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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
May 8, 2013
It’s happening so often in China these days that it’s difficult not to sound clichéd, but it was another record-breaking week at the national box office in the 7-day period ending May 5th.
So many records toppled that to list them all would fill up an entire column. To avoid making this article an overly long list, I’ll mention just a few.
First, at $148 million, last week’s cumulative PRC gross easily beat the all-time weekly record of $136 million that was set during Valentine’s Day week less than three months ago.
Although Iron Man 3’s $64 million 5-day gross fell about $10 million short of the all-time single week record that was set by last year’s Titanic 3D at $74.7 million—it did set new records for biggest midnight screenings total with $2.1 million, and biggest opening day with $19 million.
So Young, the Vicky Zhao directed romance, notched the biggest second-place weekly gross ever, with $53 million.
And The Croods became the highest-grossing original (that is, non-sequel and non-pre-existing franchise) animated film in China’s box office history, with a $36 million total as of Sunday.
So all of this is good for China and good for Hollywood, right?
Good for China’s producers and distributors, yes. For Hollywood, it’s hard to get too enthused. This past week was a positive blip in what continues to be a confounding and rather distressing trend for American studio films in China.
There’s no debating that Iron Man 3 is a solid success. Its PRC gross will roughly double the $60 million gross of the year’s second-best Hollywood release so far, Skyfall, and it will become the first Hollywood film in 12 months to reach $100 million.
But it still may not beat So Young, a melodrama from a first-time Chinese director with a production budget that was probably less than 3 percent what Iron Man cost. And So Young won’t even be among China’s top 5 grossers this year.
When you consider that Iron Man 3 is the biggest and best that Hollywood has to offer, that it enjoys the backing of a strong local partner in DMG and an unprecedented level of government support, yet it still struggles to beat a low-budget B-level Chinese language movie, you know something’s not working. Iron Man didn’t break the downward trend for Hollywood in China, rather, it’s the exception that proves the rule.
Chinese audiences like Hollywood movies, but they love Chinese ones. And that’s a major problem for Hollywood.
China’s box office is now up 41 percent year-to-date (36 percent in RMB terms) while North America is down by 11 percent. Chinese movies are getting better, and with $50+ million grosses now routine, they’re becoming much more profitable. Capital is attracted to ventures that offer profits, and Chinese movies, though tricky investments in some ways, are looking increasingly attractive.
Because Hollywood action movies like Iron Man remain extraordinarily expensive to produce, they need growth from overseas to compensate for their shrinking domestic market. China was supposed to be the solution to Hollywood’s math problem, but China isn’t cooperating. In the global market for film financing, U.S.-based projects are going to find it increasingly difficult to compete, unless they radically change their strategies.
Two strategic approaches that offer promising future prospects for foreign producers are:
1. Provide animated films and family fare. These genres have repeatedly gotten special dispensations from SARFT, enjoying prime distribution slots even during holidays and blackout periods.
2. Make local Chinese language films for low to moderate budgets. This is not easy, but at least it’s permitted, and as we’ve seen, a well-made Chinese film can generate windfall profits.
A third strategy, U.S.-China co-productions, remains extremely challenging, and it may still be a few years, if ever, before such productions become common. As Jiang Wei, general manager of Edko (Beijing) Films Limited, puts it:
“The Chinese film industry needs to grow for greater cooperation to be achieved. There is no real in-depth cooperation, in which staff from both countries work together, like what the English and Australian filmmakers have been doing in Hollywood. When China’s film industry grows as an equal partner and the box office becomes big enough, the Hollywood community will have to think of real stories involving Chinese culture and people who are real characters. Only then will real co-productions be possible.”
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.