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.

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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.

Romance is in the Air For Chinese Moviegoers


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 16, 2013

When spring arrives in China, romance blossoms not only between lovers, but also at the multiplex.

In 2011 it was Eternal Moment and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart that enticed moviegoers to heart-warming grosses of $31 million (2011’s 8th biggest Chinese language release) and $15 million, respectively.

Last year audiences were smitten with Titanic 3D, which seduced them into a hearty $74 million opening week and a lusty ultimate $154 million gross.

And this spring, romance has been in bloom for a full month, with Finding Mr. Right leading the box office for three straight weeks (grossing $77 million so far as of Tuesday) before it handed off the torch to A Wedding Invitation (分手合约), which led all comers with a $9.8 million score over the weekend.

The Chinese-Korean co-production A Wedding Invitation was directed by Korean comedy master Oh Ki Hwan and stars Eddie Peng (Cold War, Taichi 0) and Bai Baihe (Love is Not Blind) as a pair of star-crossed lovers who, after five years of pursuing divergent lives and careers, finally reunite. Look for Wedding Invitation to gross in the low- to mid-20 millions over the next ten days, until Iron Man 3 grabs many of China’s available screens.

In the mean time there’s lots more romance on the way, with four new Chinese language romances and romantic comedies set to open on the mainland in the next week and a half. These include the youth romance Sweet Eighteen, the romantic comedy Lemon, the China/Taiwan co-pro Ripples of Desire, and most significantly, So Young, the highly anticipated directorial debut of actress and pop singer Vicky Zhao. I expect So Young to give Iron Man 3 some stiff competition when the two films open against each other on April 26th.

Although action remains China’s most popular film genre, romance has been a steady second best in recent years, holding a 17 percent market share in 2012 and roughly the same so far in 2013. Domestic Chinese romances and romantic comedies have been especially potent this year, and because these films are inexpensive and logistically easier to produce than action movies, and because films like Finding Mr. Right are making enormous profits, we can look for many more such pictures to come.Box office week ending 4-14-13

Chinese language titles once again dominated the box office, taking the top four spots in the rankings and nabbing an 89 percent market share for the week. American movies now hold a mere 23 percent share of mainland ticket revenues for the year, a disastrous drop from the 57 percent share they held at this point last year.

Weekly box office nationwide totaled $48 million, down by 43 percent compared to the same week last year, when the juggernaut Titanic 3D swept through China’s cinemas. The week ahead will also be down compared with last year, and then after the massive Titanic comps are out of the way, China’s upward year-on-year trend should continue. China’s year-to-date aggregate box office revenue in 2013 is 44 percent ahead of 2012.

Hollywood’s studios can only hope that their upcoming releases perform better than their films that are currently playing. The only U.S. picture to index well so far this year is A Good Day to Die Hard, which will end its run with $31 million, a total that is impressive only when compared to its weak results in the rest of the world. Oz the Great and Powerful will probably wind up at less than $30 million, and Jack the Giant Slayer will finish up at around $9 million. Whereas U.S. distributors must have been hoping for several $100+ million releases in China this year, the way things are going most of their pictures will be lucky to reach even half that amount.

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 2012 Re-Cap: Another Stellar Year


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

2012 was one of the most eventful years I can remember in my 20-plus years working in and following the Chinese film business.

It was the year in which China surpassed Japan to become the world’s second largest movie territory.

It was a watershed year for investments from China into North American entertainment (more on this below) and from North America into China. IMAX continued its bold theater expansion, opening its 100th screen in the PRC, and Fox bought a stake in producer-distibutor Bona Group. Both IMAX and Fox were rewarded with superb returns this year on their China investments.

It was also a year of contrasts and contradictions. Consider:

2012 was the year when Hollywood showed that it can dominate the Chinese market, with a 63 percent market share in the first six months. It was also the year China’s filmmakers proved they can dominate their market too, notching two of the year’s three biggest hits—Lost in Thailand and Painted Skin: Resurrection—and three of the top four if we include CZ12’s revenues into the first week of 2013. All of these films were $100 million-plus grossers.

