Daniel Radcliffe Starrer ‘Woman in Black’ Falls Flat in Soft Week at Chinese Box Office


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 25, 2012

Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe couldn’t bring his magic to the China debut of his horror vehicle The Woman in Black, and two new Chinese language releases—Great Rescue and That Year School Ended—failed to connect as China’s box office take slipped last week to $29 million, its lowest level since March.

Although the last four Harry Potter films were solid hits in China, that franchise’s popularity failed to carry over to Woman in Black, which suffered one of the year’s worst openings for an English language film, with $1.45 million in receipts over its first four days. Among 2012’s nearly 50 English language releases so far, only The Lincoln Lawyer, The King’s Speech, A Man Apart and Ninja have fared worse.

Horror still hasn’t firmly established itself as a reliable genre in China. A few modest Chinese language successes like Bunshinsaba ($9.5 million total), Blood Stained Shoes ($7.2 million), and 2011’s Mysterious Island ($14 million), have been outnumbered by flops. It may be that Chinese audiences haven’t yet caught on to the pleasures of a good scary movie, but it’s more likely that the problem lies in China’s censorship strictures, which don’t allow much room for a true horror film, with blood, gore, torture, ghosts, demons, and “excessively terrifying scenes” all strictly prohibited.

On a brighter note for Chinese filmmakers, White Deer Plain out-grossed The Expendables 2 to take the week’s number one spot, the first time in a month that a Chinese film has taken that honor. Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, and the Amazing Spider-Man, all nearing the end of their PRC runs, rounded out the rest of the top five.

Business should be brisk next week as six new Chinese films and the U.S.-China co-pro Looper will open just ahead of October’s Golden Week holiday. Look for the Stephen Fung steampunk comedy Taichi 0 to lead the pack, with China’s divas Zhang Ziyi in Dangerous Liaisons and Fan Bingbing in Double Xposure giving Taichi 0 some serious competition, especially with their female audience appeal. Although Looper’s Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt don’t have major fanbases in China, that movie’s genre, action-SciFi, tends to over-perform in China, so don’t count it out.

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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Hollywood’s Looming China Syndrome


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 11, 2012

In the 1979 Oscar nominated thriller “The China Syndrome,” a pair of journalists played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas stir up a hornet’s nest when they expose a nuclear plant accident that they fear could result in a “China Syndrome,” a worst-case scenario where the reactor core melts through its containment structures and drops into the underlying earth, “all the way to China.” The nasty end result would be a nuclear explosion that would render Southern California completely uninhabitable.

The film’s frantic tension arises from the conflict between the journalists’ efforts to obtain justice, and the nuclear plant operator’s self-preserving, sometimes violent attempts to maintain a cover-up of the accident. Fonda and Douglas characters’ righteous ambition winds up getting Jack Lemmon’s well-intentioned plant supervisor killed, and ultimately jeopardizes their own lives and careers, with the film’s final shot suggesting that nothing has really changed.

Hollywood’s major studios have set in motion a similarly risky and probably fruitless course of action by complaining publicly about what they feel is unfair treatment of their films in China. In pressing the U.S. Trade Representative to take diplomatic steps, the studios are escalating tensions in a situation that, if continued, could well result in a “China Syndrome” of their own that would poison their long-term prospects in the world’s fastest-growing and soon to be largest movie market.

The source of the studios’ discontent is their perception that recent moves by China Film Group have aimed to reduce the grosses of American films at Chinese multiplexes, by setting “blackout periods” during which Hollywood movie releases are limited, and by pitting at least two of these movies, “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” against each other on the same weekend.

According to the Los Angeles Times, MPAA Chief Policy Officer Greg Frazier admits that the Chinese haven’t really done anything illegal. “Are they violating WTO obligations? Probably not.” To his credit, Frazier has been much more restrained and diplomatic in his statements than his studio counterparts have been.

The timing and tenor of the Americans’ complaints betray a complete disregard for the facts, a pronounced insensitivity about current events in China, and an alarming level of ignorance about how to win favor and get things done there.

