L.A.-Beijing Production Company Sparkstone Lands 150 Episode China TV Commitment


Scott and Long

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

May 7, 2015

It gives me great pride and pleasure to be the first to announce that my good friends Scott Sommer and Long Wan, co-founders of L.A. and Beijing based Sparkstone Entertainment, have sealed a deal to develop and produce as many as five television series together with leading Chinese production company Croton Media.

The agreement guarantees Sparkstone a production commitment of at least 150 episodes for both the domestic Chinese and international markets.

In the short time since they founded Sparkstone in 2014, Scott and Long have set up deals, engaged and trained talent, raised financing commitments and developed new projects at a pace unmatched by any cross-Pacific entertainment company I’m aware of, including the major Hollywood studios. They are stand-up guys supported by stand-up advisors J. Todd Harris and Craig Berenson, and Croton Media is fortunate to have them as partners.

Croton, along with its parent, Huace Film & TV, is the leading television content provider in China, controlling 15% of the overall marketplace. Recently Croton acquired the rights to the hit Sony Television series Mad About You, which the company is now developing for Chinese audiences.

As Croton Media’s President of Production Larry Gao put it, “We like the hands-on approach and development instincts the principals of Sparkstone have demonstrated. A longer term deal where we could partner on specific projects seemed like a natural fit, and they’re someone we trust.”

Sparkstone is incorporated in both the US and China with the goal of bridging Hollywood and Chinese talent and finance to create independent film and television opportunities in both countries. Aside from Croton Media, they hold development and overhead deals with such companies as HeYi Capital and mobile gaming company YouMi, and have offices in Beijing.

The Croton deal culminates for Scott and Long a year of very hard work during which they’ve set up an organization that is truly unique in China. In a territory where the importance of creative development is too rarely acknowledged or even understood, they have made a big bet on their belief in story, and the bet has paid off. Keep on an eye on this group as they undoubtedly have many more successes to come.

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

Why is China So ‘Furious’?


Paul Walker

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 22, 2015

In the weeks leading up to its April 12th opening day in China, the consensus among box office watchers was that Furious 7 would wind up with a final gross of around $125 million for its PRC run, and that its distributors would be ecstatic about that.

After all, only four Hollywood releases—Transformers 3, Transformers 4, Avatar and the 2012 Titanic re-release—have ever reached that rarefied level in China. The previous Fast & Furious installment had topped out at $68 million in Chinese receipts in 2013, a strong but not spectacular showing.

But from its earliest midnight screenings it was clear that Furious 7 wasn’t going to stick to the driver’s manual. Now, 11 days into its scorching China run, Furious 7 has amassed an incredible total of $280 million in China, and will likely finish up at about $375 million. With a May Day holiday boost and a bit of luck it could even approach $400 million. China is absolutely mad for Furious.

What was unthinkable just a few weeks ago is now a certainty: Furious 7 will not only beat the previous PRC record holder, Transformers 4, by a wide margin, but is also certain to top its own North American total. While it’s not unprecedented for films that do moderately well in North America to perform better in China than in their home territory (e.g., Pacific Rim), never before has a bona fide American smash hit exceeded its own domestic gross in a foreign territory. This is truly uncharted territory.

First 11 days comp F7Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

What happened? Let’s break it down.

Furious 7’s success in the Middle Kingdom can be explained partly by the same factors that made it a winner everywhere: quality marketing, high ‘want-to-see’ factor, and strong word of mouth. But several factors worked especially well in China to drive the film to its world-beating grosses:

