2009 Box Office Review - China- Part 3
Last year, only 83 out of 450 domestically produced movies were screened in theaters.
In China, box office gross of ¥100 million plus has become a common benchmark in judging a commercial film's success. Ten films easily passed ¥100 million this year, with Zhang Yimou's comedy thriller “A Simple Noodle Story” taking in ¥200 million during its first week of release. “The Message” and “Bodyguards and Assassin,” demonstrated a rise in cinema quality as well as commercial success, because these films had solid scripts and strong dialogue as evidenced by the critical acclaim.
Hong Kong director Jing Wong's “On His Majesty's Secret Service” also scored above this performance benchmark although it is also probably his least popular film. Demonstrating how much the mainland market favors Hong Kong directors, this year the China Film Group Corp cooperated with Hong Kong directors to make several blockbusters.
Art house releases had a tougher time this year though Zhang Jiarui's “Red River” and Zhang Yuan's “Da Da” were probably the two best received. Wang Quan'an’s “Weaving Girl,” starring Yu Nan was also popular but received little screen time in local cinemas.
Tian Zhuangzhuang's “The Warrior and the Wolf” and He Ping's “Wheat” were both highly anticipated fresh voices for film, though didn’t meet the expectation according to some critics.
2009 brought a large number of small-budget comedies to the cinemas, but none achieved the success that “Crazy Stone” did in 2006.
Zhang Yimou's costume action film “New Year Celebration” was also a commercial success this year.
Critics of China's film industry have expressed concern about the amount of blind investment, neglect of film quality and the quest for cash that potentially could repeat what destroyed Hong Kong's film industry in the late 1990s.
The buoyant Chinese market should continue to grow in 2010 with an expectation of 6,000 screens by year’s end, still a fraction of the some 40,000 screens in the U.S. Given the relaxed quotas for 3D entertainment and the rapid cinema growth here, China is fast becoming the second largest market for Hollywood blockbusters given the performance of this year’s imports.
Chinese film industry regulators are encouraging the country’s biggest production companies including private companies the Huayi Bros. and Polybona and state owned China Film Group and Shanghai Film Group to fund their expansion plans via the stock market. Foreign investors are prohibited from trading in China. Beijing Polybona Film Publishing Co. said it intends to go public in the US in 2011.
A recent World Trade Organization ruling said that Beijing is unfairly restricting foreign companies from working in China given their 20 film foreign import quota. However, one key exception is a Chinese co-production, even for English-language films, if the co-production receives approval of the China Film Co-Production Corp. This should spur studios with an eye on China's huge and growing market to use these co-productions to produce English-language films in China to get the exemption, with a side benefit of producing films at a much cheaper cost if local crews are used.Disney has taken the lead in China on this front and is producing a Chinese-language remake of "High School Musical" as an approved co-production with a Chinese company.
Chinese film companies will seek to expand beyond China's borders, as they begin to get Hollywood representation from the talent agencies. Several agencies are already involved in Chinese Film Funds.
As the Chinese begin to make English-language films to play to a worldwide audience, we may see the acquisition of a major studio, similar to Matsushita's acquisition of Universal or Sony's acquisition of Columbia. Even beyond a strategic acquisition by a film company, an acquisition could be made by a Chinese investment fund as a pure financial play, and such funds are in the works. The cooling global economy has not had much impact on China's cinema industry. On the contrary, the industry has attracted attention from many outsiders, such as real estate and coalmining executives, who would like to invest money in films.
Ellen Pittleman, http://hybridentus.com, is a veteran studio executive based in Los Angeles. Most recently, she served as SVP, International Co-Productions and Worldwide Acquisitions for Paramount Pictures. She also launched the DVD Premiere group there, with films including Jonathan Demme’s “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” and the sequel to the $100MM+ “Save the Last Dance.” Working from a marketing and distribution perspective, she consults on strategic planning, deal negotiation, acquisitions, film library valuation and feature development with clients from Rio to London to Beijing. She’s also currently developing a feature on George Foreman’s comeback years, among other projects.