DMG’s Chris Fenton Discusses the Bilateral U.S.-China Film Relationship


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 16, 2012

I recently came across a series of videos published online by the organizers of September’s Stanford Business School China 2.0 conference. The keynote speaker was a friend of mine, DMG Entertainment’s Motion Picture Group President Chris Fenton, who consented to my request to publish a link to his speech, a segment of which you’ll find here.

In the video Chris provides a brief overview of DMG and the activities of its 900 employees in China and the U.S: its businesses include a major advertising agency, media buying, production of local language films in the $2-6 million budget range, co-production and import of U.S. films, and most recently, building and operating theaters. He goes on to show the Chinese version of the trailer for Looper, a film that DMG co-financed and co-produced. And most important for Chris, he shares his thoughts on the importance of improved relations between China and the U.S.

As Chris put it to me, “It is crucial for the US to understand the Chinese point of view to successfully open their market to our exports, particularly with regards to the film industry because it’s so visible. The Chinese view the inference that there’s industry-wide corruption in China and the negative rhetoric of U.S. political leaders as impediments to smoother relations between us.”

Chris’ basic message, one I wholeheartedly agree with, is that if American producers and production companies want to continue to participate in China’s booming entertainment market, they need to meet their Chinese counterparts halfway, to understand and address their needs, and to behave in ways that are a little less foreign and a little more ‘Chinese.’ Of course the same can be said for Chinese companies that wish to participate in the global entertainment business. DMG is one of the few Chinese companies that has shown itself to be fluent in the U.S. and international business culture.

Also appearing at the Stanford conference are my friend Janet Yang, who spoke about her movie career in China, former U.S. ambassador Jon Huntsman, who discussed business lessons from Google’s China experience, and China Film Co-Production Company President Zhang Xun, who talked (in Mandarin only) about keys to U.S.-China co-production. All well worth watching.

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.

‘Life of Pi’ Rounds Up Final China Rev-Share Slot of 2012


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 23, 2012

I’m hearing on good authority today that China’s 34th and final revenue sharing import of 2012 will be Ang Li’s 3D adventure Life of Pi. This comes as a surprise to us China film biz handicappers, because all 14 of the ‘enhanced’ film slots had already been spoken for; until today it seemed certain that the 34th slot would go to a 2D film. But according to one of my contacts at the MPAA, the 20 ‘non-enhanced’ slots can actually go to films of any format, so Life of Pi is in the clear..

A big strike against Life of Pi’s China prospects is that it will have a narrow window in which to release. The film goes out wide in the U.S. on November 21st, and since SARFT will impose another blackout on foreign films in December, the Ang Li picture will have to go pretty much day-and-date in China if it is to make any waves there. The film’s release will also be hampered by torrid competition from other imports, with The Bourne Legacy, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 3D re-release, Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-it Ralph, Twilight Breaking Dawn 1, and South Korea’s Deranged all expected to debut in late October and November (the distributors of all these films will be relieved that Resident Evil 5 will not be releasing). Throw in the Chinese blockbusters Taichi II and Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 and you’ve got the makings of a wild and wooly November.

Last week was a modest one at Chinese theaters, though one major milestone was reached as aggregate box office topped $2 billion for the year, more than 2 months earlier than it reached that mark in last year’s record-breaking run. Had it not been for SARFT’s numerous blackouts of foreign films China would have very likely topped $3 billion this year. Even so, aggregate box office will rise by at least 25 or 30 percent over 2011’s $2.06 billon, a growth rate that would have U.S. exhibitors drooling.

The week’s big story was Bait 3D’s impressive $10.5 million blood-frenzy in its second week, nearly double Taken 2’s haul for the frame. The Australian 3D gore-fest has now surpassed Taken 2’s cume in China, and is on pace to land in the PRC’s top 20 grossers of the year. Safe to say that no one predicted Bait would be make such a splash, though in hindsight its success is consistent with China’s love of 3D, action and over-the-top stories.

Total Recall scored a hefty $5.1 million in its first two days of release, further cementing China’s standing as the promised land for busted U.S. action and sci-fi spectacles. Other films that were rejected by U.S. and/or global audiences but embraced in China this year include Battleship, John Carter, The Mechanic, and Lockout.

Two additional action films that performed well in China but fell short of very high expectations were Taichi 0, which will finish its run at around $25 million, and Looper, which should wind up at around $22 or $23 million. Foreign films will enjoy another month or so at the top of the box office before they are shoved aside for the benefit of local productions. In the mean time, look for the 2012 3D release to try and replicate Titanic 3D’s record-breaking run.

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

Post Lunar Holiday Box Office Update: The Official Numbers From China


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 9, 2012

The official numbers from China for the box office week ending September 30th are in, and they confirm the figures I’ve been publishing since last Wednesday, albeit with a couple of minor adjustments. With 6 new high profile releases opening over a 4-day span, it was an extremely tight field with a sharply divided audience and no runaway box office winner.