  1. Advantageous release date. What first appeared to be a so-so Sunday release slot proved not to be a problem, mainly because Furious faced no Hollywood competition in its opening week, and it has flattened the Chinese films unfortunate enough to stand in its way. Even Chinese megastar Fan BingBing proved no match for Diesel, Walker and company, as her romance Ever Since We Love scored only $11 million this past weekend against nearly $90 million for F7.
  2. Massive release pattern. With an allocation of more than 70 percent of China’s screens, and more than 90,000 showtimes per day, this undoubtedly ranks as one of the widest releases ever seen. It’s only on the film’s third weekend that Furious will control less than half of all PRC screens as DWA’s Home and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage arrive in mainland theaters.
  3. First-class promotion. With the two-year gap since Fast and Furious 6, Universal had plenty of lead time to work with SARFT and China Film Group–an investor in the film–to arrange a smooth release and mount a stellar marketing campaign. With CFG’s clout behind it and with its new China executive team in Beijing, the studio was able to support Furious 7 with more on-the-ground resources than with any past release.
  4. Strong word of mouth. Furious notched a very high 8.5 rating on audience review site Douban.com as word spread like wildfire that Furious 7 is FUN.
  5. The Paul Walker factor. Curiosity to see the final ride into the sunset of the well-liked actor who was in many ways the heart of this franchise drew numerous Fast and Furious newbies to Chinese multiplexes. Granted, this was an important factor in most of the world, but probably more so in China, where social media can instantly make or break a movie. According to a charming Chinese banker friend of mine, Paul Walker was THE trending topic of conversation on WeChat as the film rolled out.
  6. The right movie at the right time. Furious 7 is precisely the sort of big budget, effects-driven, Hollywood action spectacular that Chinese audiences love best. Sure, superhero movies are nice, but as the Transformers franchise has amply demonstrated, what the PRC really wants is machine porn: movies featuring monster machines that race and fly and do gravity defying stunts to save the world. It had been nearly a year since the last such film in this genre, Transformers 4, had graced China’s screens, so there was lots of pent-up demand for a film like F7 when it arrived.

There’s talk around the industry that Universal hasn’t yet decided whether to produce another installment of what is now the 8th highest grossing movie franchise in Hollywood history. That the ensemble of actors may not wish to come back for another film. To this I say, “If you believe that, there’s a Wall in China that I’d like to sell you.”

With all respect to the individuals involved, there is absolutely no way that Universal is going to put this golden goose down.

There are so many options Universal has now that Furious 7 has established its status as a juggernaut franchise in mainland China. They can produce the next installment of Fast and Furious as a co-production there and be reasonably assured of recouping their entire budget in the PRC alone, with the rest of the world, including North America, as gravy. If the cast doesn’t want to come back, re-boot it with a brand new cast. Or do a China spin-off with an all-Chinese cast. Do it with talking cars if necessary, for goodness’ sake! Or call me, I’ve got a script outline and treatment ready to go. But don’t think for a second about trying to stop this mean, green, driving machine.

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

“Furious 7” Blows the Doors Off China’s Box Office Records


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Furious 7 poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 13, 2015

Expectations were high among China’s movie biz pundits for Sunday’s opening of Furious 7, but no one came close to predicting the stunning drive-by looting the Universal release would commit at the country’s movie theaters. Prior Chinese box office records weren’t just beaten, they were throttled, smoked and thoroughly lapped by the skydriving thrillfest.

Furious 7’s opening day haul of 391 million RMB, or $63.1 million, doubled the previous opening day record of 194 million RMB set by Transformers 4 back in June of 2014 (Universal and the Hollywood trades are reporting somewhat higher numbers, but I haven’t yet seen these figures confirmed by official Chinese sources).

Furious 7’s midnight screenings likewise trounced the prior Transformers 4 midnight record of 20 million RMB ($3.3 million) with a new benchmark of 50 million RMB ($8.1 million).

The film’s opening day revenue also nearly equaled the Chinese receipts from the entire 4-week run of the franchise’s previous installment, Fast and Furious 6, which revved up 413 million RMB in 2013, good enough to place 11th in China for the year.

