‘Tiny Times,’ Gargantuan Grosses


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 4, 2013

Happy 4th of July everyone, it’s America’s Independence Day. As a person who enjoys the uninfringed right to express my thoughts to readers around the world, I’m extremely grateful for the precious freedom America’s founders fought for and bequeathed to their descendants.

On another note, I’m dedicating this post to Dominic Ng, Bennett Pozil, and their superb team at East West Bank. They recently hosted me at two of their events and made invaluable introductions for me to their clients. Dominic was kind enough to publicly recognize my work in a room full of heavy hitters at his “U.S.-China Economic Relations“ summit at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. And since Bennett has been after me to keep writing this blog, pleading that in its absence he’s been forced to read trade papers like the Hollywood something-or-other and another thing whose name I forget that starts with the letter “V”, I suppose anyone who gets some use out of this humble publication should thank Bennett for his persistent cajoling.

It has been an eventful month or so since I last wrote about China’s film biz. In recent weeks Iron Man 3 finished its run at $121 million, edging out local romantic drama So Young to become the second highest grossing film of the year so far behind Journey to the West. Dreamworks’ animated movie The Croods defied everyone’s expectations, including my own, running up a magnificent $63 million, which places it among the highest grossing animated films in Chinese history. Legendary East announced a partnership with China Film Group; local film American Dreams in China ran up an $86 million gross; Man of Steel opened on 6,500 screens, the biggest launch to date in China; and Paramount’s World War Z was barred by the censors, despite the producers having made pre-emptive changes to avoid offending them.

Also, the July release schedule was announced, and with four big Hollywood titles opening (After Earth, White House Down, Fast and Furious 6, and Pacific Rim) the U.S. studios might finally get a chance to make up some ground against their Chinese competitors. Finally, the release schedule for December 2013 has been set, and it looks to be a blockbuster holiday, with Tiny Times 1.5, Jackie Chan’s Police Story 2013, mega-director Feng Xiaogang’s Personal Tailor, and possibly Overheard 3 and the star-studded Monkey King (with Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok) all set to open within a two-week period. My Chinese correspondent Firedeep predicts that four of these five films will wind up out-grossing Iron Man 3.

Which brings us up to the present. China’s exhibitors and producers are enjoying another stellar year so far, with almost $1.7 billion in grosses in the first half, nearly 40 percent ahead of the first half of 2012. Given the patterns of prior years, I expect a $3.7 billion final tally for the year. It’s worth noting that China is now routinely grossing more each month than it did in the entire year of 2006. At the current rate of growth the PRC market will surpass North America as the world’s largest territory in 2017, and even if growth slows considerably the succession will take place in 2018 or 2019 at the latest.

The week ending June 30th was the third biggest so far this year, at $87.5 million. Tiny Times set new records for the opening day of a local film at $12.4 million, and went even wider than Man of Steel, running on nearly 50 percent of China’s 15,000+ screens. Look for the teen female oriented Tiny Times to wind up at around $100 million when its run ends.Box office week ending 6-30-13

Man of Steel continued strong, with $21.1 million in its second week. Heavy competition from Tiny Times will curtail its grosses, and it will likely finish in the $55 million to $60 million range, which is where many recent U.S. blockbusters have settled.

Star Trek Into Darkness finished up its run right in that same range, with $57 million. To the surprise of many observers Star Trek outperformed in China, earning a healthy 13 percent of its worldwide gross in the PRC. Compare this to, say, Skyfall, Oz the Great and Powerful, and The Hobbit, each of which earned only 5 percent of their respective worldwide totals in China.

In the coming days I’ll write more about China’s first half results and the U.S. studios’  performance. Until then, happy independence 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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‘Iron Man 3’ – ‘So Young’ Duel Smashes Chinese Box Office Records. Are Hollywood’s Fortunes Turning?


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

May 8, 2013

It’s happening so often in China these days that it’s difficult not to sound clichéd, but it was another record-breaking week at the national box office in the 7-day period ending May 5th.

So many records toppled that to list them all would fill up an entire column. To avoid making this article an overly long list, I’ll mention just a few.

First, at $148 million, last week’s cumulative PRC gross easily beat the all-time weekly record of $136 million that was set during Valentine’s Day week less than three months ago.

Although Iron Man 3’s $64 million 5-day gross fell about $10 million short of the all-time single week record that was set by last year’s Titanic 3D at $74.7 million—it did set new records for biggest midnight screenings total with $2.1 million, and biggest opening day with $19 million.

So Young, the Vicky Zhao directed romance, notched the biggest second-place weekly gross ever, with $53 million.

And The Croods became the highest-grossing original (that is, non-sequel and non-pre-existing franchise) animated film in China’s box office history, with a $36 million total as of Sunday.Box office week ending 5-5-13

So all of this is good for China and good for Hollywood, right?

Good for China’s producers and distributors, yes. For Hollywood, it’s hard to get too enthused. This past week was a positive blip in what continues to be a confounding and rather distressing trend for American studio films in China.

There’s no debating that Iron Man 3 is a solid success. Its PRC gross will roughly double the $60 million gross of the year’s second-best Hollywood release so far, Skyfall, and it will become the first Hollywood film in 12 months to reach $100 million.

