China’s Box Office: A (Brand) New China


By Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 26, 2012

Last week saw a film that has made news headlines of late (but for all the wrong reasons) take the number one spot at the box office in mainland China.  John Carter, which Disney announced will result in a massive $200 million loss for the company, succeeded in usurping Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse at the top of the Chinese box office, taking in a solid $14 million over its first three days of screenings.  John Carter easily outdistanced the Hong Kong/China co-production A Simple Life, which earned $3.5 million to hold on to the second spot for the second week in a row.

Debuting at number three was the Hong Kong action/thriller Nightfall, starring Nick Cheung, which earned $3.1 million in its first four days.  War Horse dropped three spots to number four, earning $2.6 million for the week, while Jason Statham’s action film Blitz (2011) debuted modestly to capture fifth place with $1.5 million over four days.

For the first time in six weeks, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island landed outside the top 5, collecting $1.4 million to raise its China cume to an impressive $58 million, or nearly 20 percent of the film’s worldwide revenue.

Although John Carter was a drastic under-performer for Disney in the key North American market, the film opened extremely well in China. Carter’s $14 million debut ranked third amongst all opening weekends in the PRC this year behind Mission Impossible’s $15.7 million 2-day haul in late January, and Journey 2’s $15.2 million over three days in early February. More and more often China is becoming Hollywood’s biggest international territory, which goes to show just how strong the “Made in Hollywood” brand is there.

In his book As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything, author Karl Gerth describes the rapidly evolving Chinese consumer culture. Gerth contrasts David Ogilvy’s visit to China in the early 1980s with the PRC’s consumer market of today. Thirty years ago, Ogilvy encountered a country with a near-total absence of advertising, and what advertisements there were contained little more than technical information, with no evocative images of the products to pique the interest of potential consumers.

Fast forward to today, and advertising in China is a giant industry, with over eighty thousand ad companies employing over a million people, making the Chinese advertising sector a larger employer than its counterpart in the United States.  And along with this growth has come a complete transformation of Chinese consumer culture.  To highlight this point, Karl Gerth quotes a thirty-something professional woman in Beijing: “Brand names are social status and quality of life. When I was in the United States, I didn’t pay much attention to brand names.  Here it’s a culture. Look at me now; I’m equipped with nothing but brand names, such as Gucci, Fendi, Armani, Versace, and the like.”

However, unlike in the United States, where ultimately it is left to the individual company to create its brand identity, in China, the central government views the development of strong national brands as an issue of national economic security, and thus takes a hands-on approach to the ongoing development of Chinese consumerism.

Gerth mentions that Chinese officials are hoping to emulate Japan’s success in rebranding its national products.  Today, the “Made in Japan” is a signifier of quality and excellence in consumer goods, but this was not always the case.  Forty years ago, a consumer product labeled “Made in Japan” would have been viewed as inferior to its American counterpart.

China’s current situation with its national brand identity is quite similar in certain ways to Japan’s forty years ago, but it remains to be seen whether China can successfully rebrand itself.  There are a few internationally recognized Chinese brands that signify quality, Lenovo being one of them. But one need only look back over the past few years to be reminded of big scandals involving Chinese goods that have done more to sully the “Made in China” brand than any successful Chinese brands have been able to help elevate the global reputation of Chinese products.

And so perhaps it might be helpful for those of us in the international film scene to look at what is going on with China’s film industry and theatrical market within the broader context of what is going on with Chinese consumer goods and culture in general. After all, for Chinese consumers, the preference for things made in the West extends far beyond movies, and the Chinese government’s film quota system and film co-production rules can be viewed as being very much in line with the tariffs and regulations that Beijing places on imported goods in other industries as well.  Many Chinese consumers meanwhile are caught between their general desire to support Chinese businesses and their genuine fondness for American and other Western consumer goods, and it will be interesting to see if and when the brand “Made in China” will start appealing to mainland Chinese consumers just as much as “Made in America” does today.

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 hollymu.com.