2012 was the year China’s government finally capitulated to years of WTO pressure by expanding its import quota and increasing foreigners’ revenue-share allowance to 25 percent. It was also the year SARFT aggressively protected China’s domestic films via extended foreign film blackouts and manipulation of release schedules to prevent Hollywood from exceeding its “allowed” share of the market.

It was a year when China’s film czars issued repeated warnings and censorship dictums to reinforce the Communist Party’s chaste rules of on-screen propriety and its strict prohibition of films that challenge the legitimacy of the Party’s autocratic rule. It was also the year when the country’s giant government-owned TV network, CCTV, aired a national broadcast of the U.S. film V for Vendetta, which details and glorifies the actions of a terrorist who violently overthrows a totalitarian regime.

It was a year when a Chinese company, Dalian Wanda Group, became one of America’s biggest theatrical exhibitors through its acquisition of AMC Theatres. It was also a year in which Chinese films dismally failed to attract American audiences, with the top ten Chinese language releases in North America—several of them huge hits in China—collecting a combined gross of barely $1.75 million at U.S. multiplexes.

Above all, it was a year of enormous growth. Let’s break down the numbers.

SARFT announced last week that China’s theaters earned a total of 17.07 billion RMB in movie ticket revenue in 2012. Using an average currency exchange rate of 6.31 RMB per dollar, this works out to $2.71 billion dollars, good enough for a 31 percent increase over 2011. That’s the ninth year in a row that China has logged a 30 percent or better increase (as measured in U.S. dollars).China v U.S. BO CAGR 2003-12

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

During the past decade China domestic films revenues have grown at a compound annual rate of 40 percent. Had the North American market grown by the same rate it would now be a $190 billion industry. Unfortunately for those of us in Hollywood, North America has grown at the sluggish pace of just 1.8 percent annually, less than one-twentieth the growth rate of China, so we are in jeopardy of being surpassed by China—even if its growth slows considerably—in just five to seven years. At that point China will account for one in every four dollars of worldwide ticket sales.China Pct of WW BO thru 2020

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

2012 saw five new film releases go on to gross $100 million or more in China, more than reached that mark in all of China’s combined prior history. Three of those five films are of Chinese or China-Hong Kong origin and one, Lost in Thailand, will become China’s highest grossing film ever with a total of at least $215 million. I believe this qualifies as the highest gross ever for a film in a single territory outside of North America.

China Top 15 Grossing Films 2012

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

To make the list of the top 15 films in 2012 required a $50 million gross; in 2011 the threshold was $30 million, and in 2010 it was $23 million.

Foreign films took more than half of all ticket revenue, reportedly the first time this has happened in China in a decade, according to SARFT. The vast majority of this share went to Hollywood movies. But Chinese films fought back and gained share in the second half, with purely domestic films capturing 20 percent and China-Hong Kong co-productions taking another 25 percent. If SARFT succeeds in its future manipulations of the market, foreign films will never again capture more than half of China’s ticket revenue.Share of 2012 China BO by Film Country of Origin

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Of course, had China allowed in more American films, the US share would have been greater. The average American release earns six times as much in China as the average Chinese film, and quite a few US (and other foreign) films are shut out of the market due to censorship concerns and quota limitations. Had China completely eliminated its import restrictions in 2012, and had it not instituted blackout periods, there’s little doubt that non-Chinese films would have easily taken at least two-thirds of the box office.Average China BO per Film by Country, 2012

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Action and adventure remain the top drawing genres, expanding their share from 30 percent of revenues in 2011 to 44 percent in 2012. Romance surpassed science fiction as the second most popular genre, as several love stories, most notably Titanic and Painted Skin 2, drew large numbers of moviegoers to theaters. Animation’s share dropped from 15 percent in 2011, when Kung Fu Panda 2 set records and some very tough comps, to just 9 percent in 2012. Sci-Fi fell even further, from 17 percent of receipts in 2011 to just 5.5 percent in 2012. Comedy rose by 2 points to 9 percent in 2012, largely on the back of mega-hit Lost in Thailand.

Share of Box Office Receipts by Genre, 2012

Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

Chinese audiences spend on movies far out of proportion to their incomes, and the extraordinary growth there shows little sign of slowing down. China added more than 3,800 new movie screens last year to reach a total of 13,118 screens by year’s end.  If we factor in the massive skimming that takes place at China’s ticket counters, total box office last year was probably closer to $4 billion than to the officially reported $2.7 billion figure.

