‘So Young’ is So Rich in China

Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Vicky Zhao

So Young director Vicky Zhao is ‘crying’ all the way to the bank.

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 28, 2013

Month after month, China’s movie industry has been making major leaps that spell trouble for Hollywood’s creaking business model.  China has repeatedly proved that massive profits can come from tiny investments, while Hollywood’s studios keep making enormous financial bets in the face of rapidly dwindling returns. Where China’s distributors are piling up cash with the new equivalent of a “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” nearly every month, Hollywood has increasingly churned out cash burning duds like Jack the Giant Slayer.

The latest Chinese jackpot winner is So Young, a low-budget youth romance that put its financiers well into the black in just its first two days of theatrical release. After its huge $22+ million three-day weekend debut, and with the major three-day Labor/May day holiday about to start, So Young is now assured of posting one of the biggest 7-day debuts in Chinese box office history.

Based on the wistfully titled Chinese young adult novel “To Our Eventually Lost Youth”  (致我们终将逝去的青春), So Young is the latest in a string of Mandarin language films to employ a formula first made successful by the blockbuster hit Love is Not Blind back in 2011: adapt a successful novel (or in some cases a TV show or even an old American movie) to a contemporary Chinese context; cast popular, young, inexpensive actors; keep the budget low; choose an optimal release date, preferably a major box office holiday; leverage social media like Sina Weibo and WeChat to promote mainly to young female moviegoers; and let the box office magic happen.

The novel centers on a young woman whose romantic flame, played by Mark Chao (Caught in the Web, Black & White Episode), leaves her without saying a word to her, to study at a university in America. Then she falls in love with another young man, played by Mando-pop star Han Geng of Super Junior fame, who also leaves her to study in America. This leads her to a fit of rage in which she climbs to the top of a hill, faces the Pacific and shouts “The United States is an evil capitalist country. I hate you! Return my men back to me!”

I’m not sure this climactic scene was included in the movie, but really, what filmmaker could resist the pathos, the dramatic power, of those lines?

Kidding aside, So Young has been getting some of the best reviews I’ve seen lately for a Chinese film, with a 9.1 rating on movie fan site Douban. And distributor Enlight’s marketing team has generated tremendous buzz. First-time director and popular Chinese actress Vicky Zhao has pulled out all the publicity stops, recruiting many of her celebrity friends to tweet about the movie.

Zhao also reportedly made the Machiavellian move of visiting China’s government distribution authorities and tearfully convincing them to delay Iron Man 3‘s release by five days to give her film a big market advantage during the Labor Day holiday. Her ploy worked, and although I doubt So Young needed the help, it looks likely that it will beat the Marvel/Disney blockbuster in total admissions and revenue.

Whatever happens, there will be plenty of RMB to go around this week for both movies. Last year’s Labor/May Day holiday saw a total national gross of about $36 million. If current trends continue, this year’s holiday could double that amount.

Other films are enjoying excellent results, with Finding Mr. Right winding down its extraordinary run at a cume of roughly $84 million. G.I. Joe: Retaliation will surpass $50 million, and The Croods has benefited from excellent word-of-mouth and will beat my earlier forecast by at least $5 million to finish at no less than $25 million, a decent total for a non-sequel animated feature.

The disparities in box office expectations are becoming more and more stark. $100+ million is becoming an increasingly reasonable target for local Chinese movies, and an increasingly distant dream for Hollywood movies releasing in the PRC. If they want to keep up with the times, Hollywood’s studios ought to start putting filmmakers like Vicky Zhao on speed dial.

To my friends and readers in China, 祝大家劳动节愉快(I wish you a happy Labor Day).

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.

‘Oz’ Blahs, or Why China is NOT Going to Save Hollywood (But Might Buy It)

Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.comOz Chinese poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 31, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful debuted to a distressingly low $9 million in China this weekend, becoming the tenth straight U.S.-made film this year to falter in PRC theaters. Every major studio has now had at least one disappointing release in China in the past three months, and none has had a breakout success.

The huge box office bonanza that Hollywood movies enjoyed a year ago in China is now looking more and more like a cruel head fake.  For 23 straight weeks in 2012 Hollywood films reigned at the top of China’s box office. But their longest streak this year is 2 weeks on top, and they’ve placed first in only 3 of the past 16 weeks.

Meanwhile, Chinese language films are hot. Scorching hot. In those same 16 weeks two Chinese films have broken $200 million at the box office, another went over $135 million, and a fourth—the low-budget Finding Mr. Right—will soon become the highest grossing Chinese romantic comedy of all time.

I’ve written many times in this space that Hollywood’s movies will eventually be marginalized in China. I thought this would take at least several more years, but it’s happening before our eyes.  In the first quarter of 2013, U.S. films’ cumulative grosses in China are down by 22 percent, while Chinese language films are up by 128 percent. China’s tastes have shifted decisively toward local product, with the result that American films are now performing at about the same level they did back in 2010, when China’s market was half the size that it is now.Chinese B.O. 1Q12 v 1Q13

This turn of events comes at an unfortunate time for Hollywood. With box office revenue down by 13 percent in North America, the studios have been looking to China to help fill the gap.  But that’s not going to happen, at least not with any consistency. Sure, the next Avatar or Transformers or Iron Man movie will do fine in China. But the days of $50 million grosses for movies like Battleship and John Carter are fading. Oz won’t likely get past $35 million, and Jack the Giant Slayer will be lucky to break $15 million. Chinese audiences would rather spend their money to see local stories with Chinese faces.