Let’s take a look at what’s been happening with American movies in China:

  • In the first half of 2012, U.S. movies took a 68 percent share of China’s box office receipts. After the summer blackout, their share now stands at 60 percent. Domestic Chinese films have a 15 percent share, and China/Hong Kong co-productions another 23 percent. The rest of the world: 2 percent.
  • “The Amazing Spider-Man” and “The Dark Knight Rises” had China’s third and fourth best opening weeks, and after just 14 days in release the two films are already China’s 9th and 10th highest grossing pictures of 2012.
  • As I pointed out in an article last month, American films enjoy wider distribution, more screens and longer runs in China than do Chinese films.
  • During the past two weeks, U.S. films have taken 98 percent of China’s nationwide movie ticket revenues.
  • Of the 11 highest grossing movies in China this year, 10 are American.

Get the picture?

Now let’s look at China’s domestic scene:

  • The economy is experiencing an epic slowdown, one that is putting tens of millions out of work and raising serious questions about China’s financial viability.
  • The country’s communist party leadership is embroiled in the midst of an unwieldy succession crisis. With a once-in-a-decade power transition about to begin, one of the party’s top political stars has been disgraced with murder and corruption charges, and presumed president-to-be Xi Jinping has completely disappeared from public view, possibly due to a heart attack.
  • Territorial disputes over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea have escalated to frightening levels, with diplomatic and trade relations between China and Japan deteriorating to post-WWII lows.
  • The party’s legitimacy is under threat from rifts within its ranks and also from the public via social media. As Dr. Cheng Li, a research director at the Brookings Institute recently put it, “This legitimacy crisis is worse than in 1989, and may be the worst in the history of the Communist Party. People are afraid that it could lead to revolution if it is not handled well.”

With all this turbulence, do the studio heads really think this is a good time to complain about movie schedules? Last weekend, the studios made almost as much money in Chinese theaters as they did in U.S. ones. To the Chinese they must seem like unwanted houseguests who, after living in the guest house for a while, have commandeered the master bedroom, eaten almost everything in the fridge, and now they’re screaming bloody murder because the homeowners have told them to stay out of the kitchen on weekends and marked a couple of food containers as off-limits.

Meanwhile, the Chinese homeowners are overwhelmed with problems: uncle and auntie have murdered a foreigner in the living room, the phone is constantly ringing with calls from bill collectors, major cracks have appeared in the foundation, and the neighbors have figured out how to open the windows from the outside and hurl insults at them about their previously private bodily functions.

And what are these ungrateful Americans doing for them anyway? Only a few companies—most notably IMAX, Fox, and Dreamworks Animation—have made efforts to appease the PRC’s political leaders and make a contribution, by producing and distributing Chinese language films.

Xenophobia is on the rise in China, and anti-American sentiment has climbed to levels not seen in decades. The communist leaders can gain much-needed legitimacy at home by standing up to pushy foreigners. If the studios aren’t careful they could easily precipitate their own nuclear meltdown, with China Film Group punishing the studios by shifting their imports toward American indies and non-U.S. films. And a nationalistic boycott of American movies isn’t unthinkable; the territorial disputes with Japan appear to have resulted in lower car sales in China recently for Toyota, Mazda and Nissan.

It’s natural during tough times to scapegoat foreigners; both the Americans and the Chinese are guilty of that. The studios should back off and leave things alone until the 18th Party Congress has chosen its new chiefs and the dust has settled on other current crises. The MPAA has done a marvelous job so far and they should keep their powder dry for the times ahead when they can have a meaningful impact with the next generation of leaders. And all of us should learn to take a more conciliatory tone in our conversations with the Chinese. We may not like their style, but they hold the keys to the future of our business. Triggering a nuclear reaction won’t benefit anyone.

