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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
December 25, 2012
Back in the fall, most everyone who follows China’s film industry predicted a record-breaking December. Three films by three iconoclastic Chinese directors—Feng Xiaogang, Wong Kar-wai and Jackie Chan—would sweep audiences into the multiplexes, with each picture grossing around US $100 million or more. Confidence was high that 2011’s December box office record of $218 million would be shattered and that a $350 million record-setting month was in store.
Now, as December draws to a close, the prognosticators can congratulate themselves at least on the latter point: China’s box office is running a scorching 70 percent ahead of last December, and the $350 million record should be in the bag before New Year’s Eve. But the path that China took to get there was one that no one could have foreseen.
The first step in December’s long march to glory was the surprising performance of Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s film, Life of Pi. Pi enraptured Chinese audiences with its lush 3D images and its weighty philosophical themes, becoming only the third non-Chinese film to achieve a higher gross in the PRC than in North America (the other two films are the American re-release, Titanic 3D, and the Australian shark attack thriller Bait). Pi would have likely reached $100 million in China if SARFT hadn’t clipped its run at 30 days on Sunday, so it finished with an $89 million final gross.
The next surprise was that Wong Kar-wai’s star-studded action pic The Grandmasters was pushed from its December 18th slot to January 8th, 2013. At first this appeared a blow for Grandmasters, as it will completely miss out on the December box office bonanza, but the pushed date may actually be a blessing. Grandmasters would probably have gotten buried in the fierce pre-New Year’s competition, and January tends to be a strong month in China, as was proven by the early 2012 successes of Flowers of War, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Mission Impossible 4, which launched last January and became the year’s first $100 million grosser.
Another shocker was the dismal under-performance of Feng Xiaogang’s war drama Back to 1942. The film’s grim and depressing themes, underwhelming marketing, and poor critical reception (my favorite quotes called it a “daisy-licking drama,” “a sledgehammer epic” and “an emotional strip-mine”) combined to diminish turnout. 1942’s $60 million gross would be heroic for most Chinese pictures, but with its reported $40+ million cost and $100 million expectation, 1942 caused the stock of distributor Huayi Bros to tank by 20 percent in the first few days after its release. Huayi’s stock regained some of its losses after it released CZ12 a few weeks later, but the stock of director Feng Xiaogang may not recover so quickly.
The biggest surprise of all was the emergence of sleeper hit Lost in Thailand, the low-budget comedy that has smashed dozens of Chinese box office records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing domestic Chinese film of all time. Only two weeks into its run, Lost in Thailand is now certain to surpass Titanic 3D and become the highest grosser of 2012. The little comedy that could has propelled the stock of its distributor, Beijing Enlight Media, to a 40 percent gain this month.
The only detail that Chinese box office watchers predicted correctly was the success of Jackie Chan’s CZ12. The action-comedy opened to a $35 million first-week gross and, with little serious new competition this week, has a good chance of crossing the $100 million threshold by early January.
All told, December’s box office result will beat April’s prior monthly record by more than 35 percent. With the PRC’s box office record books being re-written on a weekly basis these days, film distributors can look forward to a very happy new year in 2013.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.