We’ll Be Right Back After This SARFT Holiday Break

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By Robert D. Cain for China Film Biz

October 8, 2012

More than a week after it was reported in the Hollywood trades and beyond that Looper opened with a record-smashing debut in China, there is still no official word from SARFT as to what actually happened at the PRC’s multiplexes. In a country where the designated president-to-be can disappear for 10 days without feeling the slightest obligation to explain or even acknowledge his absence, I suppose it’s too much to hope that timely box office reports might be delivered during a holiday week.

In the absence of official word, I’ll go out on a limb and offer my best guess as to what did occur in China over the past week and a half. Bear in mind that the figures below are only as accurate as my back-channel sources. Official numbers should be out in the next day or two, at which point I’ll provide an update.

First, Looper did open well in China, but it came nowhere close to the US $25 million figure that was initially reported by the Hollywood trades and picked up by more than 100 news outlets around the world. While the film did set several notable precedents, it didn’t break any box office records, and it now appears that my initial estimate of $4.3 million for Looper’s opening weekend was just about right.

The National Day holiday week of October 1st through 7th saw roughly $60 million in aggregate ticket sales, making it only the 8th best week of the year so far. Given the high expectations exhibitors had coming in to the week, they were likely disappointed by this result.

China’s year-to-date box office tally probably reached, or at least came very close to, the $2 billion mark last weekend. By the third week of October it will surpass last year’s record total of $2.06 billion. Had it not been for the bucket of ice SARFT dumped on the country’s sizzling box office growth by imposing its 2-month summer blackout of Hollywood blockbusters, the year-to-date total would now be more than $2.2 billion and China would have a shot at cracking $3 billion by year’s end. As it stands now I’m projecting a year-end total in the $2.7 billion to $2.8 billion range.

While China’s film bureaucrats continue to revise their priorities and tactics, two North American companies and one partially American one have exhibited great savvy in maneuvering through the ever shifting political sands of the PRC.

The two aforementioned North American companies are IMAX and Twentieth Century Fox. Both companies have made substantial investments in China and have been smart about how they conduct their business there. IMAX picked a winning film and a winning strategy when it decided to back the Huayi Bros action-fantasy film Taichi 0 with a large format theatrical release. IMAX was unquestionably a major factor behind Taichi  0’s winning box office performance. And Fox made the right move when it submitted Europa Corp’s Taken 2 as a French, rather than an American film, enabling that picture to slip through the holiday blackout and open on Sunday. Its estimated $2.3 million opening day bodes well for Taken 2’s China run.

The ‘partially American’ company I’m referring to, DMG, is a Beijing-based Chinese company that has strong American representation among its senior ranks. DMG pulled off several coups with Looper last week, getting a film that was clearly American (with Chinese flavor) released during a blackout week when Hollywood studio films were strictly prohibited. DMG also managed to obtain for Looper the first U.S.-China day-and-date release since Madagascar 3 opened in June. And DMG’s connections enabled it to achieve a strong screen count during an extremely competitive frame, and should enable it to keep the film running longer in China than most other American films. Although Looper’s China gross won’t come close to matching its U.S. total, it will likely wind up as one of the best indexing U.S. films in China this year.

Also of note: Lionsgate’s The Expendables 2 ended its spectacular run on Sunday, winding up at an estimated $53.6 million, which would put it ahead of The Amazing Spider-Man and just behind The Dark Knight Rises for China’s 9th best performance in 2012. Not bad for a film that grossed $84 million in North America.

And now back to our regularly scheduled program.

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

It’s Action, Action, Action at the Chinese Box Office

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 18, 2012

The top 4 films at the Chinese box office two weeks ago–all Hollywood action films–held their positions again last week to combine for $34 million, or 85 percent, of the total $40 million weekly aggregate revenue at Chinese multiplexes. Action films have now led the Chinese box office for the past five consecutive weeks,

The Expendables 2 led the way with $15 million, extending its total in China to $40 million so far, compared to its final U.S. gross of $80 million. Expendables 2 will likely wind up earning over 20 percent of its total worldwide theatrical gross in China, which will make it one of the three highest indexing U.S. films in China’s history, after Titanic 3D, at 45 percent, and The Mechanic, at 22 percent.

Chinese films have again proven to be weak competitors against Hollywood imports. Since the SARFT blackout ended in late August, Hollywood imports have taken 95 cents out of every dollar spent on tickets by Chinese moviegoers.

Even the highly anticipated Chinese historical drama White Deer Plain failed to unseat the Hollywood leaders, taking in just $3.6 million in its first two days of release. That film, a controversial 3-hour adaptation of a novel by author Cheng Zhongshi, suffered from poor reviews and confusion over its release, which was delayed by Chinese authorities for “technical reasons.” It should see a bump next week as it expands into China’s second- and third-tier cities, but probably won’t be nearly the hit that its backers had hoped for.

In the week ahead the Daniel Radcliffe horror-thriller The Woman in Black will take aim at the chart-topping action blockbusters in its Chinese debut on September 20th. Radcliffe will need to bring along some of his Harry Potter magic if he hopes to dethrone Expendables 2 as the reigning box office champ .

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

Studio Grosses Continue Post-Blackout China Rebound

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 12, 2012

In China, 25 is the new 15.

Whereas 6 months ago a $15 million opening week in PRC theaters would have counted as a blockbuster success, that figure is now very old news. In September, $25 million is now the new gold standard.

Just 6 films have opened at $25 million or better in China so far this year, but half of these have come during the past two weeks, as 3 of the 4 latest Hollywood releases have hit or exceeded that mark during their first week of screenings. Expendables 2 joined the club this past week, and Prometheus came close, with just under $20 million in its first 7 days.

It’s no wonder that U.S. studio execs have become so combative about China’s efforts to protect its domestic films’ share of the PRC market. The studios are seeing the writing on the wall: China is their future.

The difference between U.S. and Chinese box office trends could hardly be more pronounced. Last week Chinese theaters had their second best week ever, while American theaters had their worst weekend in 11 years. China’s year-to-date box office total has now reached $1.8 billion and should easily exceed 30 percent growth again for all of 2012.

In an era of shrinking U.S. theatrical attendance and diminishing ancillary sales, the studios desperately need fresh, reliable sources of revenue. China has increasingly offered eye-popping box office bounties for action, fantasy, and sci-fi tent-poles.

The Expendables franchise represents a perfect example of this phenomenon. The prior film, 2010’s The Expendables, grossed $103 million in the U.S. and $31.8 million in China. That $31.8 million represented a solid 12 percent of the picture’s worldwide gross. Two years later, Expendables 2 grossed $38.8 million in its opening week in the U.S., and $25.2 million in China, and China will likely account for 20 percent of its final worldwide gross.

In the next year or so I expect we’ll start to see action and sci-fi tent-poles routinely grossing more in China than they do in the U.S.

With the summer blackout behind them, Hollywood films are once again dominating China’s box office. The four U.S. films in release took $60 million of last week’s $61 million aggregate nationwide gross, a 98 percent market share. The lone Chinese debut, Let it Be, managed to generate only $100,000 in revenue.

This week’s highly anticipated release of Chinese historical drama White Deer Plain has been delayed for unspecified reasons (possibly due to its nudity scenes), so the Hollywood blockbusters should enjoy two more weeks of relatively limited competition before the Golden Week holiday films—among them, Tai Chi 0, Dangerous Liaisons, and Double Xposure—start their runs in late September.

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