‘Cold War’ Off to Hot Start in China

Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 13, 2012

The Hong Kong cops and robber thriller Cold War got off to a hot start last week with a $15.4 million 4-day debut, enough to make it the 3rd best Chinese language opener of 2012 and 12th best among all PRC debuts this year. For first-time writer-director Sunny Luk and his all-star cast, Cold War warmed up what had been a moribund Chinese box office, marking the strongest opening for any film on the mainland since Expendables 2 knocked off $25 million in its opening weekend two months ago.


Produced and distributed by Bill Kong’s EDKO Films and starring Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung, Andy Lau, Byron Mann and Aarif Lee, Cold War will likely rack up another strong week before serious competition shows up at Chinese theaters, with the 3D re-release of 2012 arriving on November 20th and Life of Pi drifting in on the 22nd. Mega-director Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 will almost certainly freeze out Cold War when it debuts on November 29th.

Reaching $31 million in its third week, The Bourne Legacy is now Universal’s 2nd best performer in China this year after the surprise hit Battleship. With a few more weeks left in its run, Bourne should easily surpass the low end of the $35 million to $50 million range that I had predicted for it.

Wreck-it Ralph’s 6-day opening tally of $5 million continues Disney/Pixar’s long string of misfires in China. The only consolation for Wreck-It Ralph is that it didn’t open as poorly as Brave, which managed a tepid $4.6 million over its entire PRC run back in June. Disney/Pixar’s last truly successful animation release in the PRC was more than two years ago when Toy Story 3 tallied a then respectable $16 million box office total over its 4-week run in 2010.


Bait 3D wound up its extraordinary run by biting off another $500,000 to finish at $25.7 million, by far the best performance ever in China for an Australian film, and the biggest gross for any non-Hollywood import.

Aggregate weekly national box office was $39.3 million, down 23 percent relative to the same week last year. But the year-to-date tally of $2.13 billion is already 3 percent ahead of the full-year total for 2011, and with 7 weeks left in the year, China is well on its way to setting yet another annual box office record.

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.

Horror Claws Its Way Into China’s Movie Theaters

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 6, 2012

In what is assuredly an all-time first, two horror films ranked among the 5 top grossers at the Chinese box office last week. Although the horror genre has been rather a rarity at PRC multiplexes, due in large part to SARFT censorship strictures, the tide may now be turning for them. Chinese censors have been noticeably friendlier of late to violent and even gory low-budget horror flicks, and audiences have been showing up for them in increasing numbers.

Fewer than a dozen horror films have unspooled in Chinese theaters in the past two years, so two such films screening at the same time feels like a veritable gore-fest. The two pictures are the Australian shark attack thriller Bait 3D, which at a $25 million cume is easily the highest-grossing horror film in China’s history (I’ve made the admittedly subjective judgment call of classifying Prometheus as a sci-fi thriller), and the new French entry Derrière les Murs, a period horror-thriller about a young female novelist who isolates herself in the countryside to write her new book. Before long the writer is haunted by visions and nightmares while the villagers grow worried as several little girls mysteriously disappear.

Derrière’s$2.2 million opening weekend tally may not seem like much, but it’s good enough to rank as China’s fifth best horror debut of the year, and among the country’s top ten horror grossers of all time. Given the encouraging signs, now may be a good time for American and other foreign horror-meisters to sharpen up their fangs and take a bite of China’s booming film business.

In other multiplex action, The Bourne Legacy held off the Chinese action movie Taichi 2 to retain the number one spot for the second week in a row.  Total Recall slipped to third, adding $4.5 million to what is now a nearly $17 million cume.

Nationwide admissions totaled 6.4 million, and aggregate box office was $33.6 million, flat compared with the same week last year. New openers this week include the star-heavy Chinese action film Cold War, which opened today, and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph, which rolls out on Thursday.

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.

‘Bourne’ Again in China

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 1, 2012

Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy surprised China box office watchers last week, outpacing most analysts’ estimates as it chased down a solid $14.4 million box office haul in its 4-day opening in the PRC. The debut ranked as the 13th best in China this year, just ahead of the $14 million March opening of John Carter, and just behind Journey 2’s $15.2 million February open.

With Bourne, foreign films sustained their post blackout dominance at China’s theaters, as the week’s top 5 slots were colonized by English language pictures—four of American origin and one Australian. Fully 88 percent of the frame’s revenues went to non-Chinese movies.

Cumulative weekly revenues were $36 million, 50 percent better than the total for the same week last year. Chinese audiences again demonstrated that, in the absence of SARFT manipulation, they strongly prefer imports over domestic pictures.

