‘Gravity’ Thrills, ‘Catching Fire’ Chills as China’s Box Office Tops $3 Billion


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 26, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity scored the PRC’s fifth best opening of the year with a nearly $36 million liftoff, as U.S.-made films grabbed the top four box office spots and six of the top seven in the week ending November 24th.

Gravity, which is performing nearly as well as surprise hit Life of Pi did at this time a year ago, also set records for IMAX, grossing almost $7.5 million, or more than 20 percent of the film’s opening 6-day total, on 123 screens. Gravity‘s marketing campaign benefited nicely from its liberal use of James Cameron’s quote calling it “The best space film ever.”

The fourth quarter has been a good one so far for Hollywood, with American movies capturing a 55 percent share of the market during the period from October 1st through November 24th.  U.S. films are now at their peak market share for 2013 with over 47 percent of all China box office revenue, though that figure will ebb back to about 42 percent as local Chinese releases dominate the calendar throughout December.Top 5 Opening Weeks 2013

One exception to this trend is Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Despite its rare day-and-date release and its huge reception in the U.S., Lionsgate’s sci-fi/action picture failed to stir up much interest in China. Its four-day total of $12.95 million makes it only the 31st best opener of the year, behind even such modestly performing titles as A Good Day to Die Hard and After Earth.  Although Catching Fire’s debut improved by about 16 percent over the opening week of its 2011 predecessor The Hunger Games, it did so in a market that has grown by more than 80 percent in the interim, so the sequel’s performance in the PRC has to be considered a letdown.

Another disappointment was the suspense-thriller Control, a China-Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production starring Daniel Wu that eked out only $3.5 million for the week. The California-born Wu has consistently been one of China’s most bankable stars, so his latest film’s weak opening must have surprised the film’s backers, who include Huayi Brothers, Media Asia and Celestial Pictures.

Box office week ending 11-24-13

Nationwide gross was $69 million, a 49 percent increase over the same period in 2012, and the biggest weekly total since early October, when Young Detective Dee reigned over a $101 million weekly theatrical total. Year-to-date gross has now eclipsed $3 billion, and if last year’s trend holds, the last five weeks of 2013 will generate a $500+ million haul for PRC theater operators, resulting in a final yearly gross of around $3.6 billion to $3.7 billion.

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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Romance is in the Air For Chinese Moviegoers


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 16, 2013

When spring arrives in China, romance blossoms not only between lovers, but also at the multiplex.

In 2011 it was Eternal Moment and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart that enticed moviegoers to heart-warming grosses of $31 million (2011’s 8th biggest Chinese language release) and $15 million, respectively.

Last year audiences were smitten with Titanic 3D, which seduced them into a hearty $74 million opening week and a lusty ultimate $154 million gross.

And this spring, romance has been in bloom for a full month, with Finding Mr. Right leading the box office for three straight weeks (grossing $77 million so far as of Tuesday) before it handed off the torch to A Wedding Invitation (分手合约), which led all comers with a $9.8 million score over the weekend.

The Chinese-Korean co-production A Wedding Invitation was directed by Korean comedy master Oh Ki Hwan and stars Eddie Peng (Cold War, Taichi 0) and Bai Baihe (Love is Not Blind) as a pair of star-crossed lovers who, after five years of pursuing divergent lives and careers, finally reunite. Look for Wedding Invitation to gross in the low- to mid-20 millions over the next ten days, until Iron Man 3 grabs many of China’s available screens.

In the mean time there’s lots more romance on the way, with four new Chinese language romances and romantic comedies set to open on the mainland in the next week and a half. These include the youth romance Sweet Eighteen, the romantic comedy Lemon, the China/Taiwan co-pro Ripples of Desire, and most significantly, So Young, the highly anticipated directorial debut of actress and pop singer Vicky Zhao. I expect So Young to give Iron Man 3 some stiff competition when the two films open against each other on April 26th.

Although action remains China’s most popular film genre, romance has been a steady second best in recent years, holding a 17 percent market share in 2012 and roughly the same so far in 2013. Domestic Chinese romances and romantic comedies have been especially potent this year, and because these films are inexpensive and logistically easier to produce than action movies, and because films like Finding Mr. Right are making enormous profits, we can look for many more such pictures to come.Box office week ending 4-14-13

Chinese language titles once again dominated the box office, taking the top four spots in the rankings and nabbing an 89 percent market share for the week. American movies now hold a mere 23 percent share of mainland ticket revenues for the year, a disastrous drop from the 57 percent share they held at this point last year.

Weekly box office nationwide totaled $48 million, down by 43 percent compared to the same week last year, when the juggernaut Titanic 3D swept through China’s cinemas. The week ahead will also be down compared with last year, and then after the massive Titanic comps are out of the way, China’s upward year-on-year trend should continue. China’s year-to-date aggregate box office revenue in 2013 is 44 percent ahead of 2012.