China’s new status as the world’s second largest box office territory will be short-lived because China will soon surpass North America, and in 15 years or so it will dwarf the United States in importance to the global film industry.

Chinese filmmakers still have much to learn, but they will be backed by the full weight of the Chinese government in protecting their interests and helping them to compete. The successes of Lost in Thailand and Painted Skin: Resurrection demonstrated that Chinese audiences prefer mediocre local films that are at least “good enough” to better quality foreign language movies. And with government support, more and more Chinese films that are “good enough” will appear. The window is closing on Hollywood’s prospects in the PRC, and only those companies that remake themselves as more China-oriented producers will stand a chance of benefiting from the future’s biggest growth opportunities.

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 Wild and Wooly December


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 25, 2012

Back in the fall, most everyone who follows China’s film industry predicted a record-breaking December. Three films by three iconoclastic Chinese directors—Feng Xiaogang, Wong Kar-wai and Jackie Chan—would sweep audiences into the multiplexes, with each picture grossing around US $100 million or more. Confidence was high that 2011’s December box office record of $218 million would be shattered and that a $350 million record-setting month was in store.

Now, as December draws to a close, the prognosticators can congratulate themselves at least on the latter point: China’s box office is running a scorching 70 percent ahead of last December, and the $350 million record should be in the bag before New Year’s Eve. But the path that China took to get there was one that no one could have foreseen.

Box office week ending 12-23-12

The first step in December’s long march to glory was the surprising performance of Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s film, Life of PiPi enraptured Chinese audiences with its lush 3D images and its weighty philosophical themes, becoming only the third non-Chinese film to achieve a higher gross in the PRC than in North America (the other two films are the American re-release, Titanic 3D, and the Australian shark attack thriller Bait). Pi would have likely reached $100 million in China if SARFT hadn’t clipped its run at 30 days on Sunday, so it finished with an $89 million final gross.

The next surprise was that Wong Kar-wai’s star-studded action pic The Grandmasters was pushed from its December 18th slot to January 8th, 2013.  At first this appeared a blow for Grandmasters, as it will completely miss out on the December box office bonanza, but the pushed date may actually be a blessing. Grandmasters would probably have gotten buried in the fierce pre-New Year’s competition, and January tends to be a strong month in China, as was proven by the early 2012 successes of  Flowers of War, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and Mission Impossible 4, which launched last January and became the year’s first $100 million grosser.

Another shocker was the dismal under-performance of Feng Xiaogang’s war drama Back to 1942. The film’s grim and depressing themes, underwhelming marketing, and poor critical reception (my favorite quotes called it a “daisy-licking drama,” “a sledgehammer epic” and “an emotional strip-mine”) combined to diminish turnout. 1942’s $60 million gross would be heroic for most Chinese pictures, but with its reported $40+ million cost and $100 million expectation, 1942 caused the stock of distributor Huayi Bros to tank by 20 percent in the first few days after its release. Huayi’s stock regained some of its losses after it released CZ12 a few weeks later, but the stock of director Feng Xiaogang may not recover so quickly.Huayi Bros stock price

The biggest surprise of all was the emergence of sleeper hit Lost in Thailand, the low-budget comedy that has smashed dozens of Chinese box office records on its way to becoming the highest-grossing domestic Chinese film of all time. Only two weeks into its run, Lost in Thailand is now certain to surpass Titanic 3D and become the highest grosser of 2012. The little comedy that could has propelled the stock of its distributor, Beijing Enlight Media, to a 40 percent gain this month.Enlight Stock Price

The only detail that Chinese box office watchers predicted correctly was the success of Jackie Chan’s CZ12. The action-comedy opened to a $35 million first-week gross and, with little serious new competition this week, has a good chance of crossing the $100 million threshold by early January.

All told, December’s box office result will beat April’s prior monthly record by more than 35 percent. With the PRC’s box office record books being re-written on a weekly basis these days, film distributors can look forward to a very happy new year in 2013.

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.

