Did ‘Deadline’ Commit a China ‘Looper’ Blooper?


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 3, 2012

Over the past several days I’ve received an unprecedented volume of calls, emails, texts and tweets, all asking me whether Looper had just become the first film to earn more revenue in its China debut than in its U.S. debut. Apparently the “Deadline Hollywood” blog reported on Saturday evening that Looper had earned “between $23M to 25M grosses” in China over the weekend. The story was quickly picked up by other media outlets, and within 24 hours it was accepted as fact around the world that Looper had smashed all sorts of records in China.

I was immediately doubtful of this report for two reasons: 1) Looper could not be the first film to gross more in its China debut than in the US because Titanic 3D had already achieved that feat back in April; and 2) The $23-25 million opening over 3 days seemed unlikely for reasons I’ll explain below. I checked around with my sources in China and found that almost no one believed the Deadline story to be true. Most felt that Deadline had gotten its currencies confused, and that the real number was around 27 million Chinese yuan, which equates to roughly 4.3 million US dollars. If correct, that figure would put Looper’s China opening far short of its $21 million US debut.

I’m unwilling to go on record as saying that Deadline is wrong, because I won’t know for certain until SARFT publishes the official box office figures. But because it’s a holiday week in which the SARFT report will be delayed for at least several days, and because there is so much international interest in this story, I’m going to weigh in with a few thoughts and some figures of my own, with the disclaimer that much of what follows is speculative and based on what I consider reasonably reliable, but unofficial numbers. I will say that if Deadline had someone on staff who understood the Chinese market, it’s unlikely that they would have rushed to put out their report.

Following are a few reasons why I’m more inclined to believe the $4.3 million weekend figure for Looper than the $25 million one.

  1. Only two films have grossed $25 million or more in their opening weekends in China this year—Titanic 3D and Men in Black 3. Both were heavily pre-sold blockbusters with strong, dedicated followings in China, and both had little competition when they debuted. As good as Looper is, it had none of that going for it.
  2. Many of Looper’s prints didn’t make it to theaters in time. Because SARFT only decided at the 11th hour to grant Looper co-production status, distributors and exhibitors didn’t know until a few days ahead of time that they would be allowed to release the film. Looper’s marketing and distribution were hence severely disadvantaged.
  3. This past weekend was a major travel period for China, the biggest in its history. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were traveling in advance of the National Day holiday week. Lots of people who might have ordinarily gone to the multiplex were busy getting from one place to another, welcoming guests, or making preparations for the holiday.
  4. This past weekend was also probably the most competitive film weekend China has ever seen. In addition to Looper’s opening, four major Chinese movies featuring big stars—among them Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Daniel Wu, Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi—opened against it. With only about 12,000 total screens China’s box office capacity is limited, and for Looper to earn $25 million it would have had to thoroughly dominate all the other films. It’s unlikely that’s what happened.
  5. Although Looper’s U.S. producers Sony and Endgame apparently insisted that the film earned $23 – 25 million in China, no one else backed up that figure.

I’ve presented below the figures I’ve received through back channels in China:

That’s the story so far as I see it; if I’ve been wrong about this I’ll eat my words. As soon as the SARFT numbers come through I’ll publish an update.

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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