Perhaps most impressively, the film sold more than 10 million admissions in a single day, an attendance total that has been matched only a few times by modern day releases in North America, even though China has 40 percent fewer screens and less than half the seating capacity. What this means is that Furious 7 strained the PRC’s theaters to the limit by selling out a huge percentage of its 93,000 opening day screenings. And it completely squashed the competition, seizing a 92 percent share of the day’s box office revenue.

Top 10 single day grosses

Furious 7 should easily race to a $200 million cume by around April 20th. What happens after that, and whether it can break Transformer 4’s all-time Chinese box office record of nearly 2 billion RMB and $320 million, will depend on its ability to hold up against a slew of competing releases in the next few weeks. These include:

  • The April 17th release of the Fan Bingbing and Han Geng romance Ever Since We Love. Fan is China’s biggest female star, so this film could present a major speed bump for Furious.
  • The April 24th releases of the Dreamworks Animation toon Home and the Arnold Schwarzenegger action crime drama Sabotage. Home’s strong global tally so far bodes well for a strong PRC opening, and Arnold’s last few films have performed much better in China than they have stateside, so Sabotage should easily beat its tepid North American results.
  • The April 30th release of Helios starring Nick Cheung and Shawn Yue. Cheung and Yue’s previous outing The Man From Macau 2 grossed $154 million in February, so if their fans show up for them again they’ll put a major dent in Furious 7‘s record-breaking prospects.

Furious 7‘s surprisingly powerful start raises the bar on expectations for Marvel’s May 12th China release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. One of these movies or the other is likely to be the 2015 China box office champ. Up until last week the consensus for Avengers  was for a $175 million to $200 million cume; now that figure looks relatively unimpressive.

A major question Furious 7‘s box office bonanza brings up is whether the Chinese film authorities at SARFT will deploy their market management tactics to actively crimp the returns of upcoming Hollywood releases, in order to save face for locally made Chinese films. Avengers has what appears to be a big advantage vis a vis Furious in that it faces no major competition for nearly a month after its release. Still, Marvel and Disney should hold off on making any victory laps until SARFT reveals its hand.

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

Faster and Furiouser: China’s Q1 Box Office Review


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April 8, 2015

A Formula One race car. A California redwood tree. Superman. China’s box office.

Which one of these is not like the other?

A Formula One car can accelerate to 220 mph but it will eventually run out of gas. A redwood can grow tall and mighty but it will eventually reach its limit and topple to the ground. And Superman can’t keep flying forever—even he needs to take a break once in a while.

But the Chinese box office, like the Energizer Bunny, just keeps going and going and going. Two years ago I wrote in astonishment about the gravity-defying growth of the PRC’s movie business, and two years on the story just keeps getting bigger and better.

Fueled by a record-breaking February 2015 revenue haul which exceeded that of the U.S., and a March 2015 total that was 73 percent higher than the same period in 2014, aggregate PRC box office receipts for the first quarter of 2015 reached the unprecedented total of $1.54 billion. This is nearly 40 percent higher than the Q1 total in 2014, and more than China’s entire annual box office revenue of 2010.

If the trends of previous years hold, Q1 will account for about 22 to 24 percent of the year’s total gross. This would mean a year-end total somewhere between $6.4 billion and $7 billion. From there it will be just a few short years before China surpasses North America to become the world’s top box office territory.

Projected Annual Box Office, China vs. N. America, 2014-2020China v N. America box office 2014-2020

Even by China’s extraordinary standards of economic growth, the rise of the movie business has been nothing short of astounding. Just ten years ago China’s moviegoers accounted for barely one in one hundred of all the world’s ticket sales. By 2020 they will purchase more than one in three. China share of WW box office The impact of this massive growth is already being felt in the rest of the film world, with China becoming an increasingly important source of capital for films made in North America, Europe, and Asia. The global movie industry’s center of gravity is rapidly shifting across the Pacific from Hollywood to Beijing, and the key decisions about the types of films that are made, how and where they’re made, and who they’re made for are inevitably going to be heavily influenced by the Chinese Communist Party.

