“Grandmaster” Flashes to Top of China Chart


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 15, 2012

Wong Kar-Wai’s Grandmaster, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, opened with $25.8 million in its first six days in China, extending a record-smashing 7-week run during which at least one film every week has grossed $25 million or more at the Chinese box office. The film, an action-biopic about Bruce Lee’s legendary trainer and kung fu master Ip Man, beat out long-running hits CZ12 and Lost in Thailand last week to top the charts.

Director Wong, notorious for his budget and schedule overruns, out-did his tardiness record this time with a film that he first publicly announced all the way back in 2002. He released the picture’s first teaser trailer in summer, 2010, and pushed back several release dates as he tinkered with the film in post production. After missing his December 18th release date, he was reportedly still putting finishing touches on the film just hours before its eventual world premiere on January 6th. The first-week grosses would have been higher except that the film arrived at least a day late at many theaters.

Still, the wait was apparently worth it, as Grandmasters drew more than 4.5 million admissions and was critically well received, with reviewer James Marsh calling it “the best-looking martial arts film since Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and the most successful marriage of kung fu and classic romance since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Box office week ending 1-13-13

In second place for the week, Jackie Chan’s action-comedy hit CZ12 added $13 million to solidifiy its standing as the mainland’s second-highest grossing Chinese language film ever after Lost in Thailand, with a 25-day cume of $127.1 million.

In its fifth week of release, Lost in Thailand fell 72 percent to $8.9 million, a surprisingly sharp drop that raises the question as to whether it can beat Avatar for China’s all-time box office record. Lost already holds the admissions record with over 38 million tickets sold, but Grandmaster’s dominant opening last week may just have ruined Lost in Thailand‘s chance to become the first Chinese film in the modern multiplex era to take the mainland’s all-time box office revenue crown. Lost needs another $17 million to achieve that distinction, and with Grandmaster stealing its thunder last week and with the James Bond pic Skyfall entering the picture next week, Lost in Thailand, the little ($4 million budgeted) picture that could, may not have enough steam left to push it over the top.

Skyfall‘s release on January 21 will bring an end to the nearly two month long SARFT blackout on major Hollywood releases. The Bond pic can be expected to perform well, though it will undoubtedly be hurt by SARFT’s two-and-a-half month delay in releasing the film, a lag which has allowed massive illicit pirating and online viewing that will cut into the film’s theatrical potential. Still, at least Skyfall won’t be subject to the simultaneous release with The Hobbit that many had feared; that picture has been held back in the PRC until late February.

There are numerous American film releases ahead with strong market potential, but don’t expect a repeat of 2012′s first half, when Hollywood seized a 63 percent share of the market. SARFT won’t be caught off guard this time, and will be doing everything it can to maintain the respectable appearance of a 50 percent or better market share for Chinese language movies.

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.

In Chinese Entertainment Gay is the New Straight


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By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

December 19, 2012

Here’s one recipe for making a film or TV show a hit in China: cast at least two handsome male leads and put them in homoerotic situations that young females can fantasize about. Leave everything to the girls’ imaginations, but make it easy for them to picture the virile males making out and doing other sexy things to one another. If the men are attractive enough and the situations hot enough, young Chinese women will go bananas and you’ll have a major money maker on your hands.

For reasons that are beyond my limited understanding, the libidos of Chinese girls and women born after the mid-1980s are highly susceptible to homoerotic images in media. Foreign TV shows like the UK’s “Sherlock” and America’s “Big Bang Theory” are enormously popular there at least partly because they comedically hint and tease around the possibility of their male leads’ homosexuality. The Holmes character in “Sherlock” is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, one of the prettiest male faces on television, and he constantly finds himself in situations that suggest a possible gay relationship with his sidekick Watson, played by Martin Freeman.Sherlock and Holmes

For instance, in “Sherlock’s” first episode when Holmes and Watson move in together, their landlady apparently believes they are a couple and says: “There’s another bedroom upstairs … that is if you’ll be needing one.”

Later on, the pair share a meal in London’s gay Soho district, where the restaurant owner says: “Sherlock, you can have anything on the menu for you and your date. I’ll get a candle for the table. It’s more romantic.”

