Why is China So ‘Furious’?


Paul Walker

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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 22, 2015

In the weeks leading up to its April 12th opening day in China, the consensus among box office watchers was that Furious 7 would wind up with a final gross of around $125 million for its PRC run, and that its distributors would be ecstatic about that.

After all, only four Hollywood releases—Transformers 3, Transformers 4, Avatar and the 2012 Titanic re-release—have ever reached that rarefied level in China. The previous Fast & Furious installment had topped out at $68 million in Chinese receipts in 2013, a strong but not spectacular showing.

But from its earliest midnight screenings it was clear that Furious 7 wasn’t going to stick to the driver’s manual. Now, 11 days into its scorching China run, Furious 7 has amassed an incredible total of $280 million in China, and will likely finish up at about $375 million. With a May Day holiday boost and a bit of luck it could even approach $400 million. China is absolutely mad for Furious.

What was unthinkable just a few weeks ago is now a certainty: Furious 7 will not only beat the previous PRC record holder, Transformers 4, by a wide margin, but is also certain to top its own North American total. While it’s not unprecedented for films that do moderately well in North America to perform better in China than in their home territory (e.g., Pacific Rim), never before has a bona fide American smash hit exceeded its own domestic gross in a foreign territory. This is truly uncharted territory.

First 11 days comp F7Source: Pacific Bridge Pictures research

What happened? Let’s break it down.

Furious 7’s success in the Middle Kingdom can be explained partly by the same factors that made it a winner everywhere: quality marketing, high ‘want-to-see’ factor, and strong word of mouth. But several factors worked especially well in China to drive the film to its world-beating grosses:

  1. Advantageous release date. What first appeared to be a so-so Sunday release slot proved not to be a problem, mainly because Furious faced no Hollywood competition in its opening week, and it has flattened the Chinese films unfortunate enough to stand in its way. Even Chinese megastar Fan BingBing proved no match for Diesel, Walker and company, as her romance Ever Since We Love scored only $11 million this past weekend against nearly $90 million for F7.
  2. Massive release pattern. With an allocation of more than 70 percent of China’s screens, and more than 90,000 showtimes per day, this undoubtedly ranks as one of the widest releases ever seen. It’s only on the film’s third weekend that Furious will control less than half of all PRC screens as DWA’s Home and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage arrive in mainland theaters.
  3. First-class promotion. With the two-year gap since Fast and Furious 6, Universal had plenty of lead time to work with SARFT and China Film Group–an investor in the film–to arrange a smooth release and mount a stellar marketing campaign. With CFG’s clout behind it and with its new China executive team in Beijing, the studio was able to support Furious 7 with more on-the-ground resources than with any past release.
  4. Strong word of mouth. Furious notched a very high 8.5 rating on audience review site Douban.com as word spread like wildfire that Furious 7 is FUN.
  5. The Paul Walker factor. Curiosity to see the final ride into the sunset of the well-liked actor who was in many ways the heart of this franchise drew numerous Fast and Furious newbies to Chinese multiplexes. Granted, this was an important factor in most of the world, but probably more so in China, where social media can instantly make or break a movie. According to a charming Chinese banker friend of mine, Paul Walker was THE trending topic of conversation on WeChat as the film rolled out.
  6. The right movie at the right time. Furious 7 is precisely the sort of big budget, effects-driven, Hollywood action spectacular that Chinese audiences love best. Sure, superhero movies are nice, but as the Transformers franchise has amply demonstrated, what the PRC really wants is machine porn: movies featuring monster machines that race and fly and do gravity defying stunts to save the world. It had been nearly a year since the last such film in this genre, Transformers 4, had graced China’s screens, so there was lots of pent-up demand for a film like F7 when it arrived.

There’s talk around the industry that Universal hasn’t yet decided whether to produce another installment of what is now the 8th highest grossing movie franchise in Hollywood history. That the ensemble of actors may not wish to come back for another film. To this I say, “If you believe that, there’s a Wall in China that I’d like to sell you.”

With all respect to the individuals involved, there is absolutely no way that Universal is going to put this golden goose down.

There are so many options Universal has now that Furious 7 has established its status as a juggernaut franchise in mainland China. They can produce the next installment of Fast and Furious as a co-production there and be reasonably assured of recouping their entire budget in the PRC alone, with the rest of the world, including North America, as gravy. If the cast doesn’t want to come back, re-boot it with a brand new cast. Or do a China spin-off with an all-Chinese cast. Do it with talking cars if necessary, for goodness’ sake! Or call me, I’ve got a script outline and treatment ready to go. But don’t think for a second about trying to stop this mean, green, driving machine.

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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Warner Bros’ Stellar Year in China


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

November 21, 2013

Having already clinched bragging rights as the top-grossing Hollywood studio in China this year, Warner Bros further cemented its lead with the excellent rollout of Gravity on Tuesday.  With nearly $10 million in ticket sales in its first two days of PRC release, and what I’m estimating will be at least a $70 million final tally, Gravity should push Warners’ 2013 total in China to around $325 million.

