China’s Box Office: A (Brand) New China


By Albert Wang for China Film Biz

March 26, 2012

Last week saw a film that has made news headlines of late (but for all the wrong reasons) take the number one spot at the box office in mainland China.  John Carter, which Disney announced will result in a massive $200 million loss for the company, succeeded in usurping Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse at the top of the Chinese box office, taking in a solid $14 million over its first three days of screenings.  John Carter easily outdistanced the Hong Kong/China co-production A Simple Life, which earned $3.5 million to hold on to the second spot for the second week in a row.

Debuting at number three was the Hong Kong action/thriller Nightfall, starring Nick Cheung, which earned $3.1 million in its first four days.  War Horse dropped three spots to number four, earning $2.6 million for the week, while Jason Statham’s action film Blitz (2011) debuted modestly to capture fifth place with $1.5 million over four days.

For the first time in six weeks, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island landed outside the top 5, collecting $1.4 million to raise its China cume to an impressive $58 million, or nearly 20 percent of the film’s worldwide revenue.

Although John Carter was a drastic under-performer for Disney in the key North American market, the film opened extremely well in China. Carter’s $14 million debut ranked third amongst all opening weekends in the PRC this year behind Mission Impossible’s $15.7 million 2-day haul in late January, and Journey 2’s $15.2 million over three days in early February. More and more often China is becoming Hollywood’s biggest international territory, which goes to show just how strong the “Made in Hollywood” brand is there.

In his book As China Goes, So Goes the World: How Chinese Consumers are Transforming Everything, author Karl Gerth describes the rapidly evolving Chinese consumer culture. Gerth contrasts David Ogilvy’s visit to China in the early 1980s with the PRC’s consumer market of today. Thirty years ago, Ogilvy encountered a country with a near-total absence of advertising, and what advertisements there were contained little more than technical information, with no evocative images of the products to pique the interest of potential consumers.

Fast forward to today, and advertising in China is a giant industry, with over eighty thousand ad companies employing over a million people, making the Chinese advertising sector a larger employer than its counterpart in the United States.  And along with this growth has come a complete transformation of Chinese consumer culture.  To highlight this point, Karl Gerth quotes a thirty-something professional woman in Beijing: “Brand names are social status and quality of life. When I was in the United States, I didn’t pay much attention to brand names.  Here it’s a culture. Look at me now; I’m equipped with nothing but brand names, such as Gucci, Fendi, Armani, Versace, and the like.”

However, unlike in the United States, where ultimately it is left to the individual company to create its brand identity, in China, the central government views the development of strong national brands as an issue of national economic security, and thus takes a hands-on approach to the ongoing development of Chinese consumerism.

Gerth mentions that Chinese officials are hoping to emulate Japan’s success in rebranding its national products.  Today, the “Made in Japan” is a signifier of quality and excellence in consumer goods, but this was not always the case.  Forty years ago, a consumer product labeled “Made in Japan” would have been viewed as inferior to its American counterpart.

China’s current situation with its national brand identity is quite similar in certain ways to Japan’s forty years ago, but it remains to be seen whether China can successfully rebrand itself.  There are a few internationally recognized Chinese brands that signify quality, Lenovo being one of them. But one need only look back over the past few years to be reminded of big scandals involving Chinese goods that have done more to sully the “Made in China” brand than any successful Chinese brands have been able to help elevate the global reputation of Chinese products.

And so perhaps it might be helpful for those of us in the international film scene to look at what is going on with China’s film industry and theatrical market within the broader context of what is going on with Chinese consumer goods and culture in general. After all, for Chinese consumers, the preference for things made in the West extends far beyond movies, and the Chinese government’s film quota system and film co-production rules can be viewed as being very much in line with the tariffs and regulations that Beijing places on imported goods in other industries as well.  Many Chinese consumers meanwhile are caught between their general desire to support Chinese businesses and their genuine fondness for American and other Western consumer goods, and it will be interesting to see if and when the brand “Made in China” will start appealing to mainland Chinese consumers just as much as “Made in America” does today.

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: 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.