Of the 70 films released during China’s first quarter this year, 23 grossed at least 100 million RMB (US $16 million), and four crossed the $100 million threshold. The revenue leader for the year so far is the Chow Yun-fat starring action-comedy The Man From Macau II, which collected $154 million for Bona Film Group. March’s box office winner was Disney’s animated hit Big Hero 6, which moved into the #2 spot among China’s all-time highest grossing animated features at $85 million, just behind Dreamworks Animation’s Kung Fu Panda 2, which scored $92 million back in 2011. Top grossing films rel Q1 2015 U.S.-made films captured a modest 29.5% of the market in the quarter, the lowest share in several years, though they will begin to make up ground this weekend when Universal’s Furious 7 rolls into PRC multiplexes. Still, given the growing ability of Chinese films to compete on their home turf with Hollywood fare—not to mention SARFT’s careful management of the market—it’s unlikely that American films will ever come close again to taking 50 percent of China’s ticket sales as they did in 2012.

A look at film performance by genre reveals a few noteworthy trends. While action-adventure remains the PRC’s most popular genre, it has given up ground to family and animation films, which have continued to expand their market base over the past several years. As the bulk of China’s new cinema construction shifts away from tier 1 and 2 cities to the hinterlands, and as the market starts to mature, audience tastes will continue to broaden. B.O. share by genre Q1 2015 Coming soon: a look at China’s biggest male stars.

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

Fox scores with “Museum” while Sony strikes out with “Annie” in China


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NATM3

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
January 14, 2015

The first full box office week of 2015 saw two studio film releases that spanned the spectrum of rankings from top to bottom: Fox’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb snagged the top spot with $26.5 million, while Sony’s Annie came in last among new releases with a hair-curling $355,000, possibly the poorest opening ever for a major Hollywood studio film in China.

Both Museum and Miss Granny, the Chinese remake of the Korean comedy hit of the same name (수상한 그녀) knocked Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain out of the number one spot, which it had occupied for the previous two weeks. With its $132 million total as of this writing, Tiger Mountain is now the 6th highest grossing Chinese language film of all time, and the 3rd biggest 2014 release after Breakup Buddies and The Monkey King.

Box office for week ending Jan 11, 2015

 

Night at the Museum’s take is especially impressive considering that this is the first installment of that franchise to enjoy a PRC theatrical release. Its opening week numbers indicate a projected final gross north of $60 million, which should put it around the average for studio releases this year.

Annie, on the other hand, comes as a big surprise to the downside. Even taking into account its relatively modest release by China Film Group and Huaxia, with just 14,700 screenings during its first 3 days, the numbers are still mysteriously low, at just $23 per screening. By comparison, Khumba, a South African family animated film in its second week of release, earned more than double Annie’s average with $51 per screening. One wonders why Sony chose to use up a valuable release slot for the film, and even more, whether CFG and Huaxia put any effort into opening the picture.

Overall box office was strong at $80.4 million up 45 percent over the same frame in 2014. 2015 is off to a strong start after the blackout neutered December, with the first two weeks of this year running 46 percent ahead of last year.

Coming this week are the Jeff Bridges-Julianne Moore adventure vehicle The Seventh Son and the 3D reissue of Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle on January 16th, followed by The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which should clear at least $100 million if prior trends hold.

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 http://www.pacificbridgepics.com.

China’s Looming Toon Boom


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Boonie Bears one sheetBy Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 30, 2014

Back in the early 1990s, at the request of film critic Michael Medved, I researched and then published a strategic and statistical analysis demonstrating that Hollywood’s studios were distributing too few children’s, family, and animated feature films. My analysis was picked up by the industry trades and the national press, where it attracted quite a bit of attention and stirred up controversy.

