China’s Box Office: The Calm Before the Storm?


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 14, 2011

For the week ending December 11th, White Vengeance held the top spot for the second week in a row in a disappointingly sluggish frame at the Chinese box office. While Vengeance grossed a respectable $8.3 million for the week to up its cume to $21.4 million, the 5 new openers combined mustered an aggregated gross of only $5 million between them.

Tops among the new entrants was South Korea’s monster flick Sector 7, which picked up $2.5 million, good enough for second place and also making it the highest grossing Korean film in China this year. Far behind among the new releases was India’s Bollywood smash hit from 2009, the Aamir Khan starrer 3 Idiots, which despite amassing a $55 million total in India, managed a scant $1.2 million from Chinese theaters.

Priest and The Adventures of Tintin held onto the 3rd and 4th slots, respectively, raising their cumes to $5.3 million for Priest and $20.4 million for Tintin. Distributor DMG has done a respectable job in handling Priest; despite the conventional wisdom that horror doesn’t click in China—not to mention the fact that vampire movies are technically prohibited under SARFT rules—the picture has significantly over-indexed in its PRC release, earning an estimated 8 percent of its worldwide gross there.

White Vengeance became the 34th film of the year to join the 100mm RMB/$15mm club, double last year’s total of 17. Of those 34 films 17 are from Hollywood, 9 are from China, and 8 are China-Hong Kong co-productions.

Breakaway rom-com hit Love is Not Blind winds down its run with nearly $56 million, making it the second highest grossing Chinese language film this year behind Beginning of the Great Revival.

All told the week was one of the slowest of the year, with total receipts of $23.4 million, a 21 percent dip from the same week in 2010.  Many are hoping that the year-end box office will kick into high gear next week when the $35 million budgeted Tsui Hark/Jet Li wuxia action romp Flying Swords of Dragon Gate opens against the  Zhang Yimou/Christian Bale $90+ millon historical epic Flowers of War.  Both pictures represent big gambles for their backers, as each will need to make record or near record box office numbers in order to recoup its investment.

Indeed, with questionable prospects outside of China due to its dark subject matter and contrived, melodramatic plotting, Flowers of War will need to gross well over $200 million in China to pay back its reported $91 million investment. That would be double the existing record for a domestic release of a Chinese language film (Let the Bullets Fly at $111 million). Although director Zhang Yimou is a huge draw in China, and star Christian Bale is well known there, it’s unlikely that this film has the commercial juice to pull in the Avatar sized numbers it needs.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate seems the likelier of the two films to achieve commercial success. The Tsui Hark/Jet Li pairing represents a potent box office combo with a long pedigree of success. The Once Upon a Time in China films they made together are well-loved around the world and propelled both of their careers as masters of the action genre. And it should also help that Flying Swords is a remake of the beloved classic 1966 King Hu film Dragon Gate Inn, one of my personal all-time favorites.

Still, as Chinese audiences have proven, nothing is certain and anything is possible. Both films should perform well, and it won’t be much of a surprise if this turns out to be the biggest week at the box office this year.

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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