Hollywood’s studios can only hope that their upcoming releases perform better than their films that are currently playing. The only U.S. picture to index well so far this year is A Good Day to Die Hard, which will end its run with $31 million, a total that is impressive only when compared to its weak results in the rest of the world. Oz the Great and Powerful will probably wind up at less than $30 million, and Jack the Giant Slayer will finish up at around $9 million. Whereas U.S. distributors must have been hoping for several $100+ million releases in China this year, the way things are going most of their pictures will be lucky to reach even half that amount.

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.

Qing Ming Brings Bling to China’s Theater Owners


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.comDrug War poster

By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

April 9, 2013

Last week’s arrival of The Qing Ming Festival—a 2,500 year old Chinese holiday when celebrants honor their ancestors by sweeping their gravesites—also brought a big boost in movie going. The holiday ranks as one of China’s top five or six movie revenue periods of the year, along with such holidays as western New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentines Day and National Day. This past week’s national ticket sales totalled $73 million, good enough for the fourth biggest week of the year and an 88 percent increase over the same period in 2012.Box office week ending April 7 2013

Leading the box office once again was the sleeper rom-com hit Finding Mr. Right, which was down a mere 12 percent from last week, and which has only just started to show signs of slowing. I grossly underestimated this picture’s potential at $40 million; it’s now a sure thing to go over $75 million.

Also holding up well was the WWII action comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which tallied $18.4 million to extend its total to nearly $31 million.

New openers didn’t fare quite as well. Action/thriller Drug War scored a $12.9 million total in its first six days of release, a bit of a bust relative to expectations but still director Johnnie To’s best debut to date. And the Ronny Yu-directed costume action/war drama Saving General Yang  fizzled at just $5 million, perhaps putting the final nail in the coffin of that moribund genre.

The Qing Ming week capped off a surprisingly potent 8-week period during which China’s theatrical film business nearly doubled the revenues of the same period last year. The 95 percent boost over 2012 was driven mainly by such local language comedy hits as Journey to the West and The Chef the Actor the Scoundrel, and romances Finding Mr. Right and Say Yes. These four films have collectively grossed over $320 million, accounting for more than a third of China’s total box office in 2013.

Hollywood films also contributed, but not at anywhere near the level they did last year. The four biggest non-Chinese films of the past eight weeks were The Hobbit, A Good Day to Die Hard, Resident Evil and Jack Reacher, which collectively pumped $114 million into China’s exhibition coffers.

The 8-week run of hugely favorable year-on-year comparisons will come to an end this week because last April’s enormous $74 million opening of Titanic will be impossible to beat.  I won’t hazard a guess as to how Django Unchained (opening Thursday) and two new Chinese romance pics will do this week, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t pose any threat to Titanic’s record. Look for comps that will be significantly down from last year’s numbers for at least this week and probably next week as well, unless G.I. Joe 2 catches fire.

I’m hard pressed to say whether Hollywood’s relative malaise in China this year is specific to the films that have been imported or is reflective of a larger shift in the market. It’s been suggested to me that market manipulation or fraud are major factors in Hollywood’s rapid decline in China, but I’ve only seen sparse and rather anecdotal evidence of this (I’ll publish an article on this topic in the next few days).

Hollywood hasn’t done very well this year in Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia either, and Chinese manipulation can hardly be blamed in those territories. I’m inclined to credit the rapid rise of Chinese films (at the expense of Hollywood’s movies) to improving stories, good production values, and growing awareness among China’s movie goers that at least some local films are worth the price of admission.

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.

‘Finding Mr. Right’ Continues Leggy Run to Cap Off PRC’s Record-Breaking Q1


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Chef-Actor-Scoundrel poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 3, 2013

The first quarter of 2013, which ended last Sunday, saw numerous box office records fall in China, including:

  • Biggest single-day gross for an individual film: 140 million RMB, Journey to the West
  • Biggest single-day cumulative nationwide gross: 190 million RMB, February 14, 2013
  • Highest single-day cumulative nationwide admissions: February 14, 2013
  • Biggest final gross for an individual film: $201 million, Lost in Thailand
  • Biggest single-quarter cumulative nationwide gross: $820 million

After a strong start to the year, China’s pace of growth has actually accelerated, with local films putting up exceptional numbers. Take a look at the day-by-day performance of current box office champ Finding Mr. Right (aka When Beijing Met Seattle):Finding Mr. Right Daily gross

1 RMB = U.S. $0.161

The low-budget romantic comedy, which was inspired by the Hollywood hit Sleepless in Seattle, has been number one at Chinese multiplexes every day of its run so far, and will easily beat the previous Chinese rom-com record holder, Love is Not Blind, which earned $55 million in 2011. As of Wednesday, Mr. Right stood at $47 million, and now looks likely to hit $70 million before it’s done.

