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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz
April 24, 2013
At this time a year ago American film producers and distributors had cause to be exuberant about China. The Chinese box office was booming, new theaters were opening at a rapid clip, and the grosses for Hollywood movies were going up, up, up. Whereas a $30 million gross would rank a film among the top 10 releases in China in 2010, in 2011 the top 10 threshold was $40 million, and in early 2012 $60 million became the new benchmark. American films were the primary drivers of this upward trend.
China had clearly fallen in love with Hollywood movies, and it seemed reasonable to expect that imported American tent-pole films would continue to ride the swelling box office wave. Pictures like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol ($102 million gross) The Avengers ($91 million) and Titanic 3D ($154 million) began fueling the expectation that $100 million totals would soon become routine.
In 2013 the wave has continued to roll, but somewhere along the way Hollywood got stuck in the shallows. China’s box office is still booming, and nearly 5,000 new screens have opened in the past 12 months, yet as Chinese language films have leaped ahead to $80 million, $120 million, and even $200 million grosses, American movies have drifted back to 2011 levels, when the Chinese market was half the size it is now.
Blame shifting audience tastes, blame government interference if you like, but whatever the reason, Hollywood’s releases in China have had trouble cracking $50 million in 2013. Only two U.S. films have reached that level this year: Skyfall at $60 million, and The Hobbit at barely $50 million. Others will certainly get there—G.I. Joe: Retaliation is a current possible candidate—but few if any will reach the numbers the U.S. studios were aiming or hoping for when they submitted their import applications to SARFT.
It’s not entirely clear at this point what Hollywood can do to reverse the trend. Co-productions might be one possible method for Hollywood to recapture market share, but whether China wants co-pros with big U.S. companies anymore is becoming a real issue. Even while announcements of U.S.-China tie-ups were flooding out of last week’s Beijing Film Festival, SARFT was dithering about whether to allow the biggest U.S.-China film collaboration in history, Iron Man 3, a favorable release date during the upcoming Chinese Labor Day/May Day holiday. If such a major, high profile joint-venture can’t get equal treatment with local movies, then the whole idea of the value of U.S.-China co-productions must be called into question.
For only the fourth week out of 16 this year, a Hollywood film carried the top spot in the Chinese box office rankings. G.I. Joe: Retaliation ran up $33 million in its 7-day opening week, a good showing given the above-mentioned lowered expectations for Hollywood films in general. G.I. Joe slowed down considerably on Monday and Tuesday of this week, with less than $4 million over those two days, so it’s still uncertain that it will reach the $50 million mark.
Dreamworks Animation’s The Croods opened soft with $6.2 million in its first two days, signaling a probable final gross of less than $20 million. This is consistent with China’s pattern of giving short shrift to original animated features. Mostly it’s the sequels and pre-sold animation franchises like The Smurfs that bring in the big bucks in the PRC.
As I had predicted, aggregate national revenue in Week 16 fell short of the total for the same week last year, but not by much, which bodes well for the weeks ahead.
Year-to-date box office sales in China surpassed the $1 billion mark last Saturday, more than a month earlier than it reached that milestone last year. It won’t be a surprise if the PRC posts another 40 percent annual increase in 2013.
Since Iron Man 3 now looks unlikely to bow on its originally intended April 26th release date, the youth romance So Young should open big on Friday without much competition to impede it. Although a few of my Chinese friends think the film’s melancholy tone will dampen its grosses, most believe the film’s star appeal and excellent early reviews will drive it to blockbuster numbers. Check in later this week for more about So Young.
Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at email@example.com and at www.pacificbridgepics.com.