In a matter of days I received calls from the heads of Disney, Fox, Sony Pictures, the MPAA and Blockbuster, and within mere months after that most of the major studios had established new family divisions and ramped up their production of animated features and PG-rated family films.  In the years since, these genres have consistently accounted for the studios’ very highest-grossing and most profitable films.

Recently, spurred by intuition, I decided to take a closer look at the situation in China’s film market. After delving into the numbers and the trends, it quickly became clear to me that China’s distributors would profit by distributing more quality films aimed at the family audience.

In fact, if my intuition is correct, family features, and animation in particular, ought to be among the fastest growing segments of the PRC’s film business over the next 3-5 years. Despite heavy investment and rhetorical support from China’s federal and provincial governments, these types of films currently capture a much smaller share of the market in the PRC than they do in North America. But I believe this is beginning to change as the Chinese audience broadens both geographically into the third and fourth tier cities, and demographically to families with children, and as marketing to these audiences improves.Animation Share of B.O. 2009-2013

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Animation is off to a rousing start in the first quarter of 2014, clearing $186 million in revenue in just three months, which puts it on pace to easily beat the previous full-year record of $261 million that was set last year. Given the line-up of animated features still to be released through December, I expect the cumulative gross for animation in 2014 will run to around $400 million. This would put animation’s share of China’s full-year gross at about 8.2 percent, up from 7.3 percent last year.

The first-quarter spoils have gone not just to imported big-budget Hollywood pictures, but increasingly to home-grown fare like The Boonie Bears, ranked third among animated films so far this year with a Chinese record-breaking $40 million gross, and Pleasant Goat: Meet the Pegasus, ranked fourth with $14 million in box office. It’s worth noting that both of these movies are spin-offs of popular Chinese children’s TV series.

Top Grossing Animation Q1 2014

Highlights for the rest of 2014 include the recently opened Dreamworks’ pic Mr. Peabody & Sherman, which is well on its way to a China gross of at least $24 million, Blue Sky and Fox’s Rio 2, opening on April 11, South Korea’s Koala Kid (aka The Outback) opening in early May, and Dreamworks’ How to Train Your Dragon 2, expected to open in August. Mr. Peabody‘s stronger-than-expected results will make it China’s third highest grossing non-sequel, non-spinoff animated release to date after The Croods and Frozen.Average BO per animated film 2009-2014

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Since China’s film authorities allow only 5 or 6 Hollywood animated films to be imported each year as revenue sharing “quota” films, it will fall to locally produced features to drive most of the family market’s future growth. And there are signs that China’s animation houses are getting ready to play their part. Although technical capabilities and story quality have been lacking in prior Chinese releases, the tide is turning with several new films in development based on screenplays by talented American writers, and funding and services from top Chinese animation houses.

Indeed, I’m so convinced of the scale of this opportunity that I have personally initiated two new animated film projects for China, one in partnership with a multiple Oscar winning animation producer and with a theatrical release commitment from a major Chinese distributor, and a second that has attracted Chinese investors even before the treatment is finished.

If, as I expect, animation’s share of the Chinese market rises to match that of North America, by the end of this decade the PRC will become the world’s biggest audience for animated feature films, with $1.5 billion and more in annual revenues. And that’s not kids stuff.

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 Dismal December Gives Way to Jubilant January and Fantastic February


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 13, 2014

If you were keeping tabs on China’s box office activity back in December you might have concluded that something was seriously wrong. Expected blockbusters like Personal Tailor and Police Story 2013 did fine, but fell short of expectations. Many other pictures failed to click. It seemed that the inexorable rise of cinema-going in China was finally, inevitably, slowing down. Unlike December 2012, which smashed all previously monthly records to become China’s highest grossing month of all time, December 2013 saw a precipitous 12 percent year-on-year drop in ticket revenue, despite a 39 percent increase in operating cinema screens.

If you were following all of this as it happened you might have said to yourself “All good things must come to an end.” Right?

Oh ye of little faith!

