‘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.

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Romance is in the Air For Chinese Moviegoers


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedInA Wedding Invitation poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 16, 2013

When spring arrives in China, romance blossoms not only between lovers, but also at the multiplex.

In 2011 it was Eternal Moment and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart that enticed moviegoers to heart-warming grosses of $31 million (2011’s 8th biggest Chinese language release) and $15 million, respectively.

Last year audiences were smitten with Titanic 3D, which seduced them into a hearty $74 million opening week and a lusty ultimate $154 million gross.

And this spring, romance has been in bloom for a full month, with Finding Mr. Right leading the box office for three straight weeks (grossing $77 million so far as of Tuesday) before it handed off the torch to A Wedding Invitation (分手合约), which led all comers with a $9.8 million score over the weekend.

The Chinese-Korean co-production A Wedding Invitation was directed by Korean comedy master Oh Ki Hwan and stars Eddie Peng (Cold War, Taichi 0) and Bai Baihe (Love is Not Blind) as a pair of star-crossed lovers who, after five years of pursuing divergent lives and careers, finally reunite. Look for Wedding Invitation to gross in the low- to mid-20 millions over the next ten days, until Iron Man 3 grabs many of China’s available screens.

In the mean time there’s lots more romance on the way, with four new Chinese language romances and romantic comedies set to open on the mainland in the next week and a half. These include the youth romance Sweet Eighteen, the romantic comedy Lemon, the China/Taiwan co-pro Ripples of Desire, and most significantly, So Young, the highly anticipated directorial debut of actress and pop singer Vicky Zhao. I expect So Young to give Iron Man 3 some stiff competition when the two films open against each other on April 26th.

Although action remains China’s most popular film genre, romance has been a steady second best in recent years, holding a 17 percent market share in 2012 and roughly the same so far in 2013. Domestic Chinese romances and romantic comedies have been especially potent this year, and because these films are inexpensive and logistically easier to produce than action movies, and because films like Finding Mr. Right are making enormous profits, we can look for many more such pictures to come.Box office week ending 4-14-13

Chinese language titles once again dominated the box office, taking the top four spots in the rankings and nabbing an 89 percent market share for the week. American movies now hold a mere 23 percent share of mainland ticket revenues for the year, a disastrous drop from the 57 percent share they held at this point last year.

Weekly box office nationwide totaled $48 million, down by 43 percent compared to the same week last year, when the juggernaut Titanic 3D swept through China’s cinemas. The week ahead will also be down compared with last year, and then after the massive Titanic comps are out of the way, China’s upward year-on-year trend should continue. China’s year-to-date aggregate box office revenue in 2013 is 44 percent ahead of 2012.

Hollywood’s studios can only hope that their upcoming releases perform better than their films that are currently playing. The only U.S. picture to index well so far this year is A Good Day to Die Hard, which will end its run with $31 million, a total that is impressive only when compared to its weak results in the rest of the world. Oz the Great and Powerful will probably wind up at less than $30 million, and Jack the Giant Slayer will finish up at around $9 million. Whereas U.S. distributors must have been hoping for several $100+ million releases in China this year, the way things are going most of their pictures will be lucky to reach even half that amount.

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.

‘Finding Mr. Right’ Continues Leggy Run to Cap Off PRC’s Record-Breaking Q1


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

Chef-Actor-Scoundrel poster

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 3, 2013

The first quarter of 2013, which ended last Sunday, saw numerous box office records fall in China, including:

  • Biggest single-day gross for an individual film: 140 million RMB, Journey to the West
  • Biggest single-day cumulative nationwide gross: 190 million RMB, February 14, 2013
  • Highest single-day cumulative nationwide admissions: February 14, 2013
  • Biggest final gross for an individual film: $201 million, Lost in Thailand
  • Biggest single-quarter cumulative nationwide gross: $820 million

After a strong start to the year, China’s pace of growth has actually accelerated, with local films putting up exceptional numbers. Take a look at the day-by-day performance of current box office champ Finding Mr. Right (aka When Beijing Met Seattle):Finding Mr. Right Daily gross

1 RMB = U.S. $0.161

The low-budget romantic comedy, which was inspired by the Hollywood hit Sleepless in Seattle, has been number one at Chinese multiplexes every day of its run so far, and will easily beat the previous Chinese rom-com record holder, Love is Not Blind, which earned $55 million in 2011. As of Wednesday, Mr. Right stood at $47 million, and now looks likely to hit $70 million before it’s done.