Hollywood films tend to wind up their runs in the PRC with 2.5 times to 3.5 times their opening 3-4 day weekend tallies, so Bourne will likely finish its run in the $35 million to $50 million range. China should ultimately account for 12 to 15 percent of the picture’s worldwide theatrical gross, which would be on par with several of the 2012’s best performing Hollywood releases in China, such as The Expendables 2, which earned about 15 percent of its worldwide total there, and Men in Black III, which took 13 percent of its worldwide gross there.

Considering that it released in the rest of the world nearly a year ago, the $3.6 million opening of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I was a reasonably good one and a credit to disrtibutor DMG’s strength in the market.

The next Hollywood film debut will be on November 6th, when Disney’s animated family feature Wreck-It Ralph opens as counter-programming against the star-studded Hong Kong cops and robbers thriller Cold War, which features Aaron Kwok, Tony Leung, Andy Lau and Dear Enemy’s Aarif Lee. No other film looks likely to make much of an impact through mid-November, so foreign films should enjoy several more good weeks in China until the December blackout begins.

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

‘Life of Pi’ Rounds Up Final China Rev-Share Slot of 2012

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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 23, 2012

I’m hearing on good authority today that China’s 34th and final revenue sharing import of 2012 will be Ang Li’s 3D adventure Life of Pi. This comes as a surprise to us China film biz handicappers, because all 14 of the ‘enhanced’ film slots had already been spoken for; until today it seemed certain that the 34th slot would go to a 2D film. But according to one of my contacts at the MPAA, the 20 ‘non-enhanced’ slots can actually go to films of any format, so Life of Pi is in the clear..

A big strike against Life of Pi’s China prospects is that it will have a narrow window in which to release. The film goes out wide in the U.S. on November 21st, and since SARFT will impose another blackout on foreign films in December, the Ang Li picture will have to go pretty much day-and-date in China if it is to make any waves there. The film’s release will also be hampered by torrid competition from other imports, with The Bourne Legacy, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 3D re-release, Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-it Ralph, Twilight Breaking Dawn 1, and South Korea’s Deranged all expected to debut in late October and November (the distributors of all these films will be relieved that Resident Evil 5 will not be releasing). Throw in the Chinese blockbusters Taichi II and Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 and you’ve got the makings of a wild and wooly November.

Last week was a modest one at Chinese theaters, though one major milestone was reached as aggregate box office topped $2 billion for the year, more than 2 months earlier than it reached that mark in last year’s record-breaking run. Had it not been for SARFT’s numerous blackouts of foreign films China would have very likely topped $3 billion this year. Even so, aggregate box office will rise by at least 25 or 30 percent over 2011’s $2.06 billon, a growth rate that would have U.S. exhibitors drooling.

The week’s big story was Bait 3D’s impressive $10.5 million blood-frenzy in its second week, nearly double Taken 2’s haul for the frame. The Australian 3D gore-fest has now surpassed Taken 2’s cume in China, and is on pace to land in the PRC’s top 20 grossers of the year. Safe to say that no one predicted Bait would be make such a splash, though in hindsight its success is consistent with China’s love of 3D, action and over-the-top stories.

Total Recall scored a hefty $5.1 million in its first two days of release, further cementing China’s standing as the promised land for busted U.S. action and sci-fi spectacles. Other films that were rejected by U.S. and/or global audiences but embraced in China this year include Battleship, John Carter, The Mechanic, and Lockout.

Two additional action films that performed well in China but fell short of very high expectations were Taichi 0, which will finish its run at around $25 million, and Looper, which should wind up at around $22 or $23 million. Foreign films will enjoy another month or so at the top of the box office before they are shoved aside for the benefit of local productions. In the mean time, look for the 2012 3D release to try and replicate Titanic 3D’s record-breaking run.

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

Is Big Bad China Picking on Poor Lil’ Hollywood?

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

August 16, 2012

If you’ve read my previous columns you know that I’m no fan of the Chinese government’s film production- and distribution-related policies, and I’m certainly not a defender of the country’s tactics with regard to Hollywood. But I feel compelled to take exception to a recent series of articles in the American press that I believe unfairly characterizes China Film Group (CFG) as being single-mindedly devoted to curtailing the theatrical revenue of American studio films in the PRC.

In several recent articles (like this and this and this) the Los Angeles Times has decried China Film Group’s ‘aggressive steps’ to ‘curb the grosses’ of Hollywood tent-pole films by releasing pictures like The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man against each other on the same weekend.

The Times and Variety also cite CFG’s decision to open Ice Age: Continental Drift on the same date as Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax, and a possible Bourne Legacy versus Total Recall showdown in September as further damning evidence that the Chinese are out to get Hollywood movies and put them in their place.