Second place for the week went to the WWII action-comedy, The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which debuted to a solid $12.2 million in its first three days, handily beating Oz, the Great and Powerful, which conjured up $9 million in its opening weekend, and Jack the Giant Slayer, which managed just $6.7 million in its first seven days. Chef-Actor-Scoundrel continued to play well into the week, and should wind up its run with a $40 million cume. Oz is fading fast and probably won’t do much more than $25 million, while Jack the Giant Slayer will top out at around $10 million.Box office week ending 3-31-13

It’s an impressive feat that the roughly $5 million budgeted Finding Mr. Right will, all by itself, outgross the combined China grosses of OzA Good Day to Die Hard, and Jack the Giant Slayer, which had combined production budgets of well over $500 million.

Overall, 2013 box office revenue is running more than 50 percent ahead of last year’s total, despite the lackluster performance of U.S. films, which are dragging the comps down. Hollywood will have several chances to redeem itself in the next few weeks, with Django Unchained opening on April 11th, G.I. Joe: Retaliation on the 15th, The Croods on the 20th and especially Iron Man 3, still undated but likely to open in China somewhere around April 26th, well before its before its U.S. debut.

It won’t be easy going for any of these American films though, as competition from Chinese movies will be fierce. The toughest challenge will come for Iron Man 3, which opens against the April 26th debut of So Young, a romance directed by megastar Vicky Zhao. Based on a popular young adult Chinese novel that is often compared to “Twilight,” So Young is about a young woman’s emotional struggle with two men she meets again years after their on-campus love triangle. Although So Young will be Zhao’s directorial debut, she was mentored by esteemed Chinese directors Tian Zhuangzhuang and Stanley Kwan, and early buzz about the film is highly positive (See the trailer here).

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.

Local Rom-Com Breaks Out As U.S. Films Fade at Chinese Box Office


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 27, 2013

For the first time since 2011’s Love is Not Blind, a Chinese romantic comedy has broken out in a big way at mainland theaters. Finding Mr. Right, a modestly budgeted rom-com starring Tang Wei (Lust Caution, Late Autumn) debuted in the number one spot with $12 million in its four-day opening last week, beating out U.S. holdovers A Good Day to Die Hard and Resident Evil: Resurrection.

The plot of the Seattle- and New York-set Finding Mr. Right borrows liberally from the iconic 1993 American film Sleepless in Seattle and its 1957 progenitor An Affair to Remember—even down to the final romantic encounter atop the Empire State Building—in weaving a familiar tale of two damaged souls who heal each other through love. finding mr. right

Produced by Hong Kong’s venerable Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Flowers of War), Finding Mr. Right is the sophomore directing effort of Xue Xiaolu, who also wrote the screenplay. Strong reviews and good word of mouth have propelled the film to successively higher grosses each day, putting it on a trajectory to reach a final gross of at least $40 million, which would make it the second highest grossing romantic comedy in Chinese history after Love is Not Blind’s $55 million.

Although A Good Day to Die Hard provided a brief respite two weeks ago, U.S. and non-Chinese films have yet to shake their 2013 PRC box office doldrums. Both Die Hard and Resident Evil dropped sharply over the weekend, and Jack the Giant Slayer managed just $1.4 million on its opening day this past Monday. Die Hard will likely finish in the mid- to high-thirty millions, down at the low end of the range I had projected for it.Box office week ending 3-24-13

Sunday brought an end to the Chinese run of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which grossed just under $50 million in the PRC, for a rather modest 4.7 percent of its worldwide total. Friday will bring the release of Oz the Great and Powerful, which will encounter some healthy competition from the popular Finding Mr. Right and Drug War, a Chinese crime thriller directed by Johnny To (Romancing in Thin Air, Life Without Principle) that debuts next Thursday, April 4th.

Total nationwide box office amounted to $42 million for the week, a 35 percent increase over the same week last year. Year-to-date China is still running a massive 45 percent ahead of last year, while North America is running 14 percent behind its 2012 total. I’ve often noted on this website that China’s box office will surpass North America’s by the end of this decade. If current trends continue the eclipse will occur by 2019, and possibly even in 2018. It’s becoming an inescapable fact that if you want to succeed in the film business in the near future, you’re going to have to contend with China.

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.

‘Upside Down’ Flips the Script at China’s Theaters


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.comUpside Down one-sheet

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 12, 2013

Although China’s distributors release roughly as many ‘buyout’ films—that is, foreign films acquired under flat fee purchase arrangements—as they do revenue sharing ‘quota’ films, it’s unusual for a buyout film to lead the box office. This is because quota films are mostly big-budget studio tent-pole pictures with major stars, while buyouts are most often independent ‘B’ level movies with less ambitious commercial aspirations. The numbers are pretty stark: last year the 31 foreign buyout films took only a 5.4 percent share of China’s total box office revenue, while the 34 foreign quota films earned 45.6 percent.

