Chinese ‘Flowers’ Wilt in U.S. Theatrical Release


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 25, 2012

If the message hadn’t fully gotten through yet, last weekend’s box office results confirmed it: China has no idea how to make movies that Americans—or the world—will pay to see.

The latest Chinese film to crash on the rocks of U.S. shores is The Flowers of War, the mainland Chinese blockbuster that opened on 30 North American screens this past Friday. The film seemed tailor-made to captivate global audiences, and with its $90 million price tag, it needed to. But despite its international star (Christian Bale), its world-renowned director (Zhang Yimou), a major U.S. producer (David Linde) who had massive prior success with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and a veteran distributor (Chris Ball), Flowers drooped on arrival with a paltry $48,448 and a per screen average of just $1,615.

Flowers continues a 5 year long string of international misfires from China. Chinese releases in the U.S. have rarely grossed more than $500,000. Even those that earn $50 million or $100 million in their home country typically fail to travel.

It’s not that Chinese films never work in the U.S. and internationally, but successes are extremely rare. The last real hit to emerge from the PRC was Jet Li’s Fearless, which sold $43 million worth of tickets in the U.S. back in 2006.  Hero (also starring Jet Li) grossed $53 million in 2004, and House of Flying Daggers took in $11 million that same year. The highest grossing Chinese language film of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was in fact not a Chinese film at all: its producers were from America and Hong Kong, its director a Taiwanese-American.

The failures are not for lack of trying. Most every Chinese producer, director, and financier desperately wants a meaningful slice of the international market. More than anyone, China’s Communist Party wants to export Chinese culture to global audiences in order to counteract the “creeping cultural influence of the West.” But they’re going about things all wrong.

For one thing, there are virtually zero writers in China who know the first thing about writing film stories that would appeal to international filmgoers. Cultural barriers are certainly an issue, but an even bigger issue is that Chinese studios and investors on the whole have no understanding of the development process. With little respect for writers and even less desire to invest in them, China is doomed to keep making films that are mostly mediocre at best, and terrible at worst.

Another major problem is that China’s film censors scrub out so much of the realism, titillation and thrills from their countrymen’s films that they leave them bland and tedious. Their need to micro-manage and sanitize the themes, characters and genre elements of films is anathema to good storytelling.

A third factor is the unquestioned primacy of Chinese directors, who shoot and edit their films with totalitarian disregard for the input of others. While Hollywood’s collaborative approach to filmmaking is far from perfect, its process of allowing cinematographers, editors, production designers, composers, and other craftsmen to meaningfully contribute and even challenge the director usually leads to better results than the Chinese approach of empowering the director to run roughshod over everyone else.

Chinese filmmakers know that their films don’t travel, and the smart ones know they need help. Hollywood has much to offer to them, if only they would listen.

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 www.pacificbridgepics.com.

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A Sweet and Sour Week at the Cinema


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 4, 2012

It was a December to remember in China, with the national box office hitting a new record at just over $2 billion. What has been most noteworthy about the past year—and the past decade—is the Chinese cinema industry’s extraordinary rate of growth. The quadrupling of the country’s overall economy in the decade since 2001 has been astonishing enough, but that was barely a blip compared to the nearly thirty-fold growth of China’s theatrical box office during the same period. In the blink of an eye China has matured from a minor film territory into an international powerhouse, the country to watch.

One of the bright spots in December was the ongoing competition between Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War and Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. Both films performed extremely well, becoming the two highest grossing Chinese language films of 2011, with nearly $77 million in revenue for Flowers and $69 million for Flying Swords so far.  Both are in contention to possibly break the all-time record gross in China for a Chinese-language film, which is currently held by the 2010 release Let the Bullets Fly with $105 million.

And yet, in some ways December was a disappointment. Without a single major Hollywood film released during the entire month, Chinese audiences had limited choices at the multiplex, and many stayed away. For the week ending January 1st, revenues declined by 4.5 percent compared with the same week in 2010, despite higher ticket prices and nearly 3,000 new movie screens in operation. Per-screen averages were down by about 40 percent from last year.