There’s no denyng that China’s film authorities wish to promote a healthy domestic film industry, and that part of making this possible means allowing room for locally made films to find an audience among Chinese filmgoers. Because few Chinese films this year have proven capable of competing head-to-head with American blockbusters, CFG has taken to coordinating release schedules to protect local films from Hollywood competition during key seasons like the summer school break, the October Golden Week holidays, and the year-end holiday season. As part of this effort, back in late June SARFT initiated a ‘film protection month’ (which will actually last for about two months) during which China will allow only 7 American imports to open at its multiplexes, and only two of these films—both 3D animated features—will be from major studios.

A key effect of this tactic is that it pushes back the releases of a handful of Hollywood tent-poles, squeezing several openings closer together than they might otherwise have occurred. But is China really targeting Hollywood films, as the Times put it, “to depress the box office receipts”? Is there a systematic campaign to punish American movies and drive down their grosses? I’m not seeing it, and on the whole the evidence doesn’t support this assertion.

Through the first 32 weeks of 2012, Chinese theaters released 54 films that were made in foreign territories. Of these, 25 were American films, and 7 more were U.S.-foreign co-productions like Killer Elite and Lockout. That works out to an average of exactly one American film every week, compared to barely one film every other week from the entire rest of the world combined. During this period American films took a 57 percent share of the nearly $1.6 billion in total PRC box office receipts, with the vast majority of that amount going to major studio pictures.

These are big numbers given that China’s obligations under the WTO don’t specifically require it to allow any American films into Chinese theaters. Yes, China must allow 34 imported revenue sharing ‘quota’ films annually under the updated (as of February, 2012) WTO agreement, but there’s no law that says these movies must be from major Hollywood studios.  If the Chinese were really intent on depriving Hollywood of renminbi they would be allocating a lot more of their quota slots to films from places like Iran, India and Brazil, or to indie films from specialty distributors like Magnolia Pictures and Strand Releasing. But they’re not doing that.

If anything, it seems to me that China has been surprisingly permissive with and solicitous of Hollywood’s studios. That such graphic films as The Dark Knight Rises (MPAA: “intense sequences of violence”) and The Hunger Games (MPAA: “intense violent thematic material and disturbing images”) are being allowed to screen at all came as quite a surprise to many Chinese filmmakers who would never be allowed, under China’s strict censorship rules, to indulge in the levels of violence and political commentary that these films enjoy. If China Film Group wants these films to fail, why is it going to so much trouble to bother releasing them, when it could easily and legitimately deny their releases on censorship grounds?

The truth is that China has rolled out a big fat welcome mat for Hollywood movies for most of this year. The average major Hollywood film opens on nearly 50 percent more screens during its opening week than the average major Chinese film, and is allowed to run for an average of 6 more days, or 15 percent longer, than the biggest Chinese movies. And let’s not forget that all these Hollywood movies are squeezing out domestic films; more than three-quarters of the movies made in China never receive a theatrical release.


*Chinese and China/Hong Kong co-productions indicated in RED

*Chinese and China/Hong Kong co-productions indicated in RED

Yes, the Times is right that for a few weekends this summer and fall, a handful of U.S. studio tent-poles will be forced to compete with each other for the same audiences. But China Film Group routinely does the same thing with Chinese films. One only has to go back as far as last week to find a comparable example, when four new Chinese animated films were released against each other.

And back in December, two hotly anticipated Chinese language tent-poles, The Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, opened on the very same day. Both films did just fine, becoming respectively the 2nd and 4th highest grossing films released in China in 2011.

As much as China’s government authorities would like to see local films dominate the PRC’s multiplexes, they know that Hollywood movies are good business all around. Ticket sales from U.S. films help to build the country’s exhibition industry, which is still one of the most under-screened in the world. CFG makes far more money on each American film they release than they do on Chinese films, and that pays a lot of salaries and helps CFG build a war chest to fund domestic production. And tax revenues from ticket sales of American movies contribute to SARFT’s operating budget. In short, there are plenty of good reasons for CFG to maximize the revenues of Hollywood films.

SARFT and CFG do want to keep up appearances, and part of keeping up appearances is to help domestic films maintain a respectable share of China’s box office, ideally around 50 to 55 percent. When Hollywood movies squeezed Chinese films’ share down below 20 percent during the first half of this year, CFG was forced to take action, with the result that the major studio films will get a little less leeway for themselves for the rest of this year. Describing this shift as an attempt to ‘depress’ the grosses of American films overstates the situation and improperly encourages the impression of a hostile Chinese attitude.

The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man will be just fine. Each of these pictures will release on several thousand screens in China, and each will earn at least $50 million in box office receipts there, which will be more than they earn just about anywhere else outside North America. The time to raise the alarm will be when China starts rejecting studio films that it should allow, or ghettoizing them to small numbers of screens in lower-grossing secondary markets. None of that has happened yet, and so long as the studios are respectful and play fair with the Chinese authorities, China’s welcome will remain wide open.

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