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Archive for July 18th, 2011

The Golden Rock - July 18, 2011 Edition

- It happens every quarter - Chinese box office rises to new heights, making big money, blah blah blah. However, an Mtime article looks deeper into the numbers and looks at certain problems that still exist in the Chinese film industry.

Here are the statistics: In the first six months of 2011, 103 films were released in China - 74 Chinese films (14 of them co-productions) and 29 imports (*gasp* I thought they allow only 20 all year! No, 3D films are exempt). 18 of those films passed the RMB 100 million mark (the psychological barrier of success in Chinese box office). Total box office was RMB 5.698 billion, with the 74 Chinese films grossing a total of RMB 2.932 billion for an average of RMB 39.62 million per film.

The 29 imported films, meanwhile, grossed a total RMB 2.766 billion for an average of RMB 95.37 million per film. While no Chinese films broke any box office records this year (no, not even BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL), KUNG FU PANDA 2 shattered the highest-grossing animated film record with RMB 600 million at the box office.

However, there were still a few surprises on the Chinese side, as BUDDHA MOUNTAIN managed to gross RMB 70 million - not bad for a small-scale drama. MY OWN SWORDSMAN, based on the successful 100-episode sitcom, grossed more than RMB 189.6 million during Lunar New Year, and TV-based romance ETERNAL MOMENT made RMB 196.3 million on a budget of only RMB 30 million. Even DON’T GO BREAKING MY HEART, Johnnie To’s first foray into the Mainland film market, surprised many with RMB 96.2 million at the box office.

On the other hand, big-budget period films seem to be hitting fatigue. LOST BLADESMAN opened RMB 102 million, but topped out at just RMB 159.7 million. WARRING STATES cost a reported RMB 150 million, but made only RMB 77 million. WIlson Yip’s A CHINESE GHOST STORY opened with RMB 73 million, but stopped at RMB 140 million. Even SHAOLIN, which is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of the year at RMB 216 million, can be considered a disappointment because it cost a reported RMB 200 million to make.

Here’s the big lesson that China can learn here:

Audiences want new topics/new genres, and they don’t always cost money:

Traditionally successful genres like the period epic is beginning to lose its appeal. 4 years ago, when THE WARLORDS made RMB 200 million, it was impressive because there were no AFTERSHOCK’s and LET THE BULLET FLY’s. BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS stood apart because the story structure and production values mirrored Hollywood’s.

Now, people aren’t impressed by Donnie Yen action and big battle scenes anymore. If they want special effects spectacle, they can turn to Hollywood. When it comes to local films, they want spectacle, but with a human side. They want smarter films that really use their stars to their full extent. They want stories that they can relate to. MY OWN SWORDSMAN not only had its TV audience, it was also full of modern, local humor. ETERNAL MOMENT brought in adult audiences who watched the drama when they were young. BUDDHA MOUNTAIN was a prestige arthouse flick with issues and characters they recognize. GO LALA GO brought in audiences who read the book and related to the office politics issues (though the film didn’t deliver) And all of these films didn’t even cost as much as SHAOLIN combined.

Be careful, bank slowly:

When GO LALA GO and SOPHIE’S REVENGE were successful, investors started piling up on urban romance films. WHAT WOMEN WANT, COLOR ME LOVE, YOU DESERVE TO BE SINGLE, LOVE IN COSMO all appeared and flopped. There are so many production companies these days that when one trend begins to get popular, all these new companies jump in to make their own copycat, and then the genre quickly fizzles. TO LOVE OR NOT is already lining up to flop.

Remember, Hollywood films make money because they’re big, but Chinese films can make money if they’re good:

LET THE BULLETS FLY sold Jiang Wen, fast-talking punch lines, and a smart, twisty story. Audiences like to feel smart, which means Chinese filmmakers can’t assume that a low-brow comedy like CHASE OUR LOVE is going to bring the audience just because there’s stars. As much as I didn’t like AFTERSHOCK, I can see how people can be touched by the melodrama. Even AVATAR didn’t just bring people in because of the spectacle (those are for front-loaded films). People were involved in the story and the thematic issues it raised. I wouldn’t be surprised if those netizen talk about the parallel of the human’s actions in AVATAR and the forced removal of residents in redeveloping areas actually helped drove the film’s box office.