Taichi 0 took the weekly revenue crown, while Looper led the field in admissions during the Friday-Sunday weekend. With its higher average ticket price due to its strong attendance in IMAX theaters, Taichi edged out Looper in total weekend revenues. Assassins, which ran in theaters for two days longer than Looper, held its lead and grossed more than the latter film did for the week, although Looper’s cume vaulted ahead early in the following week.

Huaxia tried to counter-program against all the male-oriented action films with a romance starring Zhang Ziyi, but Zhang’s appeal has faded over the years and her film, a Chinese take on the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, barely nosed into the week’s top 5.

Sunday the 30th marked the end of the 3rd quarter, the summer period, which would normally have seen a sequentially higher gross than the 1st and 2nd quarters. But because the SARFT-imposed blackout kept June and July clear of most major Hollywood films, attendance dipped in the summer, with the unusual result that the summer total was about five percent lower than the spring.

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

We’ll Be Right Back After This SARFT Holiday Break


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By Robert D. Cain for China Film Biz

October 8, 2012

More than a week after it was reported in the Hollywood trades and beyond that Looper opened with a record-smashing debut in China, there is still no official word from SARFT as to what actually happened at the PRC’s multiplexes. In a country where the designated president-to-be can disappear for 10 days without feeling the slightest obligation to explain or even acknowledge his absence, I suppose it’s too much to hope that timely box office reports might be delivered during a holiday week.

In the absence of official word, I’ll go out on a limb and offer my best guess as to what did occur in China over the past week and a half. Bear in mind that the figures below are only as accurate as my back-channel sources. Official numbers should be out in the next day or two, at which point I’ll provide an update.

First, Looper did open well in China, but it came nowhere close to the US $25 million figure that was initially reported by the Hollywood trades and picked up by more than 100 news outlets around the world. While the film did set several notable precedents, it didn’t break any box office records, and it now appears that my initial estimate of $4.3 million for Looper’s opening weekend was just about right.

The National Day holiday week of October 1st through 7th saw roughly $60 million in aggregate ticket sales, making it only the 8th best week of the year so far. Given the high expectations exhibitors had coming in to the week, they were likely disappointed by this result.

China’s year-to-date box office tally probably reached, or at least came very close to, the $2 billion mark last weekend. By the third week of October it will surpass last year’s record total of $2.06 billion. Had it not been for the bucket of ice SARFT dumped on the country’s sizzling box office growth by imposing its 2-month summer blackout of Hollywood blockbusters, the year-to-date total would now be more than $2.2 billion and China would have a shot at cracking $3 billion by year’s end. As it stands now I’m projecting a year-end total in the $2.7 billion to $2.8 billion range.

While China’s film bureaucrats continue to revise their priorities and tactics, two North American companies and one partially American one have exhibited great savvy in maneuvering through the ever shifting political sands of the PRC.

The two aforementioned North American companies are IMAX and Twentieth Century Fox. Both companies have made substantial investments in China and have been smart about how they conduct their business there. IMAX picked a winning film and a winning strategy when it decided to back the Huayi Bros action-fantasy film Taichi 0 with a large format theatrical release. IMAX was unquestionably a major factor behind Taichi  0’s winning box office performance. And Fox made the right move when it submitted Europa Corp’s Taken 2 as a French, rather than an American film, enabling that picture to slip through the holiday blackout and open on Sunday. Its estimated $2.3 million opening day bodes well for Taken 2’s China run.

The ‘partially American’ company I’m referring to, DMG, is a Beijing-based Chinese company that has strong American representation among its senior ranks. DMG pulled off several coups with Looper last week, getting a film that was clearly American (with Chinese flavor) released during a blackout week when Hollywood studio films were strictly prohibited. DMG also managed to obtain for Looper the first U.S.-China day-and-date release since Madagascar 3 opened in June. And DMG’s connections enabled it to achieve a strong screen count during an extremely competitive frame, and should enable it to keep the film running longer in China than most other American films. Although Looper’s China gross won’t come close to matching its U.S. total, it will likely wind up as one of the best indexing U.S. films in China this year.

Also of note: Lionsgate’s The Expendables 2 ended its spectacular run on Sunday, winding up at an estimated $53.6 million, which would put it ahead of The Amazing Spider-Man and just behind The Dark Knight Rises for China’s 9th best performance in 2012. Not bad for a film that grossed $84 million in North America.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

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

Did ‘Deadline’ Commit a China ‘Looper’ Blooper?


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 3, 2012

Over the past several days I’ve received an unprecedented volume of calls, emails, texts and tweets, all asking me whether Looper had just become the first film to earn more revenue in its China debut than in its U.S. debut. Apparently the “Deadline Hollywood” blog reported on Saturday evening that Looper had earned “between $23M to 25M grosses” in China over the weekend. The story was quickly picked up by other media outlets, and within 24 hours it was accepted as fact around the world that Looper had smashed all sorts of records in China.

