“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.

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Jackie Chan leads China to Torrid Start in 2013


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By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 8, 2013

Jackie Chan’s action comedy CZ12 took in $37.6 million last week in leading China to another record-smashing session of $86 million in total weekly box office, a 139 percent increase over the same frame in 2012.

China’s multiplexes have been overflowing with business of late. After a record-breaking December 2012 that saw box office takings increase by 74 percent over December 2011, January looks set to continue the sizzling pace.

Current box office champs CZ12 and Lost in Thailand have positively walloped last year’s January frontrunners, The Flowers of War and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The latter two films were 25 days into their runs by January 8th, 2012, with Flowers at an $88.5 million cume and Flying Swords at $79.4 million. This year, by comparison, as of January 6th Lost in Thailand had finished its 26th day with a $182 million cume and CZ12 its 18th day of release at $113 million. The two current films have earned 76 percent more revenue in 6 fewer screening days than last year’s leaders.Box office week ending 1-6-13

CZ12 is now the 2nd highest grossing Chinese language film and the 4th highest grossing of any film, domestic or foreign, in mainland history.  Lost in Thailand is poised to surpass Avatar‘s all-time box office record of $209 million by the end of this week or early next.

With the long-awaited Wong Kar-Wai action-biopic The Grandmasters opening today and Skyfall marking the return of Hollywood fare to the PRC on the 21st, January will likely be another record month.Box office growth 2013 v 2012

This extraordinary year-on-year growth signals an inflection point in China’s movie market evolution. The rapid addition of new cinema screens has certainly contributed to the mainland’s blistering run, but that’s only part of the story. More importantly, what has changed is that moviegoers have been coming out for Chinese movies with unprecedented frequency. They have shown that a quality local film can draw just as well or better than a Hollywood blockbuster. If China’s filmmakers can continue to make movies that Chinese audiences want to see, China’s trend of annual box office increases of 30 to 40 percent should continue through the rest of this decade.

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.

Gangnam Interregnum; plus Newly Announced China Release Dates


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by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

October 25, 2012

As I was writing the 3rd and final installment of my “Korea Conundrum” series, which explores the cultural and institutional impediments that prevent China from achieving global soft power influence, I came across a couple of music videos out of the PRC that explain the problem far better than I can.

While South Korean K-Pop star Psy of “Gangnam Style” fame was enjoying his brief reign as king of the pop culture meme, China was doing its part to say “Hey, we get it, we’re cool too” by producing Gangnam parody videos. Here’s a seemingly popular one that appeared on both Youtube and also on Tudou, China’s Youtube equivalent:

Click on image above to start playing video

Of all the bad Gangnam Style parodies you’ll find on the web, this is undoubtedly one of the worst. Where the original Psy video has irony, wit, and biting satire, “China Style” is utterly vacuous. Take a look at the opening lyrics:

Reprinted from Beijing Cream.com

The creators of this video take a song that satirizes the excesses and emptiness of consumer culture and turn it into… what? An anthem celebrating international broadcast companies? As Beijing Cream noted:

Not only are the creators ignorant about the original song’s meaning, they insult us by trying to explain Gangnam Style’s popularity. Where they lack in originality, they also lack in self-awareness. These are the type who, at a party, stand stone-faced through your jokes and then say, “So what you’re saying is…”

The only thing China Style has on Gangnam Style is more T&A. A lot more. Shockingly so, given China’s censorship strictures. There’s even some weird nipple tweaking at the 2:42 mark.

At least the video did get over 500 ‘likes’ on Youtube. But then, it also got almost 3,300 ‘dislikes,’ six times as many.

Surely there must be someone in China who gets it. Someone cool, detached, a keen observer of Chinese culture who has something meaningful to say. Someone like Ai Weiwei, China’s most famous artist and symbol of dissent…

…Whoops.

Alas, here’s Ai Weiwei’s contribution to the cultural conversation:

Click on image above to start video.

This is just so wrong, on so many levels. Say it ain’t so, Ai…

Guess I’ll be writing that 3rd installment after all, if for no other reason than to send China a few pointers.

In other news, release dates have now been set for the import films that will grace China’s movie screens in November. Here’s an excerpt from a missive I received this morning from my friend ‘Firedeep’

Feng Xiaogang’s Back to 1942 earlier today got approved by the Film Bureau. Huayi Bros set the release date as Nov. 29. And the final runtime is about 100 mins (obviously got cut down at SARFT’s request) including end credits.
Nov. 22 seems to be the right date for Life of Pi. It will be released in IMAX 3D and 3D.
2012 3D just settled Nov. 21. Just in 3D. No IMAX. As always, its theatrical time is about one month: 11/21~12/21. Coincidentally, its close date is the “world’s end” date …
Wong Kar-wai’s Grandmasters should still make its December release (though re-editing is undergoing).
November releases are pretty much all settled. While December’s mostly local titles , remain not very clear.

That’s the report for now. Back to Youtube– I mean research, for me.

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

Memo to China: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Start Making Watchable Movies


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 8, 2012

MEMORANDUM

To: Those calling the shots in China’s film industry

From: A concerned foreigner

Re: Unsolicited but well-meaning advice

===============================================================

Dear Chinese Film Honcho:

I’ve just read a report from an official-sounding Beijing organization called the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture, which tries to explain why “many good Chinese film productions have not yet reached the mainstream audiences overseas.”