But it still may not beat So Young, a melodrama from a first-time Chinese director with a production budget that was probably less than 3 percent what Iron Man cost. And So Young won’t even be among China’s top 5 grossers this year.

When you consider that Iron Man 3 is the biggest and best that Hollywood has to offer, that it enjoys the backing of a strong local partner in DMG and an unprecedented level of government support, yet it still struggles to beat a low-budget B-level Chinese language movie, you know something’s not working. Iron Man didn’t break the downward trend for Hollywood in China, rather, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

Chinese audiences like Hollywood movies, but they love Chinese ones. And that’s a major problem for Hollywood.

China’s box office is now up 41 percent year-to-date (36 percent in RMB terms) while North America is down by 11 percent. Chinese movies are getting better, and with $50+ million grosses now routine, they’re becoming much more profitable. Capital is attracted to ventures that offer profits, and Chinese movies, though tricky investments in some ways, are looking increasingly attractive.

Because Hollywood action movies like Iron Man remain extraordinarily expensive to produce, they need growth from overseas to compensate for their shrinking domestic market. China was supposed to be the solution to Hollywood’s math problem, but China isn’t cooperating. In the global market for film financing, U.S.-based projects are going to find it increasingly difficult to compete, unless they radically change their strategies.

Two strategic approaches that offer promising future prospects for foreign producers are:

1. Provide animated films and family fare. These genres have repeatedly gotten special dispensations from SARFT, enjoying prime distribution slots even during holidays and blackout periods.

2. Make local Chinese language films for low to moderate budgets. This is not easy, but at least it’s permitted, and as we’ve seen, a well-made Chinese film can generate windfall profits.

A third strategy, U.S.-China co-productions, remains extremely challenging, and it may still be a few years, if ever, before such productions become common. As Jiang Wei, general manager of Edko (Beijing) Films Limited, puts it:

“The Chinese film industry needs to grow for greater cooperation to be achieved. There is no real in-depth cooperation, in which staff from both countries work together, like what the English and Australian filmmakers have been doing in Hollywood. When China’s film industry grows as an equal partner and the box office becomes big enough, the Hollywood community will have to think of real stories involving Chinese culture and people who are real characters. Only then will real co-productions be possible.”

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.

China’s Theaters Rev Up For Holiday Bonanza; ‘Iron Man 3’ Blasts Off


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A giant standee outside a Wanda theater promotes Iron Man 3‘s May 1 debut.

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 30, 2013

Because the PRC is currently in the middle of its Labor Day holiday, official box office reporting is delayed, so I’ve cobbled together numbers from my own sources to provide a snapshot of what’s been happening in China. Please bear in mind that the numbers that follow are subject to adjustment when the official figures are released.

Nationwide box office last week totaled $56.6 million, 16 percent more than the same week last year, which was boosted by Titanic 3D. The year-to-date total for 2013 is now running 35 percent ahead of last year, with most of the year’s biggest movies still to come.

Youth romance So Young led the week with its exceptional 3-day opening weekend total of $22 million. Including its Monday and Tuesday grosses So Young has reached $43 million in just its first 5 days, which points to a likely $100+ million run. Lost in Thailand grossed $47 million in its first 5 days and went on to a $201 million total, though So Young faces a more competitive market so I don’t expect it will hit that lofty mark.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation took second place with $10.9 million, a 67 percent drop from its $33.4 million debut week. G.I. Joe will fade fast now that it has been knocked off most of its screens by Iron Man 3 (which opened with a massive midnight screening campaign in the wee hours of May 1st), but will finish up its China run with a respectable fifty-plus million total, second best among American films so far this year and fifth best overall.

Dreamworks Animation’s The Croods has enjoyed strong word of mouth and picked up nearly $10 million in its second week of release for a $16.6 million cume. Because it will continue to hold many of its screens—roughly 1,500 or so—through the end of this week, Croods should continue to draw well and finish with over $25 million.

Films winding down their runs this week include romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right, which rang up roughly $84 million, and war comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, with $44 million. Box office week ending April 28, 2013

The biggest story today is Iron Man 3, which after a confusing series of release date announcements by China’s film authorities finally kicked off its midnight screenings on May 1st. The film’s producers were concerned that with all the conflicting news, moviegoers might not have been aware of the actual opening times, but they needn’t have worried. Nearly every single one of the 1,500 midnight screenings that were originally scheduled was completely sold out. To meet audience demand, theaters added another 500 midnight screenings, plus untold additional 2:30am and even 5:00am screenings.

It’s still too early to call, but initial reports are indicating very good things ahead for Iron Man 3. With all of those sold out auditoriums it has a good shot at beating Titanic 3D’s midnight screenings total of RMB 10 million ($1.62mm), and possibly even Transformers 3’s all-time midnight record of RMB 12 million ($1.95mm). And with a record 30,000 screenings set for May 1st, fully 40 percent of China’s total screen capacity, Iron Man should draw a very large first-day total.

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.

‘So Young’ is So Rich in China


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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.

Is $50 Million the New $100 Million for Hollywood Movies in China?


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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.Box office week ending April 21, 2013

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 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.