China’s Box Office: Which Way to a Global Chinese Cinema?


by Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 12, 2012

Well no surprise here – Hollywood dominated the mainland Chinese box office once again with 5 films taking a 73 percent share, reaffirming the fact that China’s film industry simply does not yet have what it takes to compete with Hollywood imports at its own domestic box office.

This is an observation that has been written about extensively here on China Film Biz over the past month, and deservedly so – it has been nearly two months since a Chinese film claimed the top box office spot in the mainland.  The last time was mid-January, when The Great Magician starring Tony Leung and Zhou Xun opened.  Even then, The Great Magician’s reign was short-lived, lasting all of one week before a series of Hollywood imports began their recent streak of domination.

It may seem like we’re beating a dead horse by mentioning China’s inability to produce popular mainstream films for its masses. This is perhaps especially true this week, when even beating a dead horse was something that China literally failed to succeed in doing at the local Chinese box office.

I am referring to the film War Horse, the Steven Spielberg-directed epic war adaptation that is based on a children’s novel.  War Horse, which was released in the US on Christmas of last year, found itself atop the mainland Chinese charts this past week, grossing a rather modest $8.8 million over the span of six days.

To put that opening gross in perspective, the week’s second highest grossing film, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, made $15.2 million in half as many days when it opened in China in mid-February.  The Taiwan co-produced romance Love, meanwhile, made $13.9 million over the course of its first seven days of screening on the mainland.

Also opening this past week was the US action-fantasy film animation Conan the Barbarian, which took in $3.1 million over six days to come in at number four at the box office.

Mission Impossible 4 and the previously released family animation Happy Feet Two rounded out the Chinese box office top five.

*****

A recent post here on China Film Biz highlighted several challenges that make it difficult for mainland Chinese filmmakers to make commercially successful films.   That post focused mostly on the rules and regulations that stifle what should very well be a vibrant and productive creative culture within the mainland Chinese film industry.  Rather than rehash the critical (and very true) observations made in that post, I’m going to focus here a bit on another aspect of the same question – i.e., what I believe needs to be explored in regards to actual film content if China plans on ever developing a successful global Chinese cinema.

Now everyone knows that China will be an increasingly important power in the 21st century.  But how will China’s developing economic and geopolitical might translate on a cultural level?

This is a question that the Chinese government is seeking to address in part through the development of a global Chinese cinema.  But does the Chinese government, headed by a consortium of book smart and savvy politicians with academic educations largely in engineering, know the first thing about what this global Chinese cinema should look like?

Chinese civilization is often described as being over 5000 years old, and it is in part this rich history that has led many scholars to assert that Chinese culture and society is one that often looks backwards in time with great reverence. You see this reverence for the past played out in Chinese cinema/media through the strong, recurring theme of nostalgia in many Chinese movies.   Traveling back in time became such a popular theme in Chinese television that SARFT actually banned the storytelling device from the mainland Chinese airwaves a year or two ago.

In my opinion, the Chinese people’s reverence for the past is an aspect of Chinese culture that will likely hinder the development of a global Chinese cinema. The recent government-produced period films Beginning of the Great Revival and The Founding of the Republic – which featured basically everyone and anyone who has any star power in China/HK/Taiwan – have had little to no global appeal.  As rich as it is, Chinese history has little appeal to the average global moviegoer.  You can even have a certified A-list Hollywood actor like Christian Bale headlining your Chinese period film, but it won’t get potential moviegoers off their sofas and into theaters.

It’s true that the US and the rest of the Western world are fascinated by China, but not the China of the past.  This should be obvious, especially when it comes to the average American – we are a people that aren’t particularly known for caring about history, even our own. Yes, people are aware of China and its rapid economic growth.  But it is not China today that people want to know about.  It is the China of tomorrow.

Ultimately I believe this is one of the major areas that needs to be explored by the mainland Chinese film industry if it is to succeed at developing a global Chinese cinema.  No one really cares what China looks like today, and in some regards they shouldn’t – the country is changing so fast, what you see today will likely be radically different from what you see five years from now.

What people will want to know – whether they realize it yet or not – is where China will end up, because to a large extent, depending on what this future destination of China looks like, so too will the rest of the global world look as well.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at hollymu.com.

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China’s Box Office: Bird Soars with ‘Mission 4’


By Albert Wang with Robert Cain for China Film Biz

February 3, 2012

In mainland China, the seven-day-long Spring Festival is a holiday break to commemorate the Lunar New Year, and it is also the time when many make the long and arduous trip back home to celebrate with their families and relatives.  For about a hundred million  Chinese migrant workers this holiday break is one of the few times during the year they ever have a chance to visit home.  And so as one might expect, the Spring Holiday is an incredibly difficult travel season, regardless of whether one is traveling by plane or train.