Six new films opened last week, but their combined revenue amounted to less than $6 million, with the Chinese action pic Speed Angels leading the way at $2.4 million. Speed Angels was the seventh film of the year released by the successful indie distributor Enlight, but it fell far short of the company’s 2011 hits Mural ($27 million gross), All’s Well Ends Well ($24 million), and White Vengeance ($23 million).

The lone American opener was the Daniel Craig-Rachel Weisz ghost thriller Dream House, which echoed its weak U.S. opening with a tepid $1.4 million take at the Chinese tills.

Flowers and Flying Swords should continue to lead the market for the next two weeks, as there won’t be any serous competition until January 15th, when Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, hits the theaters. Things will heat up after that, with the Jay Chou action vehicle The Viral Factor opening on the 19th, and All’s Well Ends Well 2012 opening on the 20th.

Late in the fall American movies’ share of the Chinese box office was above 50 percent, but because the last Hollywood blockbuster release of the year—The Adventures of Tintin—came all the way back in mid-November, U.S. box office share drifted down to 46 percent by the end of the year. Home grown Chinese films captured a 24 percent share and China/Hong Kong co-productions took 22 percent.

        Share of China Box Office receipts by Film’s Country of Origin, 2011

Look for more 2011 box office analysis in an upcoming post later this week.

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.

Dragons and Flowers and Swords, Oh My! A solid box office weekend in China


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 19, 2011

The hotly anticipated box office duel between the Zhang Yimou/Christian Bale historical epic The Flowers of War and the Tsui Hark/Jet Li wuxia action pic Flying Swords of Dragon Gate came to a head last week with solid but not record-breaking results.

Both films did brisk business, with Flowers pulling in $23.9 million versus Flying Swords’ $22.3 million, but their producers were undoubtedly hoping for more.

With its reported $91 million budget, Flowers of War needs to do Avatar-sized numbers (that film cumed $208 million in China in 2009-10) to have a profitable theatrical run, but it failed even to exceed the opening of the $1.4 million budgeted Love is Not Blind, which took in $28.5 million in its opening week back in early November.

Although it’s too early to say for sure, it looks unlikely that Flowers will break $100 million in Chinese ticket sales, much less the $200 million it needs. Given its limited international prospects due to its dark and China-specific subject matter, Flowers could earn the unwelcome distinction of becoming the biggest money-loser by far in China this year.

Bona Group’s Flying Swords also slightly under-performed relative to expectations, but with its much lower $35 million budget and its stronger international appeal, it will be much more likely to recoup its investment. Both films will be pinning their hopes on a strong finish to 2011; as in many other territories, the last few weeks are traditionally among the best of the year in China.

Overall, box office totaled $50.8 million for the week ending December 18th, a 34 percent increase over the same week last year, when Let the Bullets Fly began its record-breaking run with a $27 million opening.  It was also a 122 percent jump from last week’s $22.8 million.

Flowers’ and Flying Swords’ respective box office performances made for the 4th and 5th best opening weekends of 2011, and together with The Adventures of Tintin they raised the count to 30 films that have grossed $20 million or more in China since January 1st.

By my tally, as of last Sunday the PRC’s total box office for 2011 now stands at $1.92 billion, with 13 more movie-going days to go. If Flowers and Swords hold up, as I expect they will, and if the year’s remaining 9 new releases do at least a fair amount of business, China will exceed $2 billion for the first time. Considering that total national box office was less than $200 million just 7 years ago, that would be an auspicious way for the film industry to enter the new year.

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.

SARFT Report Confirms It: China Box Office to Exceed $2 Billion in 2011


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 16, 2011

SARFT Chairman Cai Fuchao picked an auspicious day, December 15, to announce the latest statistics for China’s cinema business. While two just-opened films featuring Christian Bale (Flowers of War) and Jet Li (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) battled for moviegoers’ attention and drew huge crowds at the theaters, Cai dropped the news that box office revenue in China this year has already exceeded 12 billion RMB, or US $1.86 billion at 2011’s average exchange rate. Cai also noted that the country’s cinema screen count has crossed the 9,000 mark, a 45 percent increase over the 6,200 screens operating at year end 2010.

