly, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi confounded almost everyone’s expectations by taking the Chinese box office by storm, so to speak. What many had projected would be at most a $20 million or $25 million run instead became a blockbuster hit, with $86 million to date, making it the fourth biggest grosser in China this so far year. Not only did Life of Pi spank down Back to 1942 in China, it also handily beat its own $70 million (so far) tally in the U.S., only the third time in history that a foreign film has grossed more in China than in North America.

While Grandmasters was pushed to next year and CZ12 will open this week, it was a tiny, low-budget comedy that solidified December as one of China’s best months ever. The Hangover 2 knock-off Lost in Thailand, a sequel to the 2010 film Lost on Journey, charmed audiences out of a massive $48 million in its first 5 days, setting scads of records along the way, including:

• Best all-time Wednesday opening for any film

• Best opening day in December

• Biggest single day in December

• Biggest opening week in December

• Best opening week for a locally made film

• Best opening week for any 2D movie

The reportedly $4 million budgeted Lost in Thailand looks likely at this point to surpass Painted Skin 2 to become China’s biggest local language film ever, and the PRC’s 2nd highest grossing film overall in 2012.

Lost in Thailand and Life of Pi paced China’s overall box office to its best-ever week as measured by admissions, with over 15 million tickets sold.

Box office week ending December 16, 2012

These recent events have given me the confidence to raise my year-end estimate to $2.65 billion for 2012, which would make for China’s 9th year in a row of 30% or greater theatrical revenue growth and an aggregate 2,200% increase since 2004. To put that figure into perspective, had the North American box office grown by an equivalent amount, it would now be a $200 billion movie industry, rather than the $11 billion business that it is.

For several years now I’ve been predicting that China will surpass North America to become the world’s biggest box office territory by 2020. I’m now going on record and moving the date up by a year to 2019.

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

Gangnam Interregnum; plus Newly Announced China Release Dates

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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 25, 2012

As I was writing the 3rd and final installment of my “Korea Conundrum” series, which explores the cultural and institutional impediments that prevent China from achieving global soft power influence, I came across a couple of music videos out of the PRC that explain the problem far better than I can.

While South Korean K-Pop star Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame was enjoying his brief reign as king of the pop culture meme, China was doing its part to say “Hey, we get it, we’re cool too” by producing Gangnam parody videos. Here’s a seemingly popular one that appeared on both Youtube and also on Tudou, China’s Youtube equivalent:

Click on image above to start playing video

Of all the bad Gangnam Style parodies you’ll find on the web, this is undoubtedly one of the worst. Where the original Psy video has irony, wit, and biting satire, “China Style” is utterly vacuous. Take a look at the opening lyrics:

Reprinted from Beijing

The creators of this video take a song that satirizes the excesses and emptiness of consumer culture and turn it into… what? An anthem celebrating international broadcast companies? As Beijing Cream noted:

Not only are the creators ignorant about the original song’s meaning, they insult us by trying to explain Gangnam Style’s popularity. Where they lack in originality, they also lack in self-awareness. These are the type who, at a party, stand stone-faced through your jokes and then say, “So what you’re saying is…”

The only thing China Style has on Gangnam Style is more T&A. A lot more. Shockingly so, given China’s censorship strictures. There’s even some weird nipple tweaking at the 2:42 mark.

At least the video did get over 500 ‘likes’ on Youtube. But then, it also got almost 3,300 ‘dislikes,’ six times as many.

Surely there must be someone in China who gets it. Someone cool, detached, a keen observer of Chinese culture who has something meaningful to say. Someone like Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and symbol of dissent…


Alas, here’s Ai Weiwei’s contribution to the cultural conversation:

Click on image above to start video.

This is just so wrong, on so many levels. Say it ain’t so, Ai…

Guess I’ll be writing that 3rd installment after all, if for no other reason than to send China a few pointers.

In other news, release dates have now been set for the import films that will grace China’s movie screens in November. Here’s an excerpt from a missive I received this morning from my friend ‘Firedeep’

Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 earlier today got approved by the Film Bureau. Huayi Bros set the release date as Nov. 29. And the final runtime is about 100 mins (obviously got cut down at SARFT’s request) including end credits.
Nov. 22 seems to be the right date for Life of Pi. It will be released in IMAX 3D and 3D.
2012 3D just settled Nov. 21. Just in 3D. No IMAX. As always, its theatrical time is about one month: 11/21~12/21. Coincidentally, its close date is the “world’s end” date …
Wong Kar-wai’s Grandmasters should still make its December release (though re-editing is undergoing).
November releases are pretty much all settled. While December’s mostly local titles , remain not very clear.

That’s the report for now. Back to Youtube– I mean research, for me.

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