‘Gravity’ defies ‘Storm’ and Staves Off ‘Hunger’ in China For Second Straight Weekly Win


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 3, 2013

Strong word of mouth helped Gravity to float to a modest 36 percent decline in its second week, enabling it to fend off newcomer The White Storm and land its second straight win at the Chinese box office. Still going strong in its third week, Gravity should have no problem surpassing $70 million, even in the face of heavy competition from new Chinese openers.

This total would lock Gravity’s place as the 3rd biggest foreign release in China this year, behind Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim. But it probably won’t be enough for the film to score a top 10 slot overall, as so many local films have performed well in 2013.

The Benny Chan directed action-crime thriller White Storm debuted to good but not great numbers, eking out a slim lead over Gravity during the past 3-day weekend, when they competed head-to-head. Blue Sky Studios’ animated adventure Epic fell far behind, mustering just $3.65 million in its 3-day weekend debut. The 7-month delay in Epic’s PRC release was undoubtedly a factor in its modest showing.

Box office for week ending Dec 1, 2013

Escape Plan will finish up its PRC run with an impressive $41.5 million, nearly double its U.S. total. Considering all the love China has shown in recent years for Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie’s sexagenarian stars, it will be a good idea for Hollywood to dust off its old two-hander action scripts and re-set them in China for this dynamic action duo.

For the first time since early September the weekly box office tally fell short of last year’s comps. Cumulative box office for the week ending December 1st saw a 7 percent decline to $58.5 million from the 63 million total in week 48 of 2012, when Life of Pi reigned.

Today saw the long-awaited debut of director Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, an adventure thriller that has survived two major revisions and six aborted theatrical release dates over the past four years as DMG, CFG, Galloping Horse and the filmmaking team struggled to conform to the SARFT censors’ restrictions. Originally slated to release in 2010, the film stars the hugely popular Huang Bo and Xu Zheng, who co-starred in last year’s megahit Lost in Thailand.

With its excellent $3.5 million opening day, No Man’s Land should easily top Ning Hao’s prior personal record gross of $24.7 million for last year’s Guns ‘n Roses, though the director claims he doesn’t care how much the new film earns.

“If I wanted to make big money, I could have stayed at home (in coal-rich Shanxi province) and mined coal with my classmates, who are now all billionaires,” Mr. Ning said in a recent Wall Street Journal interview. I just want to do something that I like.”

Of course, what China’s theater operators would like is a big December for local Chinese pictures. With nearly 18,000 movie theater screens now in operation (35 percent more than at this time last year) and an average of 12 or 13 new ones opening every day, they are increasingly reliant on local films to help them pay off their investments.

November’s box office totaled $250 million, a 36 percent increase over 2012, and cumulative year-to-date box office now stands at $3.22 billion. If December’s revenue merely matches last December’s total—a distinct possibility given the tough comps established in 2012 by Lost in Thailand—then China’s total for 2013 will wind up just shy of $3.6 billion.

If, on the other hand, expected hits No Man’s Land, Personal Tailor and Police Story can each draw $80 million to $100 million in ticket revenue, then the year-end total could, just possibly, reach $3.7 billion.

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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‘Gravity’ Thrills, ‘Catching Fire’ Chills as China’s Box Office Tops $3 Billion


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 26, 2013

Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity scored the PRC’s fifth best opening of the year with a nearly $36 million liftoff, as U.S.-made films grabbed the top four box office spots and six of the top seven in the week ending November 24th.

Gravity, which is performing nearly as well as surprise hit Life of Pi did at this time a year ago, also set records for IMAX, grossing almost $7.5 million, or more than 20 percent of the film’s opening 6-day total, on 123 screens. Gravity‘s marketing campaign benefited nicely from its liberal use of James Cameron’s quote calling it “The best space film ever.”

The fourth quarter has been a good one so far for Hollywood, with American movies capturing a 55 percent share of the market during the period from October 1st through November 24th.  U.S. films are now at their peak market share for 2013 with over 47 percent of all China box office revenue, though that figure will ebb back to about 42 percent as local Chinese releases dominate the calendar throughout December.Top 5 Opening Weeks 2013

One exception to this trend is Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Despite its rare day-and-date release and its huge reception in the U.S., Lionsgate’s sci-fi/action picture failed to stir up much interest in China. Its four-day total of $12.95 million makes it only the 31st best opener of the year, behind even such modestly performing titles as A Good Day to Die Hard and After Earth.  Although Catching Fire’s debut improved by about 16 percent over the opening week of its 2011 predecessor The Hunger Games, it did so in a market that has grown by more than 80 percent in the interim, so the sequel’s performance in the PRC has to be considered a letdown.

Another disappointment was the suspense-thriller Control, a China-Hong Kong-Taiwan co-production starring Daniel Wu that eked out only $3.5 million for the week. The California-born Wu has consistently been one of China’s most bankable stars, so his latest film’s weak opening must have surprised the film’s backers, who include Huayi Brothers, Media Asia and Celestial Pictures.

Box office week ending 11-24-13

Nationwide gross was $69 million, a 49 percent increase over the same period in 2012, and the biggest weekly total since early October, when Young Detective Dee reigned over a $101 million weekly theatrical total. Year-to-date gross has now eclipsed $3 billion, and if last year’s trend holds, the last five weeks of 2013 will generate a $500+ million haul for PRC theater operators, resulting in a final yearly gross of around $3.6 billion to $3.7 billion.

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.