This will mark the first time I can remember when Warners will have won the China box office crown. It will also reflect an impressive 80 percent revenue boost over Warners’ respectable, albeit distant second-place finish to Fox in 2012. With such box office hits as Pacific Rim, Man of Steel, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now Gravity, Warners will average about $54 million in ticket sales per picture.

Second place in the studio derby this year will go to Disney, whose Marvel superhero offerings Iron Man 3 and Thor 2 will account for around $175 million of that studio’s $250 million annual take.

Sony and Fox will finish third and fourth, respectively, with Fox falling off precipitously from its record-holding $376 million China gross in 2012. Sony had only one strong release with Skyfall back in January, but it was able to get more films into China than any other studio and in aggregate managed to cobble together more than $200 million in gross revenue. Although Fox got solid results in 2013 from The Croods (a Dreamworks animated picture) and Wolverine, it couldn’t match the huge numbers of last year’s Titanic 3D, Life of Pi and Ice Age 3 and wound up with less than half of last year’s gross with around $176 million.

Universal and Paramount, the two studios with the least active presence in China, received the fewest import quota slots and grossed the least among the majors, with about $159 million and $129 million respectively.

At last week’s box office, U.S. films captured the top three slots, although two of these were buyout films. Thor: The Dark World and Escape Plan won the top two spots for their second week in a row with $24.9 million and $13.3 million, respectively. New entry Red 2 picked up $5.9 million in its first three days, enough to handily beat the $4.9 million that Red collected during its entire run in 2011. Total nationwide box office was $54 million for the week, a 57 percent increase over the same period last year.

Box Office week ending 11-17-13

U.S. films will see another week or two of relative prosperity before the year-end Chinese tent-poles move in and grab all the spoils in December and January. Look for big results from The White Storm, which releases on November 29th, followed by big December debuts from No Man’s Land, The Four 2, Firestorm, Personal Tailor and Police Story. By year’s end, Hollywood movies will land only 2 of the top 10 spots at China’s box office in 2013, down from 7 last year and 6 in 2011.

In aggregate, U.S. distributors will manage only a meager 5 to 6 percent increase in their China sales this year, a mere fraction of the 60 percent gain that Chinese language films have enjoyed. Hollywood has let yet another year go by doing little more than lobbing movies into China from across the Pacific, and it has paid the price with a precipitous drop in market share.

Meanwhile, aggressive non-Chinese players like Australia’s Village Roadshow and Korea’s CJ Entertainment have stepped into the breach with highly successful Mandarin language co-productions. And local Chinese players are rapidly growing in competitive strength, as exemplified by Huayi Brothers’ massive increase in its stock market capitalization to $5.2 billion from only $1 billion a year ago. Many of these companies have established beachheads in the U.S., and it won’t be long before their growing financial strength in China will enable them to compete effectively with the stodgy U.S. studios and further erode their diminishing dominance of the global film 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.

Keanu’s Big Swing and a Miss in China


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Man of Tai Chi

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

July 8, 2013

Nearly a decade in development and more than two years in production, Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, was supposed to accomplish several ambitious goals:

  1. Enable Reeves to make the leap from actor to respected film director.
  2. Propel Reeves’ friend and Matrix kung fu mentor Tiger Chen to his own breakout as an action star.
  3. Establish a China beachhead for Reeves and enable him to make more movies there.
  4. Earn lots of money for the film’s investors, who include China Film Group, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, and Universal Pictures.

But the tepid audience response to Man of Tai Chi’s opening in China last weekend spells disappointment for everyone involved.  Although Reeves may still have a directing career ahead, his first film now appears more hindrance than help in advancing him toward that goal. I haven’t yet seen the movie so I can’t comment on Reeves’ directing capabilities, but the trailer has an odd direct-to-video feel to it and, according to Weibo chatter, lacks appeal for many in its targeted demographic.

At a reported $25 million budget, the picture will need to do a much better job drawing audiences in the U.S. and other territories if it is to turn a profit.  Wanda is said to have put up a substantial percentage of the negative cost in exchange for Chinese distribution rights, and turned over some 60 percent of its 1000+ screens to the picture. In hindsight that looks to have been a costly decision; given its $2.87 million nationwide total for the 3-day weekend, Man of Tai Chi will likely finish with less than $10 million in theatrical gross receipts over its entire China run. Wanda would have been better off allocating more of its screens to local hits Blind Detective and Tiny Times, or to the popular Warner Bros release Man of Steel.

Wanda and its partners in Man of Tai Chi  made a bet that audiences would turn out for Reeves because of his Chinese heritage and his track record as an action star with a genuine martial arts pedigree. My feeling is that the core moviegoing audience may simply be too young to know who Reeves is, and so he didn’t draw as well as had been hoped.

The U.S. market probably won’t offer much support, as the film still doesn’t have a scheduled release date there. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Weinstein Company’s Radius division picked up U.S. rights at Cannes with intentions for a fourth quarter U.S. release, but has not yet announced any firm plans. Universal’s decision not to handle the film despite having invested in it suggests they lack confidence in its North American prospects.

In Reeves’ and his backers’ defense, their task was not an easy one; few recent action or martial arts films have been successful both in China and abroad. Here’s hoping  Man of Tai Chi finds better luck in the global 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.