“Big Bang Theory,” the most popular American TV series in China, frequently toys with the idea that the characters Raj and Howard may have erotic feelings for one another. Another character, Leonard’s mother, observes that Raj and Howard are in an “ersatz homosexual marriage that satisfies [their] need for intimacy.” And she once asked them directly, “Have you finally summoned the courage to express your latent homosexual feelings for one another?”Howard and Raj

Raj offers plenty of fodder for speculation about his sexual orientation, saying things like, “It’s like accidentally walking into a gay bar and then having no one hit on you. It happened to, um, a friend of mine.” Or revealing that he had a dream in which he and Howard had side-by-side mansions, “but there was a secret tunnel connecting [Howard's] front yard to [Raj's] back yard.”

Domestic and imported feature films also offer many opportunities for young Chinese women to get aroused. John Woo’s Red Cliff has a famous scene at the end where handsome Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro–widely considered one of Asia’s hottest actors–approach each other against a romantic backdrop, wind blowing through the barley field. The pair stand nose to nose for several minutes speaking to each other, perhaps barely resisting a kiss, as Leung’s character says “No matter what may happen, this experience is engraved in my heart.” To which Kaneshiro’s character replies, “I too shall not forget.”

The recent Sherlock Holmes films, also popular in China, star two of the prettiest boys in cinema, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Those films are also notable for their homoerotic tension, and Downey has suggested that Holmes could be a “butch homosexual”, adding that the films are about “two men who happen to be room-mates, wrestle a lot and share a bed.”

When Marvel’s The Avengers released in China to huge box office returns earlier this year, the most heated online discussions were not amongst nerdy fanboys, but among girls speculating that the Loki character might be gay, and that he could be in a romantic relationship with Thor or Iron Man. Stephen Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was likewise the source of much internet chatter in the PRC.El Sexo de Los Angeles

The biggest lust-inducing film for Chinese girls is unquestionably the Spanish import El Sexo de Los Angeles, which has reportedly been viewed over 400 million times in China via the internet. That film centers on a male-female-male relationship that is described by IMDB as a “steamy love triangle”:

“Struggling martial artist and dancer Bruno loves his girlfriend Carla, but when he meets fellow [male] dancer Rai, serious sparks begin to fly, opening the couple up to new possibilities. A new generation navigates sexual fluidity, torn affections, and open relationships in this steamy love triangle. But once Bruno’s clandestine encounters with Rai are revealed, a confused and hurt Carla kicks him out. But she simply doesn’t want to give up on her love. Eventually she agrees that Bruno can date them both.”

Female microbloggers on China’s Sina Weibo have described the film thusly:

“Two men and a woman love each other, a three-way love, ever so harmonious living together. Oh my Buddha!”

“Unique, thought-provoking. Two handsome, suave, sexy charming men, wild and unconstrained, humorous, considerate and gently daring to love, so strong yet so fragile.”

“Are you a homosexual or BISEXUAL? Does it matter? It’s sexual.”

400 million views. For a low-budget Spanish language film. Perhaps now would be a good time for all of us to set aside our big budget, testosterone-driven action extravaganzas in favor of films that explore the softer, more intimate side of male-male relationships.

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.

‘Bourne’ Again in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 1, 2012

Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy surprised China box office watchers last week, outpacing most analysts’ estimates as it chased down a solid $14.4 million box office haul in its 4-day opening in the PRC. The debut ranked as the 13th best in China this year, just ahead of the $14 million March opening of John Carter, and just behind Journey 2’s $15.2 million February open.

With Bourne, foreign films sustained their post blackout dominance at China’s theaters, as the week’s top 5 slots were colonized by English language pictures—four of American origin and one Australian. Fully 88 percent of the frame’s revenues went to non-Chinese movies.

Cumulative weekly revenues were $36 million, 50 percent better than the total for the same week last year. Chinese audiences again demonstrated that, in the absence of SARFT manipulation, they strongly prefer imports over domestic pictures.

Hollywood films tend to wind up their runs in the PRC with 2.5 times to 3.5 times their opening 3-4 day weekend tallies, so Bourne will likely finish its run in the $35 million to $50 million range. China should ultimately account for 12 to 15 percent of the picture’s worldwide theatrical gross, which would be on par with several of the 2012’s best performing Hollywood releases in China, such as The Expendables 2, which earned about 15 percent of its worldwide total there, and Men in Black III, which took 13 percent of its worldwide gross there.

Considering that it released in the rest of the world nearly a year ago, the $3.6 million opening of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I was a reasonably good one and a credit to disrtibutor DMG’s strength in the market.