Warner Bros’ Stellar Year in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 21, 2013

Having already clinched bragging rights as the top-grossing Hollywood studio in China this year, Warner Bros further cemented its lead with the excellent rollout of Gravity on Tuesday.  With nearly $10 million in ticket sales in its first two days of PRC release, and what I’m estimating will be at least a $70 million final tally, Gravity should push Warners’ 2013 total in China to around $325 million.

This will mark the first time I can remember when Warners will have won the China box office crown. It will also reflect an impressive 80 percent revenue boost over Warners’ respectable, albeit distant second-place finish to Fox in 2012. With such box office hits as Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now Gravity, Warners will average about $54 million in ticket sales per picture.

Second place in the studio derby this year will go to Disney, whose Marvel superhero offerings Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 will account for around $175 million of that studio’s $250 million annual take.

Sony and Fox will finish third and fourth, respectively, with Fox falling off precipitously from its record-holding $376 million China gross in 2012. Sony had only one strong release with Skyfall back in January, but it was able to get more films into China than any other studio and in aggregate managed to cobble together more than $200 million in gross revenue. Although Fox got solid results in 2013 from The Croods (a Dreamworks animated picture) and Wolverine, it couldn’t match the huge numbers of last year’s Titanic 3D, Life of Pi and Ice Age 3 and wound up with less than half of last year’s gross with around $176 million.

Universal and Paramount, the two studios with the least active presence in China, received the fewest import quota slots and grossed the least among the majors, with about $159 million and $129 million respectively.

At last week’s box office, U.S. films captured the top three slots, although two of these were buyout films. Thor: The Dark World and Escape Plan won the top two spots for their second week in a row with $24.9 million and $13.3 million, respectively. New entry Red 2 picked up $5.9 million in its first three days, enough to handily beat the $4.9 million that Red collected during its entire run in 2011. Total nationwide box office was $54 million for the week, a 57 percent increase over the same period last year.

Box Office week ending 11-17-13

U.S. films will see another week or two of relative prosperity before the year-end Chinese tent-poles move in and grab all the spoils in December and January. Look for big results from The White Storm, which releases on November 29th, followed by big December debuts from No Man’s Land, The Four 2, Firestorm, Personal Tailor and Police Story. By year’s end, Hollywood movies will land only 2 of the top 10 spots at China’s box office in 2013, down from 7 last year and 6 in 2011.

In aggregate, U.S. distributors will manage only a meager 5 to 6 percent increase in their China sales this year, a mere fraction of the 60 percent gain that Chinese language films have enjoyed. Hollywood has let yet another year go by doing little more than lobbing movies into China from across the Pacific, and it has paid the price with a precipitous drop in market share.

Meanwhile, aggressive non-Chinese players like Australia’s Village Roadshow and Korea’s CJ Entertainment have stepped into the breach with highly successful Mandarin language co-productions. And local Chinese players are rapidly growing in competitive strength, as exemplified by Huayi Brothers’ massive increase in its stock market capitalization to $5.2 billion from only $1 billion a year ago. Many of these companies have established beachheads in the U.S., and it won’t be long before their growing financial strength in China will enable them to compete effectively with the stodgy U.S. studios and further erode their diminishing dominance of the global film market.

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.

Handicapping China’s 2012 Import Quota Slot Derby


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 22, 2012

One of the big questions of the moment in China’s film distribution community is which movie has been or will be awarded the final valuable import quota slot for theatrical distribution. Depending on whose information you believe, the number of remaining slots is either one or none.

As you’ll recall, earlier this year Xi Jinping agreed under great duress from Vice President Biden and the U.S. Trade Representative to increase the number of foreign films that can be distributed in China’s theaters via revenue-sharing arrangements from the previous 20 films per year to 34 this year and beyond. As a face-saving compromise, China decreed that the additional 14 films must all be “enhanced” films in either 3D or IMAX formats.

Quota allocation is a big deal because China’s rev-share slots have become extremely valuable. China is now the world’s second biggest movie market, and even though the share that goes to the foreign distributor only tops out at 25 percent of box office receipts, that 25 percent can amount to 5, 10, or in some cases more than 20 million dollars going to a picture’s bottom line. The Jason Statham action pic The Mechanic earned nearly half its international gross in China, and it appears that the Australian horror flick Bait 3D will do the same.

Because SARFT and the Film Bureau tend to be close to the vest with information, and because they have a tendency to change their minds, it’s a thorny problem to determine where quota allocations stand at any given time. Official decisions get reversed, permissions get revoked, and in some cases, as with the U.S.-Chinese co-production Looper and the French-Chinese co-pro Mystery, co-production status gets yanked at the last minute. Bait 3D has caused a great deal of head-scratching, as some sources have designated it an Australian-Chinese co-production, although I’m fairly certain that it was a flat-fee buyout film of Australian-Singaporean provenance.

With the preceding caveat out of the way, I’ve detailed below my best knowledge regarding the films that have been released through quota slots so far this year. I show 16 of the 20 regular format film slots having been used already, with 3 of the remaining 4 spoken for, and 11 of the 14 enhanced film slots used, with the remaining 3 also taken. This leaves one regular format slot open.

That one last slot is sure to be hotly contested, with studios lobbying heavily to secure it for themselves (studio execs, if you missed it, see my recent column on how to get ahead in China). MGM’s Skyfall and Warners’ The Hobbit were both likely candidates, but those two films have apparently been pushed to next year by China’s decision makers. I had heard a rumor that the Alfonso Cuaron sci-fi thriller Gravity was awarded the last slot, but since that film hasn’t been dated yet for a U.S. release, this seems unlikely.

If you think I’ve gotten any of the above information wrong, or if you have knowledge regarding the 34th film, please write me so that I can update the chart.

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