China’s Box Office: The Power of ‘Love’


By Robert Cain                                                                        November 23, 2011

Love is Not Blind has throttled its Hollywood competition for the second week in a row with a $14.8 million box office take last week, more than enough to hold off the unimpressive $9.2 million debut of Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. In just 13 days of release the indie hit Love has become the highest grossing romantic comedy in Chinese history, and the fourth biggest film overall at the box office in 2011.

Love declined 48 percent in its second outing, a strong hold considering that two new high profile films opened against it, and three other Hollywood blockbusters are still occupying Chinese movie screens.

Despite Tintin’s inauspicious release—it didn’t even crack the top 20 among opening weekends for films in China this year—overall box office was up by more than 50 percent over the same period in 2010, when the Chinese ancient costume comedy Just Call Me Nobody opened to $9 million. Just Call Me Nobody finished its run with over $24 million last December; it remains to be seen whether Tintin can reach even that moderate level of success.

Among other films in release, Rise of the Planet of the Apes added another $1.6 million for the week, boosting it into the ranks of the $30 million box office club, the 15th film of 2011 to reach this level. Only 10 films surpassed this mark in all of 2010—half of them Chinese and half imported from Hollywood—and only 5 films did so in 2009. Even more impressive, 31 films have now grossed at least $15 million this year, against only 17 for all of 2010 and 8 in 2009.  As the Chinese market matures it is clearly broadening both in the numbers of films that are making solid profits, and in the range of genres that are working.

One genre that appears on the surface to be working but which looks shaky under closer scrutiny is animation. The Chinese government has made domestic animation production a huge priority, investing heavily in facilities and equipment, but Tintin’s lackluster debut raises doubts about the wisdom of this investment initiative.  Of the 17 animated feature releases this year only three—Kung Fu Panda ($92mm), Smurfs ($40mm), and the Chinese-made Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf ($22mm)—can be deemed successes. Most foreign animated films have under-indexed in China relative to their success in the U.S. and international markets, and most home-grown animated films have been dismal failures.

Even animated films that perform well elsewhere often under-perform in China. Cars 2 earned only 2 percent of its global box office take in China, versus an average of 5-6 percent for other foreign filns, and Rio likewise disappointed. The problem may be over-supply. Because animation is one of only a few genres considered a safe bet to pass through China’s strict censorship process, producers and capital tend to gravitate to these projects, even when the scripts and artistic talent are lacking.

To be sure, there are some capable animation shops in China, but they may find it tough going in the years ahead as an increasing number of poorly made or poorly targeted films flood the market. The government should balance its enthusiastic investment in animation equipment and facilities with an equal level of funding for artistic training and  story-telling skill development.

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.

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