That 12 billion figure was for the week ending December 11, which means that there are still 3 more weeks in the year for China to extend its record breaking revenue surge. With last night’s screenings of Flowers of War and Flying Swords reportedly running at better than 90 percent of capacity and with ticket prices high$12.50 for Flowers and nearly $19 for the 3D Flying Swords—these two films alone will likely push China past $2 billion for the year.   

For those of us who closely track China’s film business, Cai’s announcement was like water in the desert, as SARFT only announces these figures a few times a year. Both the box office and screen count numbers were positive surprises for me. It now appears certain that box office growth will hit or exceed the 30 percent rate I had predicted. New screens have been opening at a rate of 8 per day, and the current screen count has surpassed my year-end estimate of 8,900.

Total revenue has expanded by a staggering 110 percent in just two years, and is up more than six-fold in the past 5 years. When compared with North America’s sluggish growth of less than 2 percent per year (actually, negative growth on an inflation adjusted basis), it’s mystifying that Hollywood’s major studios haven’t deployed teams of their best people to tackle the opportunities there.  Most are largely sitting on the sidelines, tossing a picture or two a year into Chinese theaters, and mainly just watching the China juggernaut pass them by.

For 2011, China’s box office growth has once again nearly quadrupled the country’s overall GDP growth rate, at least the 8th year in a row that it has done so. And contrary to those who think the industry is due for a downturn, I believe China’s film business is still in its infancy.  It will most likely pass Japan in 2012 to become the world’s biggest territory outside North America; give it 7 or 8 more years and China will pass North America. The reasons for this continuing surge have to do with income growth, improving availability and quality of films, and especially rising screen count. Cinemas will continue to be built because there is a huge shortage of them: China has dozens of cities with populations larger than Boston or Washington that still lack a single multiplex.

There exists a fairly predictable straight-line correlation between the number of cinema screens in a country and total box office revenue. If you build it, they will come, so long as you aren’t over-built. Even with its spectacular 10-year long cinema expansion, China is still the world’s most under-screened major market. Given the country’s projected GDP and per capita income growth, it can build another 50,000 screens and still not be anywhere near over-built. With upside like that, fortunes are just waiting to be made.

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.

Chinese Audiences Screaming For “Vengeance”


By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 9, 2011

Writer-director Daniel Lee’s period action epic White Vengeance led a crowded field of new entrants to take the Chinese box office crown last week with a gross of $13.1 million. This was enough to give the China/Hong Kong co-production the 7th best opening week for a non-Hollywood film this year, and the 13th best opening week amongst all films.

The rest of the field, which included a total of 7 new films, failed to excite moviegoers. Second place went to another China/Hong Kong co-pro, holdover East Meets West, which took in $3.4 million. Two of the openers were foreign imports: the critically panned Screen Gems action-horror flick Priest, which grossed $3.1 million for DMG, and Terry Gilliam’s France/Canada co-pro fantasy The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, which picked up just $1.2 million for Huaxia.

Still, total box office for the top 10 films amounted to $30.6 million, a decent if not spectacular week.

It will take some major hits in the next few weeks for China’s total theatrical revenue to cross the $2 billion mark in 2011, but that’s exactly what might happen, with two big Chinese blockbusters slated to open against each other on December 15th. Tsui Hark’s $35 million action film Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, starring Jet Li, will go up against the $100 million Zhang Yimou-Christian Bale historical epic Flowers of War.

The rivalry between the producers of these two films will add some spice to next week’s box office competition. The feisty and outspoken Zhang Weiping, producer of  Flowers of War, has banned Bona Group, the producer-distributor of Flying Swords from carrying his film in Bona’s company-owned theaters, claiming that Bona has dragged its feet in paying Zhang monies owed on previous films.

Whatever happens, look for box office records to be broken as these two highly anticipated movies kick-off China’s peak holiday season.

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.