Mainland moviegoers shrugged off the December doldrums like they never happened, and halfway through 2014’s first quarter they’ve set a ticket buying pace that’s galloping along like, well, a horse.  A Kentucky Derby winner, that is.

To wit: January 31st, the first day of Chinese New Year, set a new box office record  set as the biggest single day ever in Chinese history, at 258 million RMB ($43.7 million); The Monkey King 3D set a new single-film record for the biggest ever opening day in China at 122 million RMB (besting Iron Man 3’s 121 million), and the ultra low-budget Dad Where are We Going enjoyed the best opening day ever for a 2D film, at 87 million RMB.

For the full week, grosses totaled 1.41 billion RMB, 81 percent higher than last year’s prior New Year’s record. According to Rentrak, Monkey King and Dad ranked #1 and #2 at the worldwide box office during their opening weekend. Almost every day of the week notched a new high water mark in Chinese movie history.New Chinese Box Office Records

Over the first 6 weeks of 2013, Mainland receipts are now a sizzling 70 percent ahead of the same period in 2013, a rate of growth nearly 10 times faster than China’s GDP growth. Right now China’s movie industry is one of the world’s most dynamic businesses.Box office for week ending Feb 9, 2014

In addition to Monkey King and Dad Where Are We Going, other bright spots of the year so far include Despicable Me 2’s very respectable $53 million gross despite a 7 month release delay; The Boonie Bears’ impressive performance as China’s highest-grossing domestically made animated feature ever with a $40+ million tally; and Man From Macau’s extraordinary run, the PRC’s leggiest in recent memory.Macau's leggy run

Dad, Where Are We Going also merits special mention because it is such a surprise hit. Inspired by the popular Chinese reality TV series, which is in turn a format licensed from the hit South Korean TV show, the film is said to have shot for just 5 days in the beginning of December, 2013, with a budget of less than $1 million. Fewer than 8 weeks later it arrived on thousands of Chinese movie screens, to generally poor reviews and word-of-mouth. But never mind all that; in less than two weeks the movie has gone on to become one of China’s biggest grossing films ever.

The big grosses should keep rolling as a raft of new films hit the theaters on Valentine’s Day, including Beijing Love Story, which got off to a solid start in box office pre-sales. Given the tough comps set last week, Valentine’s Day 2014 may not set a new all-time record, but it’s likely that it will come close.

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.

Who is La Peikang and How Did He Get Here?


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La Peikang

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 11, 2013

There’s a new sheriff in town and his name is La.

OK, that didn’t quite have the gravitas I was going for. The point is that China’s New Year’s holiday week is over and the dominant organization of China’s film industry, China Film Group, has a new Chairman, La Peikang (喇培康).

La’s appointment to the PRC’s top film job signals a new direction and some interesting potential changes in the years ahead, both for Chinese filmmakers and distributors and their overseas counterparts. Namely, La’s extensive international experience overseas and in China’s co-production bureaucracy point to a likely increased focus by CFG on international cooperation and expansion.

Variously described by those who know him as “serious,” “educated and academic,” “quietly effective,” “well-liked” and “outward looking,” La could scarcely be more different than his predecessor, Han Sanping.

In the role he held for ten years, Han Sanping was a hustler, a mover-and-shaker who presided over the massive rise of China’s film industry from its status as a tiny backwater with a mere 0.7 percent share of the global box office in 2003 to its emergence as the world’s most dynamic movie territory, with a 10 percent (and rapidly rising) share of the worldwide pie in 2013.

I remember the early days of his tenure when Han Sanping would show up in Hollywood unknown and barely acknowledged, begging for meetings with studio execs, agents, movie stars, anyone who would pay attention. Most dismissed him in those days as unworthy of their time, because China was so negligible as a territory, let alone as a potential source of financing. But Han’s “Baqi” (覇气) loosely translated as “lord’s air” or “domineering spirit,” drove him to oversee the incredibly rapid modernization of the Chinese market, with the construction of 16,000 new cinema screens and a corresponding 2,700 percent increase in domestic box office receipts. Nowadays, thanks largely to Han’s contributions, China is on everyone’s mind, and it would be difficult to find a serious agent or executive who doesn’t know his name.

