‘Life of Pi’ Washes Up a Wave of Cash in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 27, 2012

Strong word of mouth and a weekend surge in attendance led Life of Pi to a surprising box office win last week over the 3D re-release of Roland Emmerich’s 2012. The Ang Lee directed adventure-drama (Chinese title: 少年派的奇幻漂流, or “Young Pi’s Rafting Fantasy”) netted $17 million in its four-day opening, versus a six-day total of $14.7 million for 2012.

After two weeks at the top of the box office, Hong Kong actioner Cold War slipped by 49 percent to a $7.5 million haul. The film has edged out Silent War and now stands as the second highest-grossing Chinese language film so far this year, at $38.4 million.

A pair of animation imports from Hollywood, Wreck–It Ralph and Rise of the Guardians, landed in fourth and fifth places, with $1.37 million and $1.14 million respectively. As is so often the case with non-sequel animated films, neither film has indexed well in China: Ralph will finish in fifth place among all 2012 animated releases in the PRC—notably, behind the Chinese cartoons Pleasant Goat and I Love Wolffy—and Rise of the Guardians will be lucky to crack the top ten (although it will probably surpass Pixar’s latest China misfire, Brave).

Three significant factors are driving Life of Pi’s success: Its strong IMAX/3D footprint; high praise from critics and cultural influencers; and the drawing power of the film’s director, Ang Lee.

China is one of IMAX’s top countries, not only in terms of screen count, but also in revenue per screen. According to anecdotal reports I’m hearing, Life of Pi enjoyed IMAX’s third biggest ever launch in the PRC, behind Avatar and Titanic 3D.

Critics praised the film not only for its lush imagery and superb direction, but also for its Asian viewpoint and deep philosophical essence. And after viewing the film such high profile stars as  Lee HomCarina Lau and Shu Qi urged their millions of social media followers to come out and see the picture, helping to trigger a big weekend turnout.

Filmgoers wait on a long line to see ‘Life of Pi’ at a Shenzhen theater.

Finally, China’s filmgoers respond at least as much to top directors as they do to stars. Only a handful of directors have true drawing power, and Ang Lee is one of them. Life of Pi has a shot at topping $50 million in China; the only thing that might hold it back is a competing release from another marquee director, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, If You Are the One). It will be a surprise to many if Feng’s new film Back to 1942, which opens on Wednesday, November 29th, doesn’t break all records and become the highest-grossing Chinese language film ever.

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’ Chills Competition For Second Straight Win at Chinese Box Office


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 20, 2012

Strong word of mouth propelled the Hong Kong cops and robbers thriller Cold War to a $15.2 million take last week, its second straight week atop the Chinese box office rankings. This marks the first time all year that a non-co-pro Hong Kong picture repeated in winning the box office title for two consecutive weeks. The film has grossed a solid $30.6 million after 10 days, which places it fourth among all non-Hollywood titles in the PRC in 2012. 

Six new films opened this past week, but none managed to capture much of an audience. First among these new entrants was Rise of the Guardians, which became the latest non-sequel animated film to disappoint its distributors in China, drawing a modest $3.1 million gross in its 3-day debut weekend.

Overall PRC box office has been sluggish of late, with the weekly cume again falling short of the total for the same frame last year, this time by an 18 percent deficit.  SARFT’s blackout periods, a slowing Chinese economy, and a shortage of commercial, audience pleasing pictures have put a damper on the PRC’s box office growth since mid-summer.

Cume for the year is now $2.2 billion, about 23 percent ahead of where it stood at the same time last year. The final six weeks of 2012 will almost certainly beat the $265 million total for the final six weeks of last year, which would put the year-end total above $2.5 billion, but the final tally will fall short of the expectations that had been set through the year’s first 6 months.

This week: 2012 3D opened on the 20th, Life of Pi opens on the 22nd, Chinese thriller Zombies Reborn on the 23rd, and Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 will launch the busy December season on November 29th.

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.

Horror Claws Its Way Into China’s Movie Theaters


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 6, 2012

In what is assuredly an all-time first, two horror films ranked among the 5 top grossers at the Chinese box office last week. Although the horror genre has been rather a rarity at PRC multiplexes, due in large part to SARFT censorship strictures, the tide may now be turning for them. Chinese censors have been noticeably friendlier of late to violent and even gory low-budget horror flicks, and audiences have been showing up for them in increasing numbers.

Fewer than a dozen horror films have unspooled in Chinese theaters in the past two years, so two such films screening at the same time feels like a veritable gore-fest. The two pictures are the Australian shark attack thriller Bait 3D, which at a $25 million cume is easily the highest-grossing horror film in China’s history (I’ve made the admittedly subjective judgment call of classifying Prometheus as a sci-fi thriller), and the new French entry Derrière les Murs, a period horror-thriller about a young female novelist who isolates herself in the countryside to write her new book. Before long the writer is haunted by visions and nightmares while the villagers grow worried as several little girls mysteriously disappear.

Derrière’s$2.2 million opening weekend tally may not seem like much, but it’s good enough to rank as China’s fifth best horror debut of the year, and among the country’s top ten horror grossers of all time. Given the encouraging signs, now may be a good time for American and other foreign horror-meisters to sharpen up their fangs and take a bite of China’s booming film business.

In other multiplex action, The Bourne Legacy held off the Chinese action movie Taichi 2 to retain the number one spot for the second week in a row.  Total Recall slipped to third, adding $4.5 million to what is now a nearly $17 million cume.

Nationwide admissions totaled 6.4 million, and aggregate box office was $33.6 million, flat compared with the same week last year. New openers this week include the star-heavy Chinese action film Cold War, which opened today, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, which rolls out on Thursday.

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

‘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