The next Hollywood film debut will be on November 6th, when Disney’s animated family feature Wreck-It Ralph opens as counter-programming against the star-studded Hong Kong cops and robbers thriller Cold War, which features Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung, Andy Lau and Dear Enemy’s Aarif Lee. No other film looks likely to make much of an impact through mid-November, so foreign films should enjoy several more good weeks in China until the December blackout begins.

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

China’s Box Office: Which Way to a Global Chinese Cinema?


by Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 12, 2012

Well no surprise here – Hollywood dominated the mainland Chinese box office once again with 5 films taking a 73 percent share, reaffirming the fact that China’s film industry simply does not yet have what it takes to compete with Hollywood imports at its own domestic box office.

This is an observation that has been written about extensively here on China Film Biz over the past month, and deservedly so – it has been nearly two months since a Chinese film claimed the top box office spot in the mainland.  The last time was mid-January, when The Great Magician starring Tony Leung and Zhou Xun opened.  Even then, The Great Magician’s reign was short-lived, lasting all of one week before a series of Hollywood imports began their recent streak of domination.

It may seem like we’re beating a dead horse by mentioning China’s inability to produce popular mainstream films for its masses. This is perhaps especially true this week, when even beating a dead horse was something that China literally failed to succeed in doing at the local Chinese box office.

I am referring to the film War Horse, the Steven Spielberg-directed epic war adaptation that is based on a children’s novel.  War Horse, which was released in the US on Christmas of last year, found itself atop the mainland Chinese charts this past week, grossing a rather modest $8.8 million over the span of six days.

To put that opening gross in perspective, the week’s second highest grossing film, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, made $15.2 million in half as many days when it opened in China in mid-February.  The Taiwan co-produced romance Love, meanwhile, made $13.9 million over the course of its first seven days of screening on the mainland.

Also opening this past week was the US action-fantasy film animation Conan the Barbarian, which took in $3.1 million over six days to come in at number four at the box office.

Mission Impossible 4 and the previously released family animation Happy Feet Two rounded out the Chinese box office top five.

*****

A recent post here on China Film Biz highlighted several challenges that make it difficult for mainland Chinese filmmakers to make commercially successful films.   That post focused mostly on the rules and regulations that stifle what should very well be a vibrant and productive creative culture within the mainland Chinese film industry.  Rather than rehash the critical (and very true) observations made in that post, I’m going to focus here a bit on another aspect of the same question – i.e., what I believe needs to be explored in regards to actual film content if China plans on ever developing a successful global Chinese cinema.

Now everyone knows that China will be an increasingly important power in the 21st century.  But how will China’s developing economic and geopolitical might translate on a cultural level?

This is a question that the Chinese government is seeking to address in part through the development of a global Chinese cinema.  But does the Chinese government, headed by a consortium of book smart and savvy politicians with academic educations largely in engineering, know the first thing about what this global Chinese cinema should look like?

Chinese civilization is often described as being over 5000 years old, and it is in part this rich history that has led many scholars to assert that Chinese culture and society is one that often looks backwards in time with great reverence. You see this reverence for the past played out in Chinese cinema/media through the strong, recurring theme of nostalgia in many Chinese movies.   Traveling back in time became such a popular theme in Chinese television that SARFT actually banned the storytelling device from the mainland Chinese airwaves a year or two ago.

In my opinion, the Chinese people’s reverence for the past is an aspect of Chinese culture that will likely hinder the development of a global Chinese cinema. The recent government-produced period films Beginning of the Great Revival and The Founding of the Republic – which featured basically everyone and anyone who has any star power in China/HK/Taiwan – have had little to no global appeal.  As rich as it is, Chinese history has little appeal to the average global moviegoer.  You can even have a certified A-list Hollywood actor like Christian Bale headlining your Chinese period film, but it won’t get potential moviegoers off their sofas and into theaters.

It’s true that the US and the rest of the Western world are fascinated by China, but not the China of the past.  This should be obvious, especially when it comes to the average American – we are a people that aren’t particularly known for caring about history, even our own. Yes, people are aware of China and its rapid economic growth.  But it is not China today that people want to know about.  It is the China of tomorrow.

Ultimately I believe this is one of the major areas that needs to be explored by the mainland Chinese film industry if it is to succeed at developing a global Chinese cinema.  No one really cares what China looks like today, and in some regards they shouldn’t – the country is changing so fast, what you see today will likely be radically different from what you see five years from now.

What people will want to know – whether they realize it yet or not – is where China will end up, because to a large extent, depending on what this future destination of China looks like, so too will the rest of the global world look as well.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at hollymu.com.