Given the legacy that Han created, La will find that the tables have turned and that studio heads and movie stars will eagerly, if not desperately, court his favor. Those who meet him will experience a completely different breed of Chinese movie czar. In contrast to Han’s bulldog approach, La is a more sophisticated executive, a fluent English and French speaker who is apparently viewed by China’s leaders as the right person to lead their country’s movie business to maturity and, they hope, to increasing global influence.

Before his appointment was announced, few anticipated that La would be the one to win the top job. It’s not that he lacked credentials—he was Deputy Chairman of the SARFT Film Bureau, and he had previously run an important CFG subsidiary, the internationally focused China Film Co-Production Company. But other candidates were more in the public eye, perhaps because they were more effective at outwardly promoting themselves.

When it came down to it though, it was La’s connections, his political skills, and his perceived loyalty to his Chinese Communist Party bosses that ultimately allowed him to prevail. He was chosen for the job by the Party’s ultra secretive, extraordinarily powerful Organization Department (中国共产党中央组织部), China’s political king-making office. Richard McGregor of The Financial Times described the Organization Department’s status thusly:

“To glean a sense of the dimensions of the Organization Department’s job, [imagine] a parallel body in Washington…that would oversee the appointments of every US state governor and their deputies; the mayors of big cities; heads of federal regulatory agencies; the chief executives of General Electric, ExxonMobil, Walmart and 50-odd of the remaining largest companies; justices on the Supreme Court; the editors of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the bosses of the television networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities and the heads of think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation.”

This Organization Department controls more than 70 million party personnel assignments across the country, and it is no small matter to win their approval for senior party roles like La’s. Although, as McGregor wrote, “their vetting process takes place behind closed doors and appointments are announced without any explanation about why they have been made,” it’s not difficult to imagine intense lobbying, backbiting, mudslinging, and all manner of political fisticuffs. And La would have had to pass intense scrutiny– the Organization Department has access to dossiers and background checking capabilities that put the CIA and NSA to shame.

So don’t let La’s quiet, academic demeanor fool you; he’s undoubtedly as tough and effective as they come in China’s political bureaucracy. And that’s saying a lot.

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.

‘Gravity’ defies ‘Storm’ and Staves Off ‘Hunger’ in China For Second Straight Weekly Win


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 3, 2013

Strong word of mouth helped Gravity to float to a modest 36 percent decline in its second week, enabling it to fend off newcomer The White Storm and land its second straight win at the Chinese box office. Still going strong in its third week, Gravity should have no problem surpassing $70 million, even in the face of heavy competition from new Chinese openers.

This total would lock Gravity’s place as the 3rd biggest foreign release in China this year, behind Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim. But it probably won’t be enough for the film to score a top 10 slot overall, as so many local films have performed well in 2013.

The Benny Chan directed action-crime thriller White Storm debuted to good but not great numbers, eking out a slim lead over Gravity during the past 3-day weekend, when they competed head-to-head. Blue Sky Studios’ animated adventure Epic fell far behind, mustering just $3.65 million in its 3-day weekend debut. The 7-month delay in Epic’s PRC release was undoubtedly a factor in its modest showing.

Box office for week ending Dec 1, 2013

Escape Plan will finish up its PRC run with an impressive $41.5 million, nearly double its U.S. total. Considering all the love China has shown in recent years for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie’s sexagenarian stars, it will be a good idea for Hollywood to dust off its old two-hander action scripts and re-set them in China for this dynamic action duo.

For the first time since early September the weekly box office tally fell short of last year’s comps. Cumulative box office for the week ending December 1st saw a 7 percent decline to $58.5 million from the 63 million total in week 48 of 2012, when Life of Pi reigned.