Second place for the week went to the WWII action-comedy, The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which debuted to a solid $12.2 million in its first three days, handily beating Oz, the Great and Powerful, which conjured up $9 million in its opening weekend, and Jack the Giant Slayer, which managed just $6.7 million in its first seven days. Chef-Actor-Scoundrel continued to play well into the week, and should wind up its run with a $40 million cume. Oz is fading fast and probably won’t do much more than $25 million, while Jack the Giant Slayer will top out at around $10 million.Box office week ending 3-31-13

It’s an impressive feat that the roughly $5 million budgeted Finding Mr. Right will, all by itself, outgross the combined China grosses of OzA Good Day to Die Hard, and Jack the Giant Slayer, which had combined production budgets of well over $500 million.

Overall, 2013 box office revenue is running more than 50 percent ahead of last year’s total, despite the lackluster performance of U.S. films, which are dragging the comps down. Hollywood will have several chances to redeem itself in the next few weeks, with Django Unchained opening on April 11th, G.I. Joe: Retaliation on the 15th, The Croods on the 20th and especially Iron Man 3, still undated but likely to open in China somewhere around April 26th, well before its before its U.S. debut.

It won’t be easy going for any of these American films though, as competition from Chinese movies will be fierce. The toughest challenge will come for Iron Man 3, which opens against the April 26th debut of So Young, a romance directed by megastar Vicky Zhao. Based on a popular young adult Chinese novel that is often compared to “Twilight,” So Young is about a young woman’s emotional struggle with two men she meets again years after their on-campus love triangle. Although So Young will be Zhao’s directorial debut, she was mentored by esteemed Chinese directors Tian Zhuangzhuang and Stanley Kwan, and early buzz about the film is highly positive (See the trailer here).

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.

‘Upside Down’ Flips the Script at China’s Theaters


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn. For info on China Pooch email info@chinapooch.comUpside Down one-sheet

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 12, 2013

Although China’s distributors release roughly as many ‘buyout’ films—that is, foreign films acquired under flat fee purchase arrangements—as they do revenue sharing ‘quota’ films, it’s unusual for a buyout film to lead the box office. This is because quota films are mostly big-budget studio tent-pole pictures with major stars, while buyouts are most often independent ‘B’ level movies with less ambitious commercial aspirations. The numbers are pretty stark: last year the 31 foreign buyout films took only a 5.4 percent share of China’s total box office revenue, while the 34 foreign quota films earned 45.6 percent.

So it came as quite a surprise last week when a buyout, Millenium Films’ romantic fantasy Upside Down, became the first film in nearly a month to outgross box office behemoth Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The $60 million Kirsten Dunst-Jim Sturgess starrer, about a sort of interstellar Romeo and Juliet who are separated not only by family but also by the physics of the cosmos, was shot way back in 2010 and had earned only $8 million worldwide when it debuted last Thursday in the PRC.

In its first four days in China Upside Down nearly doubled its worldwide gross, and it also out-earned Journey by a slight margin. Despite its wide availability on pirated BD, DVD and online, it is now primed to become one of China’s highest earning buyout films ever. Top Grossing Foreign Buyouts

WIth the advantage of a full week of screenings versus Upside Down‘s four days, Journey to the West won the weekly box office crown for its fifth week in a row, a feat last achieved by Avatar back in 2010. Aggregate weekly box office was $42 million, a 38 percent improvement over the same week in 2012. Year-to-date, China’s box office revenue is running 46 percent ahead compared to the first 10 weeks of last year.

Although they continue to underperform, American films are at least beginning to gain market share, capturing 44 percent last week thanks mainly to Journey‘s slowing momentum. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey stretched its cume to $45 million, and will end its China run next week at around $50 million. Box office week ending March 10, 2013

On March 14th A Good Day to Die Hard will open wide with hopes that it can turn the tide and become the first studio film to over-index in China this year. Resident Evil: Resurrection is set to open on March 17th, presumably in a heavily edited version. Oz the Great and Powerful has been pushed back to April, so the next studio release will be Jack the Giant Slayer on March 25th.

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.