I was immediately doubtful of this report for two reasons: 1) Looper could not be the first film to gross more in its China debut than in the US because Titanic 3D had already achieved that feat back in April; and 2) The $23-25 million opening over 3 days seemed unlikely for reasons I’ll explain below. I checked around with my sources in China and found that almost no one believed the Deadline story to be true. Most felt that Deadline had gotten its currencies confused, and that the real number was around 27 million Chinese yuan, which equates to roughly 4.3 million US dollars. If correct, that figure would put Looper’s China opening far short of its $21 million US debut.

I’m unwilling to go on record as saying that Deadline is wrong, because I won’t know for certain until SARFT publishes the official box office figures. But because it’s a holiday week in which the SARFT report will be delayed for at least several days, and because there is so much international interest in this story, I’m going to weigh in with a few thoughts and some figures of my own, with the disclaimer that much of what follows is speculative and based on what I consider reasonably reliable, but unofficial numbers. I will say that if Deadline had someone on staff who understood the Chinese market, it’s unlikely that they would have rushed to put out their report.

Following are a few reasons why I’m more inclined to believe the $4.3 million weekend figure for Looper than the $25 million one.

  1. Only two films have grossed $25 million or more in their opening weekends in China this year—Titanic 3D and Men in Black 3. Both were heavily pre-sold blockbusters with strong, dedicated followings in China, and both had little competition when they debuted. As good as Looper is, it had none of that going for it.
  2. Many of Looper’s prints didn’t make it to theaters in time. Because SARFT only decided at the 11th hour to grant Looper co-production status, distributors and exhibitors didn’t know until a few days ahead of time that they would be allowed to release the film. Looper’s marketing and distribution were hence severely disadvantaged.
  3. This past weekend was a major travel period for China, the biggest in its history. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were traveling in advance of the National Day holiday week. Lots of people who might have ordinarily gone to the multiplex were busy getting from one place to another, welcoming guests, or making preparations for the holiday.
  4. This past weekend was also probably the most competitive film weekend China has ever seen. In addition to Looper’s opening, four major Chinese movies featuring big stars—among them Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Daniel Wu, Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi—opened against it. With only about 12,000 total screens China’s box office capacity is limited, and for Looper to earn $25 million it would have had to thoroughly dominate all the other films. It’s unlikely that’s what happened.
  5. Although Looper’s U.S. producers Sony and Endgame apparently insisted that the film earned $23 – 25 million in China, no one else backed up that figure.

I’ve presented below the figures I’ve received through back channels in China:

That’s the story so far as I see it; if I’ve been wrong about this I’ll eat my words. As soon as the SARFT numbers come through I’ll publish an update.

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

Daniel Radcliffe Starrer ‘Woman in Black’ Falls Flat in Soft Week at Chinese Box Office


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 25, 2012

Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe couldn’t bring his magic to the China debut of his horror vehicle The Woman in Black, and two new Chinese language releases—Great Rescue and That Year School Ended—failed to connect as China’s box office take slipped last week to $29 million, its lowest level since March.

Although the last four Harry Potter films were solid hits in China, that franchise’s popularity failed to carry over to Woman in Black, which suffered one of the year’s worst openings for an English language film, with $1.45 million in receipts over its first four days. Among 2012’s nearly 50 English language releases so far, only The Lincoln Lawyer, The King’s Speech, A Man Apart and Ninja have fared worse.

Horror still hasn’t firmly established itself as a reliable genre in China. A few modest Chinese language successes like Bunshinsaba ($9.5 million total), Blood Stained Shoes ($7.2 million), and 2011’s Mysterious Island ($14 million), have been outnumbered by flops. It may be that Chinese audiences haven’t yet caught on to the pleasures of a good scary movie, but it’s more likely that the problem lies in China’s censorship strictures, which don’t allow much room for a true horror film, with blood, gore, torture, ghosts, demons, and “excessively terrifying scenes” all strictly prohibited.

On a brighter note for Chinese filmmakers, White Deer Plain out-grossed The Expendables 2 to take the week’s number one spot, the first time in a month that a Chinese film has taken that honor. Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and the Amazing Spider-Man, all nearing the end of their PRC runs, rounded out the rest of the top five.

Business should be brisk next week as six new Chinese films and the U.S.-China co-pro Looper will open just ahead of October’s Golden Week holiday. Look for the Stephen Fung steampunk comedy Taichi 0 to lead the pack, with China’s divas Zhang Ziyi in Dangerous Liaisons and Fan Bingbing in Double Xposure giving Taichi 0 some serious competition, especially with their female audience appeal. Although Looper’s Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt don’t have major fanbases in China, that movie’s genre, action-SciFi, tends to over-perform in China, so don’t count it 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