Today saw the long-awaited debut of director Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, an adventure thriller that has survived two major revisions and six aborted theatrical release dates over the past four years as DMG, CFG, Galloping Horse and the filmmaking team struggled to conform to the SARFT censors’ restrictions. Originally slated to release in 2010, the film stars the hugely popular Huang Bo and Xu Zheng, who co-starred in last year’s megahit Lost in Thailand.

With its excellent $3.5 million opening day, No Man’s Land should easily top Ning Hao’s prior personal record gross of $24.7 million for last year’s Guns ‘n Roses, though the director claims he doesn’t care how much the new film earns.

“If I wanted to make big money, I could have stayed at home (in coal-rich Shanxi province) and mined coal with my classmates, who are now all billionaires,” Mr. Ning said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. I just want to do something that I like.”

Of course, what China’s theater operators would like is a big December for local Chinese pictures. With nearly 18,000 movie theater screens now in operation (35 percent more than at this time last year) and an average of 12 or 13 new ones opening every day, they are increasingly reliant on local films to help them pay off their investments.

November’s box office totaled $250 million, a 36 percent increase over 2012, and cumulative year-to-date box office now stands at $3.22 billion. If December’s revenue merely matches last December’s total—a distinct possibility given the tough comps established in 2012 by Lost in Thailand—then China’s total for 2013 will wind up just shy of $3.6 billion.

If, on the other hand, expected hits No Man’s Land, Personal Tailor and Police Story can each draw $80 million to $100 million in ticket revenue, then the year-end total could, just possibly, reach $3.7 billion.

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.

‘Gravity’ Thrills, ‘Catching Fire’ Chills as China’s Box Office Tops $3 Billion


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

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 26, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity scored the PRC’s fifth best opening of the year with a nearly $36 million liftoff, as U.S.-made films grabbed the top four box office spots and six of the top seven in the week ending November 24th.

Gravity, which is performing nearly as well as surprise hit Life of Pi did at this time a year ago, also set records for IMAX, grossing almost $7.5 million, or more than 20 percent of the film’s opening 6-day total, on 123 screens. Gravity‘s marketing campaign benefited nicely from its liberal use of James Cameron’s quote calling it “The best space film ever.”

The fourth quarter has been a good one so far for Hollywood, with American movies capturing a 55 percent share of the market during the period from October 1st through November 24th.  U.S. films are now at their peak market share for 2013 with over 47 percent of all China box office revenue, though that figure will ebb back to about 42 percent as local Chinese releases dominate the calendar throughout December.Top 5 Opening Weeks 2013

One exception to this trend is Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Despite its rare day-and-date release and its huge reception in the U.S., Lionsgate’s sci-fi/action picture failed to stir up much interest in China. Its four-day total of $12.95 million makes it only the 31st best opener of the year, behind even such modestly performing titles as A Good Day to Die Hard and After Earth.  Although Catching Fire’s debut improved by about 16 percent over the opening week of its 2011 predecessor The Hunger Games, it did so in a market that has grown by more than 80 percent in the interim, so the sequel’s performance in the PRC has to be considered a letdown.

Another disappointment was the suspense-thriller Control, a China-Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production starring Daniel Wu that eked out only $3.5 million for the week. The California-born Wu has consistently been one of China’s most bankable stars, so his latest film’s weak opening must have surprised the film’s backers, who include Huayi Brothers, Media Asia and Celestial Pictures.

Box office week ending 11-24-13

Nationwide gross was $69 million, a 49 percent increase over the same period in 2012, and the biggest weekly total since early October, when Young Detective Dee reigned over a $101 million weekly theatrical total. Year-to-date gross has now eclipsed $3 billion, and if last year’s trend holds, the last five weeks of 2013 will generate a $500+ million haul for PRC theater operators, resulting in a final yearly gross of around $3.6 billion to $3.7 billion.

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.