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

Spider-Man, Dark Knight Power China’s 2nd Best Ever Box Office Week


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 4, 2012

Pent-up demand for Hollywood blockbusters powered China’s box office to its second-highest grossing frame ever last week, as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises attracted nearly equal numbers of moviegoers in their long-awaited China debuts. Both pictures started slowly last Monday but drew better than I had expected throughout the week, finishing up with $35.9 million and $34.8 million respectively, good enough to notch the sixth and seventh best full-week totals of 2012.

Both pictures were handicapped in at least two ways: each had been in release for at least a month in the rest of the world, a lag that usually allows DVD and online piracy to severely impact the Chinese grosses, and the two films were pitted against each other on the same opening date by China Film Group’s release schedulers, forcing most filmgoers to choose one film over the other.  But after being starved of major live action tent-poles for most of the summer (due to a SARFT-imposed blackout of most Hollywood movies), Chinese audiences came out in huge numbers to drive a $76.7 million weekly aggregate, the highest nationwide gross since mid-April, when Titanic 3D earned $74 million and led the PRC’s theaters to a record $83.6 million weekly total.

Their reward for waiting out the blackout is that Spider-Man, Dark Knight and Prometheus will enjoy several weeks without competition from any other new Hollywood releases, and they should perform well into late September, when the National Day holiday will see the rollout of several Chinese language blockbusters.

In reviewing the box office figures of the past several weeks, one thing that is abundantly clear is that even when Chinese films are protected from foreign competition, they’re unable to generate enough interest to keep China’s multiplexes busy. Although there is an occasional Painted Skin or Silent War to draw meaningful crowds, China’s studios are still making far too few commercially attractive films to earn the 50 percent domestic box office share that SARFT expects of them.

Year-to-date China has passed the $1.7 billion mark, and with four months to go it should easily reach $2.5 billion by December. Whether it can overcome the damage done by SARFT’s blackout and reach the magic $3 billion level this year will depend largely upon whether Chinese audiences show up for home-grown hopefuls like director Li Yu’s Fan Bingbing starrer Double Xposure, Feng Xiaogang’s 1942, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and other Chinese language tent-poles.

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

Not-So-Amazing China Debuts for Spider-Man and Dark Knight


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

August 28, 2012

The hotly anticipated and—in Hollywood, at least—much protested head-to-head box office matchup between Sony’s The Amazing Spider-Man and Warner Bros’ The Dark Knight Rises kicked off on Sunday night in China to good, but not record-breaking, grosses.

After waiting out long delays in July and August for the end of China’s “domestic film protection period” (which was publicly acknowledged for the first time last week by a senior SARFT official), the two superhero movies opened to estimated first day grosses of $5.35 million for Spider-Man and $4.4 million for Batman, according to China.org. These are good numbers for Sunday-Monday debuts, but they fell far short of the $15.9 million first day record set by Transformers: Dark of the Moon in 2011, and the $11.6 million April, 2012 debut of Titanic 3D.

With the two films saturating the majority of China’s screens in wide release, including nearly all of the country’s IMAX locations, many theater managers were said to be disappointed with the results. Although I expect each picture will ultimately earn at least $50 million in Chinese ticket sales, each will likely under-index in China relative to their massive grosses in the rest of the world ($941 million so far for Dark Knight and $697 million for Spider-Man).

But expectations were high and probably over-inflated to begin with. As I’ve explained in articles in May and also last December, superhero movies simply don’t work as well in China as they do in many other territories. Liu Hui, manager of Beijing’s UME International Cineplex, noted that the previous Spider-Man movies by Sam Raimi also didn’t set any records in China, and Christopher Nolan’s prior ‘Dark Knight’ installments weren’t allowed to screen there. “China doesn’t have that deep tradition and huge die-hard fanbase of American comics. That’s why they didn’t make record money.”

Another key factor behind the less-than-thrilling grosses is the bunched releasing schedule that was forced upon the superhero tent-poles by SARFT’s extended summer blackout on Hollywood films. And with Prometheus opening on September 2nd and The Expendables 2 following on September 4th, the heightened competition for Chinese moviegoers’ attention may not allow for any new records until the logjam of major films is worked through later in the fall.

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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.