China’s Box Office: Hollywood Films Regain Dominance

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By Albert Wang for China Film Biz

February 8, 2012

For the second week in a row, Mission: Impossible 4 Ghost Protocol reigned at the Chinese box office, grossing a reported $39.4 million and bringing the film’s cumulative 9 day gross in mainland China to just under $56 million.

Out of the $24.3 million that MI:4 grossed over the weekend in the foreign theatrical circuit, $19.8 million came from China. To put the numbers in context, MI:4 grossed a mere $7.4 million in its opening weekend in Japan in December of 2011. Until recently, Japan was the world’s 2nd largest movie market. It took MI:4 film little over a week in China to gross as much as it did in a full month in Japan.

In second place was Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which continues its decent showing in China with a gross of $3.56 million over the week, bringing the film’s 22 day total to $27.7 million.  Meanwhile, both The Viral Factor and All’s Well, Ends Well 2012 held on to the number three and four spots, grossing $2.9 million and $2.4 million, respectively.

The lone newcomer into the top five was Jonnie To’s Life Without Principle, which earned a rather mild $2.3 million over three days to claim the number five spot.

With the exception of To’s Life Without Principle, there was relatively little movement in the box office top 10.  And so this week it is worth noting the complete dominance Hollywood films have had in the Chinese market, with M:I 4 and Sherlock Holmes together accounting for a cool 75% of the mainland Chinese box office this week.

This dominance by a pair of Hollywood films comes at a time when it seems that just about anyone and everyone with deep pockets in China is looking to develop a film fund.  This week saw the announcement of Bruno Wu’s $800 million Harvest Seven Stars Media Private Equity Fund, as well as the announcement of a Chinese government-backed film fund to be overseen by China Mainstream Media National Film Capital Hollywood Inc. (HSSMPEF and CMMNFCHI, respectively; good luck remembering those acronyms), the U.S. division of China National Film Capital Co. Ltd.  Even retired NBA star Yao Ming has been reported to be looking into developing a film fund in recent weeks.

The purported goal of most if not all of these film funds is to produce Chinese films with a more global appeal.  And yet as we see from the Chinese box office this week, Chinese films have yet to find a way to effectively compete with Hollywood films on their own turf.   This is due to a wide range of issues, from overly restrictive government regulations, to a lack of quality source material being developed in China for the big screen, to Chinese audience’s demonstrated preference for Hollywood’s film offerings.  However, I’d like to posit another problem a globally appealing Chinese cinema faces.

China, in spite of all the capital being thrown at film funds of late, lacks the necessary star power to promote its films globally.   M:I 4 had Tom Cruise, Holmes had Robert Downey, Jr.  Without those stars headlining their respective films, it’s difficult to imagine either film performing as well as it has on the foreign theatrical circuit.

And so in spite of all the promises the various film funds have made regarding a future global Chinese cinema in the making, a big question remains:  Who will be the Chinese Tom Cruise?  The Chinese Robert Downey, Jr.?  Or the Chinese Shia Lebouf?

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

12 thoughts on “China’s Box Office: Hollywood Films Regain Dominance

  1. Spot on regarding the, “who will be the Chinese global appeal star” Rob. The figures show again that stand alone Chinese films are down the bottom of local income list in China.
    Two US and two HK/China copro’s and a stand alone HK film in the top five.
    Apart from the well known action stars Jet Li and Jacky Chan etc I can only think of one other who has done well recently, Chao Yun Fat [sorry for bad spelling] had a decent role in the Pirates movie [At Worlds End] and he is very good of course with a long history of credits and from HK.
    They must be scratching their heads in China and pouting their lips wondering what to do next.
    I have my own path to follow and gamble to make on my own little movie, but in HK.

    A Question Rob? I presume a Hong Kong production even through a registered Hong Kong company is still deemed a foreign product, would that be correct?

    • Thanks for the compliment, Russell, but this post was written by my colleague Albert Wang.

      You are correct: a Hong Kong production is considered a ‘foreign’ film for purposes of mainland China distribution.


  2. I wonder how sustainable the Hollywood dominance of the Chinese box office is? As long as it continues, as long as western films are consistently topping the charts, what incentive is there for Hollywood kingpins to collaborate with the Chinese studios, especially if the result of careful planning and investing only leads to flops like, “Flowers of War”? They may be content to just ride it out until circumstances change. Honestly, I’m not certain that China will be able to produce the sort of viable star you’re describing, not until they can replicate the same Hollywood swagger, sexuality and rebelliousness, and that just doesn’t seem possible under the current system’s restrictions.

    • Rian,

      Interesting thoughts. It’s true that China has so far produced few international movie stars. But Hollywood has at least two powerful incentives to collaborate with Chinese studios:

      1. Money. China is likely to become a dominant provider of capital to the global film industry, and to Hollywood in particular, in the coming years.
      2. Distribution. Co-productions enjoy great advantages over non-Chinese films in the Chinese distribution system. Co-pros are not subject to the same restrictive quotas as foreign-made films, and co-pros enjoy a much greater share of revenue, double or more, than is allowed to foreign imports.


      • As film making is a business like say “Real Estate” eg. Positon, Position, Position, and “in Film” Content, Content, Content. Although the content is restricted in China you don’t really need sex etc to make a good film.
        I’m thinking about the rules all the time now the co pro issue is mentioned again, sorry Rob, another 3 part Question.

        Is there any special rule or qualification to start a film making company in China for a Chinese national?…if not…could I in theory get my Chinese wife/or friend to register a film production company in China, and my foreign company Australian or soon HK do a co pro with that company? After jumping through the usual SARFT hoops/rules etc.

    • Good call Rain, indeed it seems that Chinawood needs to do a lot to compete in the free world of entertainment as the captive audience in China is now expecting more bang for their buck if they have to pay full price.
      I don’t see foreign audiance warming up to Chinese stars/films any time soon. The women have a better chance though.
      Hong Kong has more of a chance as always.
      When will they learn? the next generation, if lucky decade.

  3. RE: The process of making a work of art… and yes film is not only a technical craft, product and content… What about it’s moist important component… Creativity, Inspiration and Freedom of Expression of the artist. And Yes… we filmmakers are first and foremost Artists. The basic premise that creativity is needed to produce the product of film, is every bit if not more important than Content, Content, Content. or even Product Peoduct Product… furthermore… Do Chinese restrictions set forth in the SARFT hoops/rules etc. lend to enough creative juicing to actually produce films that the Chinese fim consumer wants to see in Mandarin actually made by Chinese film makers? It truly must be frustrating for the average filmgoer in Mainland China to have to watch foreign films with Mandarin subtitles.

  4. How come MI4 and Sherlock Holmes are not subject to SARFT..? It seems that films of this nature, if originally made as co-pros, would never been approved by SARFT….so why are they allowed to be shown in China??

    • As with all films exhibited theatrically in China, both MI4 and Sherlock Holmes were subject to SARFT approval (and suggested edits). Why do you think the films wouldn’t be approved?

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