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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com
Thanks for being intelligent about this and not blindly pasting any distributor’s press releases. I tend to agree with your assessment that a lot of unlikely events would have to coincide for this story to be true. One aspect you did not mention: even if it was true that the Chinese opening was bigger than the US opening, I don’t see how it would be important – given that it could be true based on a disappointing US box office turnout. What is important, though (even though nobody seemed to have mentioned it): According to the reviews Looper seems to be a good film! That would be a first for a big US-CH co-production 🙂
Thomas, thanks for your feedback. I agree, it is a good film. I did actually mention that in the article.
Your assessment is correct; they must have confused the currency. By the way, Men In Black had awareness but did not have a strong, dedicated following because none of the previous films were released in China. It worked because of Will Smith and it’s just a fun film. Also Looper did not get the co-production status; it was considered a foreign film.
Thanks for your input. I believe Men in Black did have a strong following due to pirate viewing. Will Smith is quite popular there. As for Looper’s co-pro status, my contacts at DMG, the Chinese production company on the picture, tell me that it did finally receive the co-pro approval. Whatever its status, it was the only National Day holiday release that wasn’t a Chinese language film, and that in itself was a major coup for DMG, Sony, Endgame, and the filmmakers.
I believe it finally got a ‘assisted production’ status and not a coprod.
Rosa, that’s correct.