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


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.G.I. Joe - Retaliation poster

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.

Qing Ming Brings Bling to China’s Theater Owners


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

By Robert Cain for China FIlm Biz

April 9, 2013

Last week’s arrival of The Qing Ming Festival—a 2,500 year old Chinese holiday when celebrants honor their ancestors by sweeping their gravesites—also brought a big boost in movie going. The holiday ranks as one of China’s top five or six movie revenue periods of the year, along with such holidays as western New Year, Chinese New Year, Valentines Day and National Day. This past week’s national ticket sales totalled $73 million, good enough for the fourth biggest week of the year and an 88 percent increase over the same period in 2012.Box office week ending April 7 2013

Leading the box office once again was the sleeper rom-com hit Finding Mr. Right, which was down a mere 12 percent from last week, and which has only just started to show signs of slowing. I grossly underestimated this picture’s potential at $40 million; it’s now a sure thing to go over $75 million.

Also holding up well was the WWII action comedy The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel, which tallied $18.4 million to extend its total to nearly $31 million.

New openers didn’t fare quite as well. Action/thriller Drug War scored a $12.9 million total in its first six days of release, a bit of a bust relative to expectations but still director Johnnie To’s best debut to date. And the Ronny Yu-directed costume action/war drama Saving General Yang  fizzled at just $5 million, perhaps putting the final nail in the coffin of that moribund genre.

The Qing Ming week capped off a surprisingly potent 8-week period during which China’s theatrical film business nearly doubled the revenues of the same period last year. The 95 percent boost over 2012 was driven mainly by such local language comedy hits as Journey to the West and The Chef the Actor the Scoundrel, and romances Finding Mr. Right and Say Yes. These four films have collectively grossed over $320 million, accounting for more than a third of China’s total box office in 2013.

Hollywood films also contributed, but not at anywhere near the level they did last year. The four biggest non-Chinese films of the past eight weeks were The Hobbit, A Good Day to Die Hard, Resident Evil and Jack Reacher, which collectively pumped $114 million into China’s exhibition coffers.

The 8-week run of hugely favorable year-on-year comparisons will come to an end this week because last April’s enormous $74 million opening of Titanic will be impossible to beat.  I won’t hazard a guess as to how Django Unchained (opening Thursday) and two new Chinese romance pics will do this week, but it’s a safe bet that they won’t pose any threat to Titanic’s record. Look for comps that will be significantly down from last year’s numbers for at least this week and probably next week as well, unless G.I. Joe 2 catches fire.

I’m hard pressed to say whether Hollywood’s relative malaise in China this year is specific to the films that have been imported or is reflective of a larger shift in the market. It’s been suggested to me that market manipulation or fraud are major factors in Hollywood’s rapid decline in China, but I’ve only seen sparse and rather anecdotal evidence of this (I’ll publish an article on this topic in the next few days).

Hollywood hasn’t done very well this year in Japan, Korea, and other parts of Asia either, and Chinese manipulation can hardly be blamed in those territories. I’m inclined to credit the rapid rise of Chinese films (at the expense of Hollywood’s movies) to improving stories, good production values, and growing awareness among China’s movie goers that at least some local films are worth the price of admission.

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.

“Grandmaster” Flashes to Top of China Chart


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 15, 2012

Wong Kar-Wai’s Grandmaster, starring Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi, opened with $25.8 million in its first six days in China, extending a record-smashing 7-week run during which at least one film every week has grossed $25 million or more at the Chinese box office. The film, an action-biopic about Bruce Lee’s legendary trainer and kung fu master Ip Man, beat out long-running hits CZ12 and Lost in Thailand last week to top the charts.

Director Wong, notorious for his budget and schedule overruns, out-did his tardiness record this time with a film that he first publicly announced all the way back in 2002. He released the picture’s first teaser trailer in summer, 2010, and pushed back several release dates as he tinkered with the film in post production. After missing his December 18th release date, he was reportedly still putting finishing touches on the film just hours before its eventual world premiere on January 6th. The first-week grosses would have been higher except that the film arrived at least a day late at many theaters.

Still, the wait was apparently worth it, as Grandmasters drew more than 4.5 million admissions and was critically well received, with reviewer James Marsh calling it “the best-looking martial arts film since Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and the most successful marriage of kung fu and classic romance since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

Box office week ending 1-13-13

In second place for the week, Jackie Chan’s action-comedy hit CZ12 added $13 million to solidifiy its standing as the mainland’s second-highest grossing Chinese language film ever after Lost in Thailand, with a 25-day cume of $127.1 million.

In its fifth week of release, Lost in Thailand fell 72 percent to $8.9 million, a surprisingly sharp drop that raises the question as to whether it can beat Avatar for China’s all-time box office record. Lost already holds the admissions record with over 38 million tickets sold, but Grandmaster’s dominant opening last week may just have ruined Lost in Thailand‘s chance to become the first Chinese film in the modern multiplex era to take the mainland’s all-time box office revenue crown. Lost needs another $17 million to achieve that distinction, and with Grandmaster stealing its thunder last week and with the James Bond pic Skyfall entering the picture next week, Lost in Thailand, the little ($4 million budgeted) picture that could, may not have enough steam left to push it over the top.

Skyfall‘s release on January 21 will bring an end to the nearly two month long SARFT blackout on major Hollywood releases. The Bond pic can be expected to perform well, though it will undoubtedly be hurt by SARFT’s two-and-a-half month delay in releasing the film, a lag which has allowed massive illicit pirating and online viewing that will cut into the film’s theatrical potential. Still, at least Skyfall won’t be subject to the simultaneous release with The Hobbit that many had feared; that picture has been held back in the PRC until late February.

There are numerous American film releases ahead with strong market potential, but don’t expect a repeat of 2012’s first half, when Hollywood seized a 63 percent share of the market. SARFT won’t be caught off guard this time, and will be doing everything it can to maintain the respectable appearance of a 50 percent or better market share for Chinese language movies.

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.