‘Pi’ Slices Up the Chinese Competition Again


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Ang Lee and TigerBy Robert Cain for China Film Biz

December 10, 2012

Screenwriting and producing assignments have kept me from posting here on China Film Biz during the past few weeks, but I’ll aim to catch up in the coming days. Much has happened since I last put virtual pen to paper.

First things first: the extraordinary box office performance of Life of Pi. The Ang Lee fantasy adventure is remarkable not only for its gravity-defying theatrical run in China, but also for what it reveals about the contemporary Chinese moviegoing audience. Not since Avatar has a film so captured the imaginations of China’s movie literati as Life of Pi, which has inspired more than 5 million tweet messages on Sina Weibo, the PRC’s leading Twitter-like site. The picture is well on its way to becoming only the second U.S. film this year to earn more in China than in North America, and its success underscores a broadening trend of the PRC’s mainstream audience beyond popcorn spectacles to include more thoughtful fare.

Widely expected before its launch to earn only middling numbers, Life of Pi has caught fire with multiple audience segments, including Ang Lee fans, 3D movie fans and, perhaps most importantly, sophisticated moviegoers who appreciate Pi’s symbolism and its exploration of weighty topics like faith and religion. China’s social media sphere has positively lit up with speculation about such topics as the metaphorical significance of the film’s carnivorous island, and its philosophical musings about the subjective nature of storytelling.

Three weeks after its debut Life of Pi has grossed nearly $70 million in China—$9 million more than it has earned in North America. It should wind up at around $95 million when SARFT’s regulators pull it from theaters after its sanctioned 30 day run. If—and this seems unlikely—SARFT allows the picture a 2-week extension, it could surpass Painted Skin: Resurrection to become the mainland’s second highest grosser this year after Titanic 3D.Box office week ending December 2, 2012

Pi’s success has not only dealt a serious blow to director Feng Xiaogang’s film Back to 1942 (not to mention his stature in China’s film industry), but it has also thrown a wrench in SARFT’s hard fought schemes to keep the market share of foreign films below 50 percent in 2012. Pi will outgross SARFT’s initial estimates by about $70 million, thus tipping the market share balance in favor of imports, much to the dismay of China’s bureaucrats who are responsible for market share manipulation .

If Back to 1942 manages a decent hold and if Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac performs at or near expectations, the mainland’s total 2012 gross could approach $2.6 billion.  That would represent a 29 percent increase over last year’s total, another record year for the PRC and another step closer to catching up with the $10+ billion North American market.

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.

Shark Horror Flick Takes a Big Bite Out of China’s Box Office


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 16, 2012

For only the 2nd time in history a foreign film—namely the Australian horror-thriller Bait 3D—has opened to bigger numbers in China than in North America.

With its $8 million 3-day weekend China debut, Bait is running 30 percent ahead of its North American opening, and will likely run up a bigger final tally in China than the $15.3 million it has taken in stateside.

The first time a foreign film achieved such a feat was this past Spring when Titanic 3D logged a massive debut and finished up with a $154 million final gross, nearly three times its U.S. total. The difference this time is that Bait is a new release with virtually zero pre-awareness.

Bait has also set a new bar for horror releases this year, and depending on whether one considers Resident Evil 4 a horror film, Bait would qualify as either the biggest or second biggest debut ever for a horror flick in the PRC.

With a director and cast you’ve probably never heard of, and with an outlandish plot that involves a group of shoppers who are trapped by a freak tsunami in a submerged grocery store amongst a bloodthirsty group of great white sharks, one could be forgiven for thinking Bait an unlikely hit. But it seems that Chinese audiences were attracted to Bait’s combination of 3D with action and gore just like, well, like sharks are attracted to blood in the water. Producer Gary Hamilton of Arclight Films was delighted with the picture’s performance and tells me he’s planning a sequel.

Also noteworthy about this week’s box office chart is that it was the first time I can recall when the #1 and #2 films in China were both non-U.S. foreign films. Although foreign films took a 64 percent share of the weekly box office, U.S. films accounted for just 13 percent.

This doesn’t bode well for Hollywood’s studios, most of which remain bizarrely under-invested and under-represented in what has long been the world’s fastest-growing movie market. All year I’ve been warning that unless the studios begin to meet the Chinese halfway they risk getting squeezed out of this mammoth territory, and with each passing week it’s looking increasingly likely that’s precisely what’s happening.