With North America flat at best, and limited prospects in the industry’s biggest international growth territory, one wonders how much patience the major media conglomerates have left for their film divisions. According to a recent Economist article, pre-tax profits at Hollywood movie studios fell by around 40% over the past five years, and they now account for less than 10% of their parent companies’ profits. According to Benjamin Swinburne of Morgan Stanley, by 2020 the studios will contribute just 5% of the media conglomerates’ profits. The day will soon come when at least one of these conglomerates decides to unload its studio operations.

And who better to buy that studio than a Chinese distributor? China will soon be the world’s biggest movie territory, with a more profitable business model than Hollywood’s. And it has major international ambitions, but completely lacks the ability to serve the global market. The right strategy for a globally minded Chinese movie mogul will be to acquire a major U.S. studio at a bargain basement price. The only thing they need now is a willing seller.

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.

In Chinese Entertainment Gay is the New Straight

Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Red Cliff scene

By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

December 19, 2012

Here’s one recipe for making a film or TV show a hit in China: cast at least two handsome male leads and put them in homoerotic situations that young females can fantasize about. Leave everything to the girls’ imaginations, but make it easy for them to picture the virile males making out and doing other sexy things to one another. If the men are attractive enough and the situations hot enough, young Chinese women will go bananas and you’ll have a major money maker on your hands.

For reasons that are beyond my limited understanding, the libidos of Chinese girls and women born after the mid-1980s are highly susceptible to homoerotic images in media. Foreign TV shows like the UK’s “Sherlock” and America’s “Big Bang Theory” are enormously popular there at least partly because they comedically hint and tease around the possibility of their male leads’ homosexuality. The Holmes character in “Sherlock” is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, one of the prettiest male faces on television, and he constantly finds himself in situations that suggest a possible gay relationship with his sidekick Watson, played by Martin Freeman.Sherlock and Holmes

For instance, in “Sherlock’s” first episode when Holmes and Watson move in together, their landlady apparently believes they are a couple and says: “There’s another bedroom upstairs … that is if you’ll be needing one.”

Later on, the pair share a meal in London’s gay Soho district, where the restaurant owner says: “Sherlock, you can have anything on the menu for you and your date. I’ll get a candle for the table. It’s more romantic.”

“Big Bang Theory,” the most popular American TV series in China, frequently toys with the idea that the characters Raj and Howard may have erotic feelings for one another. Another character, Leonard’s mother, observes that Raj and Howard are in an “ersatz homosexual marriage that satisfies [their] need for intimacy.” And she once asked them directly, “Have you finally summoned the courage to express your latent homosexual feelings for one another?”Howard and Raj

Raj offers plenty of fodder for speculation about his sexual orientation, saying things like, “It’s like accidentally walking into a gay bar and then having no one hit on you. It happened to, um, a friend of mine.” Or revealing that he had a dream in which he and Howard had side-by-side mansions, “but there was a secret tunnel connecting [Howard’s] front yard to [Raj’s] back yard.”

Domestic and imported feature films also offer many opportunities for young Chinese women to get aroused. John Woo’s Red Cliff has a famous scene at the end where handsome Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro–widely considered one of Asia’s hottest actors–approach each other against a romantic backdrop, wind blowing through the barley field. The pair stand nose to nose for several minutes speaking to each other, perhaps barely resisting a kiss, as Leung’s character says “No matter what may happen, this experience is engraved in my heart.” To which Kaneshiro’s character replies, “I too shall not forget.”

The recent Sherlock Holmes films, also popular in China, star two of the prettiest boys in cinema, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Those films are also notable for their homoerotic tension, and Downey has suggested that Holmes could be a “butch homosexual”, adding that the films are about “two men who happen to be room-mates, wrestle a lot and share a bed.”

When Marvel’s The Avengers released in China to huge box office returns earlier this year, the most heated online discussions were not amongst nerdy fanboys, but among girls speculating that the Loki character might be gay, and that he could be in a romantic relationship with Thor or Iron Man. Stephen Soderbergh’s Magic Mike was likewise the source of much internet chatter in the PRC.El Sexo de Los Angeles

The biggest lust-inducing film for Chinese girls is unquestionably the Spanish import El Sexo de Los Angeles, which has reportedly been viewed over 400 million times in China via the internet. That film centers on a male-female-male relationship that is described by IMDB as a “steamy love triangle”:

“Struggling martial artist and dancer Bruno loves his girlfriend Carla, but when he meets fellow [male] dancer Rai, serious sparks begin to fly, opening the couple up to new possibilities. A new generation navigates sexual fluidity, torn affections, and open relationships in this steamy love triangle. But once Bruno’s clandestine encounters with Rai are revealed, a confused and hurt Carla kicks him out. But she simply doesn’t want to give up on her love. Eventually she agrees that Bruno can date them both.”

Female microbloggers on China’s Sina Weibo have described the film thusly:

“Two men and a woman love each other, a three-way love, ever so harmonious living together. Oh my Buddha!”

“Unique, thought-provoking. Two handsome, suave, sexy charming men, wild and unconstrained, humorous, considerate and gently daring to love, so strong yet so fragile.”

“Are you a homosexual or BISEXUAL? Does it matter? It’s sexual.”

400 million views. For a low-budget Spanish language film. Perhaps now would be a good time for all of us to set aside our big budget, testosterone-driven action extravaganzas in favor of films that explore the softer, more intimate side of male-male relationships.

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.