If the week’s box office numbers are anything to go by, mainland Chinese are also increasingly taking time out of this hectic annual holiday break to enjoy movies at their local cinemas.  Weekly box office was up by about 25 percent (in US dollar terms) over the comparable holiday week last year, with a total of $62 million. The month of January was very strong, running 43 percent of January, 2011, though it should be noted that this is not a direct comp, since last year’s Spring Festival didn’t occur until the beginning of February.

The big winner for this week was the Brad Bird directed action picture Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol, which in a span of only two days took in an estimated $15.8 million at the Chinese box office, or well over half of M:I 4’s $25 million weekend total on the foreign theatrical circuit.

Paramount claims that Mission: Impossible 4 took in a haul in China that was five times greater than that of 2006’s Mission: Impossible 3 opening weekend in China.  But this feat may not seem quite so impressive when one realizes that China’s box office has grown by more than six-fold during that period.

Rounding out the top 5 for last week were Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, The Viral Factor, All’s Well Ends Well 2012, and The Great Magician.

During the week-long holiday, the mainland Chinese box office totaled 390 million yuan (roughly $US 62 million), significantly higher than the Spring Holiday Week numbers from 2011 and 2010 (320 million yuan and 340 million yuan, respectively).

What makes this year noteworthy is the fact that non-domestic films dominated what has traditionally been a solid week for domestic Chinese films.

Typically, the Lunar New Year ushers in a selection of ensemble Chinese films headlined by big Chinese stars.  The All’s Well Ends Well series, for instance, is an example of this distinct genre; the franchise dates all the way back to 1992, when the original All’s Well Ends Well featured a massive Hong Kong cast that included Stephen Chow, Maggie Cheung, Leslie Cheung, Raymond Wong, Sandra Ng, and Teresa Mo.

Just last year, the Spring Holiday week (Feb. 2-Feb.8, 2011) saw three Chinese films – All’s Well Ends Well 2011, My Own Swordsman, and What Women Want – take the top spots at the Chinese box office.

This year’s Spring Festival Holiday, however, saw fewer big domestic films in this genre.  The week’s top grossing Chinese language film, for instance, was the Hong Kong-produced The Viral Factor, which released a week prior to the Spring Holidays and had no thematic connection to the Lunar New Year celebrations.  The only newly opening non-Hollywood films to crack the top 10  last week—the Taiwan-made Perfect Two and the Shangjing-directed Fan Ju Ye Feng Kuang—opened to less than $5 million each.  The latter was in fact a Chinese New Year film directed by the director of My Own Swordsman, a comedy that played to big opening numbers last year.

It remains to be seen whether 2012 marked a fundamental shift in box office behavior over the Chinese New Year Holidays. It may be that the Chinese government prefers to see domestic films dominate this culturally important holiday week, and would thus implement policies to favor domestic films.  This could have been the reason that M:I 4’s release came at the tail end of the holiday. Then again, with so much money being spread around during the Spring Holidays, party officials may not mind sharing in the profits that a Hollywood blockbuster like M:I 4 or Sherlock Holmes can rake in.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at hollymu.com.

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 Box Office: A Holmes-y Reception


by Albert Wang with Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 31, 2012

Note: Due to an unexpected week’s delay in China’s box office reporting, we’re just now putting out the report for the week ending January 22nd, with the report for the week ending January 29th to come shortly.

We can only speculate as to why China’s box office numbers were delayed last week. The hold-up may have been related to SARFT’s recent crackdown on box office misreporting and under-reporting. Apparently new systems are currently being implemented to prevent the widespread practice of selling tickets for one film and then writing the name of another film on the face of the ticket. This sort of manipulation allows monies paid by the ticket buyer for one film to be funneled to another.

When the numbers were finally released they showed Warner Bros’ Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows to be last week’s big winner at the mainland Chinese box office with a decent $10 million gross. This may come as a bit of a surprise, given that the original Sherlock Holmes movie was viewed by some as a relative flop in mainland China when it was released in 2010. NYMag, for instance, pointed out that while Avatar earned in China about one-third of what it made in the US, the original Sherlock movie’s China release earned just one-eighteenth of its US box office haul.

Perhaps the first film’s underperformance can be attributed to China’s unfamiliarity with the Sherlock Holmes brand, but Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has had no such marketing woes. The sequel is on pace to significantly outdo the original at the Chinese box office.