So it came as quite a surprise last week when a buyout, Millenium Films’ romantic fantasy Upside Down, became the first film in nearly a month to outgross box office behemoth Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The $60 million Kirsten Dunst-Jim Sturgess starrer, about a sort of interstellar Romeo and Juliet who are separated not only by family but also by the physics of the cosmos, was shot way back in 2010 and had earned only $8 million worldwide when it debuted last Thursday in the PRC.

In its first four days in China Upside Down nearly doubled its worldwide gross, and it also out-earned Journey by a slight margin. Despite its wide availability on pirated BD, DVD and online, it is now primed to become one of China’s highest earning buyout films ever. Top Grossing Foreign Buyouts

WIth the advantage of a full week of screenings versus Upside Down‘s four days, Journey to the West won the weekly box office crown for its fifth week in a row, a feat last achieved by Avatar back in 2010. Aggregate weekly box office was $42 million, a 38 percent improvement over the same week in 2012. Year-to-date, China’s box office revenue is running 46 percent ahead compared to the first 10 weeks of last year.

Although they continue to underperform, American films are at least beginning to gain market share, capturing 44 percent last week thanks mainly to Journey‘s slowing momentum. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey stretched its cume to $45 million, and will end its China run next week at around $50 million. Box office week ending March 10, 2013

On March 14th A Good Day to Die Hard will open wide with hopes that it can turn the tide and become the first studio film to over-index in China this year. Resident Evil: Resurrection is set to open on March 17th, presumably in a heavily edited version. Oz the Great and Powerful has been pushed back to April, so the next studio release will be Jack the Giant Slayer on March 25th.

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.

No Golden Ring For ‘Hobbit’ in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 24, 2013

With its $5.6 million opening day and projected $18 million 3-day weekend gross in China, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has become the third major Hollywood film in a row—after Skyfall and Jack Reacher—to fall short of expectations in its mainland theatrical release. In its first two days Hobbit managed only a distant second place finish behind the Chinese language hit Journey to the West, which has been in release for two weeks, and its attendance pattern over the course of the weekend suggests a relatively soft theatrical run ahead.

To be sure, an $18 million weekend in China is not in and of itself a bad result. Not many pictures, Chinese or foreign, reach that level in their first three days in the PRC. But for a global phenomenon like the Hobbit, which has grossed nearly $1 billion in the rest of the world, this result comes as a surprise to the downside. As the following chart illustrates, several much smaller territories will generate bigger total grosses for the film.Hobbit Gross by Intl TerritoryEven given the context of the picture’s long-delayed opening and marginal post-holiday release slot, one could have reasonably expected Hobbit to at least match Skyfall’s total China gross of $60 million, but this now appears highly unlikely. Hobbit’s Friday-to-Saturday revenue bump was just 26 percent, among the smallest increases I’ve ever seen for a wide release in the PRC. A total gross in the low 40 millions is looking more probable, a figure that won’t even place the film in the top 20 releases in China this year. That number would be on par with the PRC performance of last year’s John Carter, a picture that grossed barely a fourth of what Hobbit did worldwide.

What is particularly troubling about China’s cool reception to The Hobbit is that it is a 3D fantasy film, a genre format that has consistently performed handsomely with Chinese audiences.  Painted Skin 2, a poorly reviewed Chinese fantasy, earned $115 million in its 2012 China release, and Journey to the West has just reached $160 million and could well surpass Avatar‘s record $209 million China gross. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II earned $63 million two years ago, when China’s market was barely half the size that it is now. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island took in $60 million early last year, and Life of Pi grossed $91 million just a few months ago.

What’s impeding the success of The Hobbit may have less to do with the film itself and more to do with the current mood of Chinese moviegoers. During the past few seasons they’ve demonstrated an increasing preference for Chinese faces in Chinese stories, and a growing impatience with Hollywood blockbusters which, rightly or wrongly, have been criticized for being too much alike.

While it is far too early to sound the alarm for Hollywood’s movies in China, the recent trend ought to be cause for concern at the major studios. China will account for 10 percent of the global box office this year, and given that only those select few Hollywood films with the best perceived commercial prospects are allowed to release there, such releases ought to earn around 12 percent or more of their worldwide grosses in China.  But Skyfall earned barely 5 percent of its worldwide gross in the People’s Republic, and The Hobbit will probably wind up at around 4 percent.

If the next three U.S. releases—Les Miserables, A Good Day to Die Hard, and Oz: The Great and Powerful—turn in sub-par performances, then it may be time for the studios to heed the advice I’ve been freely offering for a long time: focus on what Chinese audiences want, and give it to them. Otherwise, the world’s fastest growing and soon to be biggest movie market will get along just fine without them.

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.