Excuse me, but do they know something I don’t? What good Chinese movies? Your movies don’t reach mainstream audiences overseas because they’re generally unwatchable. Even your own people, who have extremely limited movie-going choices thanks to your restrictive quota system, are staying away from these mediocre pictures.

It’s not that Chinese filmmakers can’t make good movies. People like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Wu Tianming, Liu Jiayin, Lou Ye, Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Justin Lin, and others have shown the world that they know how to make artistic and crowd-pleasing films. In perhaps the ultimate compliment, Hollywood gave a Best Foreign Language Oscar to your Taiwanese brother Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a while back. More recently the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie (The Departed) that was adapted from a film (Infernal Affairs) written and directed by three of your own Hong Kong brothers, Alan Mak, Felix Chong and Andrew Lau.

No, Chinese filmmakers and storytellers aren’t the problem, it’s the rules and threats you shackle them with. And your often atrocious behavior. You just can’t seem to play nice with others.

So, herewith, some unsolicited advice on how you can do better. Follow these rules and before you know it you’ll be making films that people may actually want to see.

  1. Cut the Hypocrisy – What’s with all the censorship when you let your people watch anything and everything they want on the internet and pirated DVDs? How come I can buy a copy of Saw 4 or The Human Centipede on any street corner in Shanghai but I can’t depict a character in my movie carrying a gun or smoking a joint? Do you really think your people are so sheltered and chaste that their minds are in danger of being polluted by a two-hour movie theater experience?
  2. Stop Treating Everyone Like Children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children from inappropriate content, but do you really need to apply rules that are appropriate for 4 year-olds to prevent everyone over the age of 17 from seeing images of sex, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ activities? We all know you’re having sex; there are 1.4 billion of you for heaven’s sake! Stop pretending it doesn’t exist. An intelligent film rating system would be a big improvement.
  3. Feed the Writers and Artists – You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China. Please stop locking them up. Try investing in them instead. Let one hundred flowers bloom, and don’t cut them down when they do. Good movies need good stories and creative thinking. Here in Hollywood we have a thing called ‘development.’ It means investing in a writer and his or her story before you start making the movie.
  4. Take Risks – Stop asking us to guarantee you a 30 percent secured return on movie investments when you know we need risk capital. Don’t plead ignorance of capitalism—you guys are the best capitalists the world has ever seen. And show some imagination. Aren’t you tired already of backing Ming dynasty kung fu retreads or anti-Japanese WWII propaganda films or the 215th remake of The Monkey King?
  5. Learn Some Manners – Let’s face it, you know you need Hollywood. We’ve already figured out how to make movies the world wants to see. So show us a little respect. You keep coming over here saying you want to do business with us, making promises, signing contracts, then disappearing off to Vegas and Disneyland never to be heard from again. Or you seduce us into coming over to you with promises of investment when all you really want to do is milk us for information and ideas or ask us to work for you for free. We’ve got enough bullshitters over here, thank you. If you believe in guanxi then start acting like it!
  6. If You Have Money, Stop Talking About It and Start Investing It. If You Don’t, Then Please Go Away! – Okay, we get that you’ve figured out how to publish press releases about your supposed new billion dollar fund and your Goldman Sachs advisors. We get that it’s fun for you to see your name in bogus stories in Deadline. Enough talk. If you really want to participate in the global film market, then put your money where your mouth is.

You think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Fine. Why don’t you ask Feng Xiaogang, your most commercially successful filmmaker? I know he’ll agree.

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: ‘East’ Beats West


By Robert Cain

November 29, 2011

Hong Kong writer-director Jeffrey Lau’s comedy East Meets West led the Chinese box office last week with an $8.1 million gross, marking the third straight week that Chinese language films have taken the top spot in China. East edged out homegrown phenomenon Love is Not Blind, which took in $7.2 million to up its 20 day cumulative gross to $50.4 million.

All told, the top 10 films took in $34 million, a 26 percent improvement over the same frame last year. Aside from East, new releases failed to generate much interest, with Tropa de Elite 2 (the first Brazilian release in China this year) managing just $1.55 million in ticket sales, and the China/Hong Kong horror co-pro Night Mare failing just short of $1 million. Aside from the moderate summer success of Mysterious Island with its $13.6 million tally, the horror genre still has yet to prove itself with modern Chinese audiences.

East Meets West marks something of a return to form for Lau, whose collaborations with Wong Kar-wai (Chinese Odyssey 2002) and Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle) early this decade were critical and commercial successes. After a few missteps with recent films like Metallic Attraction: Kung-Fu Cyborg, Lau showed with East Meets West that he still has some chops. As one reviewer put it, “The film is relentlessly energetic and brimming with enthusiasm.”

U.S.-made films continued to generate solid, if not blockbuster, business, with The Adventures of Tintin crossing the $15 million threshold, the 32nd film to reach this level in 2011. Rise of the Planet of the Apes wound up its run just shy of $31 million, making it the 13th highest grossing film in China so far this year. With no major Hollywood releases slated at the Chinese box office this week, it’s a near certainty that Chinese language films will rule the box office for the fourth week in a row.

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.