‘Life of Pi’ Rounds Up Final China Rev-Share Slot of 2012

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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 23, 2012

I’m hearing on good authority today that China’s 34th and final revenue sharing import of 2012 will be Ang Li’s 3D adventure Life of Pi. This comes as a surprise to us China film biz handicappers, because all 14 of the ‘enhanced’ film slots had already been spoken for; until today it seemed certain that the 34th slot would go to a 2D film. But according to one of my contacts at the MPAA, the 20 ‘non-enhanced’ slots can actually go to films of any format, so Life of Pi is in the clear..

A big strike against Life of Pi’s China prospects is that it will have a narrow window in which to release. The film goes out wide in the U.S. on November 21st, and since SARFT will impose another blackout on foreign films in December, the Ang Li picture will have to go pretty much day-and-date in China if it is to make any waves there. The film’s release will also be hampered by torrid competition from other imports, with The Bourne Legacy, Roland Emmerich’s 2012 3D re-release, Rise of the Guardians, Wreck-it Ralph, Twilight Breaking Dawn 1, and South Korea’s Deranged all expected to debut in late October and November (the distributors of all these films will be relieved that Resident Evil 5 will not be releasing). Throw in the Chinese blockbusters Taichi II and Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 and you’ve got the makings of a wild and wooly November.

Last week was a modest one at Chinese theaters, though one major milestone was reached as aggregate box office topped $2 billion for the year, more than 2 months earlier than it reached that mark in last year’s record-breaking run. Had it not been for SARFT’s numerous blackouts of foreign films China would have very likely topped $3 billion this year. Even so, aggregate box office will rise by at least 25 or 30 percent over 2011’s $2.06 billon, a growth rate that would have U.S. exhibitors drooling.

The week’s big story was Bait 3D’s impressive $10.5 million blood-frenzy in its second week, nearly double Taken 2’s haul for the frame. The Australian 3D gore-fest has now surpassed Taken 2’s cume in China, and is on pace to land in the PRC’s top 20 grossers of the year. Safe to say that no one predicted Bait would be make such a splash, though in hindsight its success is consistent with China’s love of 3D, action and over-the-top stories.

Total Recall scored a hefty $5.1 million in its first two days of release, further cementing China’s standing as the promised land for busted U.S. action and sci-fi spectacles. Other films that were rejected by U.S. and/or global audiences but embraced in China this year include Battleship, John Carter, The Mechanic, and Lockout.

Two additional action films that performed well in China but fell short of very high expectations were Taichi 0, which will finish its run at around $25 million, and Looper, which should wind up at around $22 or $23 million. Foreign films will enjoy another month or so at the top of the box office before they are shoved aside for the benefit of local productions. In the mean time, look for the 2012 3D release to try and replicate Titanic 3D’s record-breaking run.

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