In second place with $7.3 million was Dante Lam’s newly released thriller The Viral Factor, reportedly Taiwan megastar Jay Chou’s last starring role in an action movie. The film also stars Nicholas Tse in yet another gritty and nuanced “bad guy” role. Stylish Hong Kong director Lam, whose most acclaimed film is 2008’s Beast Stalker (also starring Nicholas Tse), is known for making his films chock full of car chases and explosions — not to mention the occasional male actor literally crying his heart out.

The rest of the Chinese box office leaders include the previous week’s top film, The Great Magician (starring Tony Leung and Zhou Xun), the animated film Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf 4, and the 2012 installment of the All’s Well Ends Well series, the Chinese New Year comedy that stars many of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. With an opening weekend tally of just $2.2 million, an 80 percent drop from the 2011 edition’s first week result, the numbers for All’s Well Ends Well 2012 don’t bode well for continuation of the series.

The Taiwanese romance You Are the Apple of My Eye, while dropping five places to the eighth spot at last week’s box office, continues its strong showing, having already grossed more than all 2011 Taiwanese releases in mainland China combined.

Meanwhile Zhang Yimou’s war epic The Flowers of War has wound down its theatrical run on the mainland with a cumulative gross just below the $100M mark. Assuming the reported numbers are accurate, even though Flowers stands as the 3rd highest grossing film ever in the PRC, the film’s initial theatrical returns will fail to repay even half of its $90 million production cost.

Cumulative box office for the week was $40.8 million, up by 13 percent as measured in dollars (up 7 percent in Chinese yuan) over the same period last year. This would be a nice bump in most territories, but given that the mainland’s screen count has risen by 50 percent since January, 2011, theater operators will undoubtedly be disappointed with the weekly result.

Albert Wang is an aspiring producer of US-China film co-productions who joined the Pacific Bridge Pictures team in December, 2011. His previous blog on US-China films can be seen at hollymu.com.

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 Box Office: Hong Kong Director Derek Yee Works Comedy Magic


By Robert D. Cain for China Film Biz

January 18, 2012

Hong Kong director Derek Yee spun gold last week with his new film The Great Magician, which knocked The Flowers of War out of the top spot and led the Chinese box office with $11.5 million.

For Yee, a writer-director- actor-producer who is perhaps best known for producing the hit Hong Kong crime dramas Overheard (2009) and Overheard 2 (2011), The Great Magician was something of a departure. It is the first comedy he has directed in over 20 years, and also one of the few films he has made on the Chinese mainland. SARFT censors required him to make numerous changes to the film before they would allow its production and release.

Second place was also claimed by a new market entrant, the fourth installment of the popular Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf children’s animation franchise, which took in $11.3 million. Based on a long-running Chinese children’s TV series, the Pleasant Wolf franchise is the only home-grown animated property that has managed to generate consistent, repeated success at the box office.

Taiwanese romance You Are the Apple of My Eye maintained its 3rd place rank with $5.6 million, for a $9.9 million cumulative gross.  Already this year’s Taiwanese films have exceeded the total gross for all of 2011’s Taiwanese releases in China. Quite a change from the days not so long ago in the PRC when mere possession of a cultural artifact from Taiwan could be construed as a political crime punishable by imprisonment.

Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate fell to 4th and 5th place, with respective weekly revenues of $4.5 million and $4.3 million. Flowers has now reached a $93 million total gross, but doesn’t have enough steam left to challenge Let the Bullets Fly as the all-time Chinese language box office champ. And unless it achieves the unlikely feat of grossing at least $100 million outside of China, it will fall well short of financial breakeven.

Flowers of War had a rough week in awards competitions: It lost out to the far superior Iranian film A Separation for the Golden Globes’ best foreign language film awards, and it failed to make the cut for the Academy Awards foreign language shortlist of nine films. For several years in a row the Chinese have tried to win over the Academy with big, crowd-pleasing melodramas. Perhaps they’ll learn their lesson next year and submit a movie that might actually have a prayer of winning. It must be particularly galling to the Chinese that a Taiwanese film, Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale, did make the shortlist.

American entry Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, grossed a decent $2.9 million in its first day of release in Chinese theaters. If it performs as well in China as it has elsewhere, it should wind up with at least $15-18 million in total receipts there.

Independent distributor Bona Film Group had a rare indie trifecta with the number one, number two and number five films for the week.

Aggregate box office for the frame was 59 percent higher than the same period last year. With Enlight’s next installment of its hit All’s Well Ends Well franchise opening this weekend (last year’s sequel wound up with nearly $25 million) and with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol arriving on the 28th, January is shaping up as a very big movie month overall.

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 www.pacificbridgepics.com.