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China’s Box Office: A Simple Life’s Strong Debut


by Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 19, 2012

This past week saw Steven Spielberg’s War Horse repeat as the top film at the mainland Chinese box office, taking in $5.9 million to bring its total two-week haul to $14.7 million.  Falling one place from #2 to #3 was Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, which earned $3.4 million for the week to bring its cumulative box office total to a cool $56.6 million over 31 days of screening.

Debuting at #4 was Robert Rodriguez’ Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World in 4D, bringing in $3 million for the week, while Conan the Barbarian dropped to fifth place with $2.8 million in its second week of release to bring its total box office to $5.9 million.

Perhaps the most interesting news at the box office was the successful debut of  A Simple Life, starring Hong Kong star Andy Lau, which brought in $5.2 million in just 4 days.  This was good enough to earn the film the number 2 spot at the box office, making it the lone non-Hollywood film among the week’s top 5.

The success of A Simple Life serves as a reminder of the amazing talent that the Chinese filmmaking diaspora has to offer.  Ann Hui, the film’s director, is one of the foremost talents of the groundbreaking Hong Kong New Wave of the 1970s and 80s, which included Tsui Hark and John Woo among the film movement’s notable members.  For many Chinese people around the world, Hong Kong cinema has served as the de facto source of Chinese cinema for decades, and its influence on even Hollywood cinema has been well documented.

After about a decade of depression in the Taiwan film industry, Taiwanese cinema has seen a significant revival, starting in 2008 with the highly popular Cape No. 7 breaking Taiwan box office records despite its lack of name celebrities.  This trend of successful films that eschew established Taiwanese stars continued with Monga (2010), Night Market Hero (2011), and Seediq Bale (2011).

As was previously mentioned in China Film Biz, Taiwanese films have also found recent success at the mainland Chinese box office.  In just the first 8 weeks of 2012, three films by Taiwanese directors each grossed $8 million or better, and have collectively grossed almost $40 million. Hong Kong/China and Taiwan/China co-productions have collectively taken in over $139 million at the Chinese box office this year for about a third of the overall box office.

Chinese-American filmmakers must also be mentioned in this context. NYU educated and long-time U.S. resident Ang Lee as been on the global stage for nearly two decades, and his game-changing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon became a catalyst in the conversations about global Chinese cinema.  And Justin Lin has established himself as one of Hollywood’s more successful directors with his popular installments in the Fast & Furious series. Lin has also made it a priority to cast Asian Americans in supporting roles in his globally popular movies.

Mainland China also has the talent necessary to make globally successful movies, with filmmakers like Feng Xiaogang and Zhang Yimou often leading the charge at the domestic and global box offices.  And there are other talented filmmakers who haven’t had the box office success of the aforementioned directors but who would probably be just as capable of directing a successful “global Chinese film”, if given the right opportunity.

But what will a global Chinese cinema look like?  It can’t and shouldn’t be a mirror image of what Hollywood has created with its big-budget blockbusters, movies that are often focused more on grand visual spectacle than on the intricacies of a well-told story.

Rather than just pumping money into the film industry while simultaneously imposing creativity-stifling restrictions on its local filmmakers, the Chinese government needs to have a clearer vision of what it hopes to achieve with a global Chinese cinema, so that it can give all the filmmakers in the Chinese diaspora a greater license to creatively explore and produce groundbreaking “Chinese” cinema that the whole world can enjoy.

Even if the government wishes to continue to exercise ultimate control over the content being turned out by its film industry, China needs to make explicit and streamline the rules by which it wants its filmmakers to abide.  If the rules can be made less arbitrary and less antagonistic to entertainment, even with these restrictions Chinese filmmakers will find a way to flourish, just as Hollywood was able to flourish (and even experience its Golden Age of Cinema) under the restrictive Hays Code established in the 1930s.  If the government can’t find a way to give its filmmakers at least some artistic license, the best and most influential Chinese films will continue to come from places other than the mainland film industry.

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 hollymu.com.