Two other foreign entries, The Expatriate and The Cold Light of Day, didn’t fare nearly as well as the 3D fish tale, with both of the former films netting around $1 million or less. The next foreign debut in China is also a non-studio film, U.K.-based Working Title’s Anna Karenina, which opens today. It won’t be until the end of the month before another Hollywood studio film, The Bourne Legacy, makes an appearance in China.

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

Did ‘Deadline’ Commit a China ‘Looper’ Blooper?


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 3, 2012

Over the past several days I’ve received an unprecedented volume of calls, emails, texts and tweets, all asking me whether Looper had just become the first film to earn more revenue in its China debut than in its U.S. debut. Apparently the “Deadline Hollywood” blog reported on Saturday evening that Looper had earned “between $23M to 25M grosses” in China over the weekend. The story was quickly picked up by other media outlets, and within 24 hours it was accepted as fact around the world that Looper had smashed all sorts of records in China.

I was immediately doubtful of this report for two reasons: 1) Looper could not be the first film to gross more in its China debut than in the US because Titanic 3D had already achieved that feat back in April; and 2) The $23-25 million opening over 3 days seemed unlikely for reasons I’ll explain below. I checked around with my sources in China and found that almost no one believed the Deadline story to be true. Most felt that Deadline had gotten its currencies confused, and that the real number was around 27 million Chinese yuan, which equates to roughly 4.3 million US dollars. If correct, that figure would put Looper’s China opening far short of its $21 million US debut.

I’m unwilling to go on record as saying that Deadline is wrong, because I won’t know for certain until SARFT publishes the official box office figures. But because it’s a holiday week in which the SARFT report will be delayed for at least several days, and because there is so much international interest in this story, I’m going to weigh in with a few thoughts and some figures of my own, with the disclaimer that much of what follows is speculative and based on what I consider reasonably reliable, but unofficial numbers. I will say that if Deadline had someone on staff who understood the Chinese market, it’s unlikely that they would have rushed to put out their report.

Following are a few reasons why I’m more inclined to believe the $4.3 million weekend figure for Looper than the $25 million one.

  1. Only two films have grossed $25 million or more in their opening weekends in China this year—Titanic 3D and Men in Black 3. Both were heavily pre-sold blockbusters with strong, dedicated followings in China, and both had little competition when they debuted. As good as Looper is, it had none of that going for it.
  2. Many of Looper’s prints didn’t make it to theaters in time. Because SARFT only decided at the 11th hour to grant Looper co-production status, distributors and exhibitors didn’t know until a few days ahead of time that they would be allowed to release the film. Looper’s marketing and distribution were hence severely disadvantaged.
  3. This past weekend was a major travel period for China, the biggest in its history. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were traveling in advance of the National Day holiday week. Lots of people who might have ordinarily gone to the multiplex were busy getting from one place to another, welcoming guests, or making preparations for the holiday.
  4. This past weekend was also probably the most competitive film weekend China has ever seen. In addition to Looper’s opening, four major Chinese movies featuring big stars—among them Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung, Daniel Wu, Fan Bingbing and Zhang Ziyi—opened against it. With only about 12,000 total screens China’s box office capacity is limited, and for Looper to earn $25 million it would have had to thoroughly dominate all the other films. It’s unlikely that’s what happened.
  5. Although Looper’s U.S. producers Sony and Endgame apparently insisted that the film earned $23 – 25 million in China, no one else backed up that figure.

I’ve presented below the figures I’ve received through back channels in China:

That’s the story so far as I see it; if I’ve been wrong about this I’ll eat my words. As soon as the SARFT numbers come through I’ll publish an update.

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

Spider-Man, Dark Knight Power China’s 2nd Best Ever Box Office Week


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

September 4, 2012

Pent-up demand for Hollywood blockbusters powered China’s box office to its second-highest grossing frame ever last week, as The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises attracted nearly equal numbers of moviegoers in their long-awaited China debuts. Both pictures started slowly last Monday but drew better than I had expected throughout the week, finishing up with $35.9 million and $34.8 million respectively, good enough to notch the sixth and seventh best full-week totals of 2012.

Both pictures were handicapped in at least two ways: each had been in release for at least a month in the rest of the world, a lag that usually allows DVD and online piracy to severely impact the Chinese grosses, and the two films were pitted against each other on the same opening date by China Film Group’s release schedulers, forcing most filmgoers to choose one film over the other.  But after being starved of major live action tent-poles for most of the summer (due to a SARFT-imposed blackout of most Hollywood movies), Chinese audiences came out in huge numbers to drive a $76.7 million weekly aggregate, the highest nationwide gross since mid-April, when Titanic 3D earned $74 million and led the PRC’s theaters to a record $83.6 million weekly total.

Their reward for waiting out the blackout is that Spider-Man, Dark Knight and Prometheus will enjoy several weeks without competition from any other new Hollywood releases, and they should perform well into late September, when the National Day holiday will see the rollout of several Chinese language blockbusters.

In reviewing the box office figures of the past several weeks, one thing that is abundantly clear is that even when Chinese films are protected from foreign competition, they’re unable to generate enough interest to keep China’s multiplexes busy. Although there is an occasional Painted Skin or Silent War to draw meaningful crowds, China’s studios are still making far too few commercially attractive films to earn the 50 percent domestic box office share that SARFT expects of them.

Year-to-date China has passed the $1.7 billion mark, and with four months to go it should easily reach $2.5 billion by December. Whether it can overcome the damage done by SARFT’s blackout and reach the magic $3 billion level this year will depend largely upon whether Chinese audiences show up for home-grown hopefuls like director Li Yu’s Fan Bingbing starrer Double Xposure, Feng Xiaogang’s 1942, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and other Chinese language tent-poles.

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: An Excellent 2012 So Far


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 8, 2012

Thanks mainly to stellar attendance for Hollywood-made films, China’s box office racked up growth of 41 percent (as measured in US dollars) for the first half of 2012, with aggregate ticket sales of more than $1.25 billion through the weekend ending July 1. If China’s usual annual pattern of higher second-half ticket sales holds this year, the July-December period will account for around 60 percent of total revenue, and the year-end tally will exceed $3 billion.

China’s revenue growth continues to dwarf that of the U.S. and most other international territories. Even if the PRC’s blistering growth cools to just half of its current pace, it will supplant North America as the world’s largest box office market by 2020.

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Note: India is excluded due to lack of reliable data.

Through the end of June, 2012, 8 films crossed the $40 million box office threshold, as many as reached that level in all of 2011. Only one non-Hollywood picture, the Hong Kong-China co-production Painted Skin: The Resurrection, cracked the top 10 films, at number 7.

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Foreign films took more than two-thirds of all ticket revenue, a first-half record, and for 23 straight weeks from mid-January through late-June, Hollywood films topped the charts. But Chinese films will likely regain share in the second half, with Painted Skin 2 continuing its record-breaking run, and such highly anticipated releases as Feng Xiaogang’s 1942, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and writer-director-producer-star Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac coming to Chinese theaters later this year. Image

Action and adventure remain the top drawing genres, with more than 40 percent of revenues. But romance surpassed science fiction as the second most popular genre, as several love stories, most notably Titanic and Painted Skin 2, drew large numbers of moviegoers to theaters. Animation’s share has dropped from 15 percent in 2011, when Kung Fu Panda 2 set records and some very tough comps, to just 7 percent so far in 2012.

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Two unmistakable trends in 2012 are the emergence of the female moviegoing audience as a major force in China, and the failure of Chinese filmmakers to connect with their own domestic audience. Romances and romantic comedies captured 28 percent of ticket sales in the first half of 2012, up from just 7 percent in 2011. Even if we take the outlier Titanic 3D out of the mix, romance/romantic comedies still more than doubled their market share in 2012. Domestic Chinese films (excluding co-pros), lost nearly half their market share, dropping from 25 percent in 2011 to just 14 percent in the first 6 months of 2012.

The challenge for Chinese filmmakers is simple: make better movies, target them better to the tastes of Chinese audiences, and do a better job of marketing them. China is and will remain the greatest growth opportunity for producers worldwide. Everyone should study the success of Painted Skin: The Resurrection, and the rest of the top-grossing Chinese language films, for lessons about what Chinese audiences want.

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.