And God help you if your movie sucks:

The producers of LOST BLADESMAN and WARRING STATES believed that their movies were so good that they were convinced their low Douban scores (5.1 and 4.1, respectively) must’ve been the work of saboteurs. So they offered a reward for netizens who find the culprits that intentionally dragged the scores down. Problem is that people really did think their movies sucked, and the front-loaded box office performances reflected that. The companies were dragged through the mud by netizens who joked about turning themselves in for the reward, and now they’re the butt of jokes within the film industry.

Douban and Mtime are a few of the rare places in China where people’s opinions are actually reflected. You can see it in the star breakdowns and the average score (they don’t always add up, so look at both). Yes, there’s always ringers sent by film companies (they’re easy to find - they write a long review for a particular movie, but hasn’t actually rated much films before), but it still reflects the people’s opinions. This isn’t some niche film geek internet film community we’re talking about here, either, and crossing them will not do your movie any good.

Don’t gamble. Remember how much you really need to make money on a movie

As I wrote in the last post, investors have to be careful when they think about how much money they really have to make at the box office to break even. REST ON YOUR SHOULDERS cost RMB 70 million to make, but with advertising, prints, and giving cinema owners taking away revenue, the production company said they’d need to make RMB 200 million just to break even. It applies to Hollywood, and it certainly applies to China.

Oversea sale prices are based on how much money the foreign distributor can make on a film they buy, and let’s face it, Chinese films do not make bank overseas unless your name is John Woo, or you have a leading man named Donnie Yen or Jackie Chan (double the chances if you have both, but your movie will cost twice as much!).

The problem is that right now, investors are gambling on how much they predict overall box office will be when the film is released without looking far ahead enough on box ofice trends. When SHAOLIN went into production, the trend at the time probably suggested they will rise the wave of rising box office and do BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS numbers. That didn’t happen.Does that mean the period epic genre is completely dead in the water now? Not exactly:

Tentpoles. Make them events.

People got tired of martial arts epics because there’s a big one every other month. People are getting tired of comic book movies in America because there’s one every big release slot (in 3D, no less). The less you make, the more special they are. Then again, the big production companies are not going to sit together and hammer out release plans together, because then, what fun would a free market be?

Of course, then there’s the issue of ticket prices, who really goes to the movies (hint: not many people, but they go to movies a lot), and what China can do to break the international market, but that’s another story for another time.

And now, more news:

- Speaking of box office, TRANSFORMERS 3 will be opening in China in 4 days, and presales for midnight showings are reportedly packed already. Ironically, insiders are predicting the film may have a chance at hitting RMB 800 million at the box office. Haw, haw.

- The 2011 Summer Edition of the Youku Film and Television Awards were held this past weekend, and Gu Changwei’s LOVE FOR LIFE picked up six awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Film. The Youku index is apparently based on view counts and search queries in Youku to determine which films are the most popular.

Honestly, the awards don’t mean much to me. The news here is Gu Changwei, who said that he would like to restore the missing 50 minutes of his first cut and release a director’s cut in the future. He said that they will have to be properly mixed and that he would likely change the Chinese title back to his original title if he ever gets it done. He’s not promising anything yet, but I, for one, would watch that cut.

- Chinese film media are buzzing about Wong Kar Wai showing up at the hip Sanlitun District in Beijing recently. Reporters followed him into a cinema, and Wong went into a closely guarded auditorium. The media talked to audiences, who revealed that they saw a one-minute teaser for THE GRANDMASTER, starring Tony Leung.

The reporter called Sil-Metropole, who confirmed that the teaser for GRANDMASTER will be attached to TRANSFORMERS prints in China this coming week, and that WKW went to the cinema himself to see how the teaser plays on the big screen. It still won’t get me to go watch TRANSFORMERS again, though.

Does that mean THE GRANDMASTER is done? None of the reports say, though they speculate that it’s possible since WKW looked “relaxed”. I wouldn’t assume that it is, though. It’s just a teaser.

- Last, but not least, Emperor Films CEO Albert Lee announced on his weibo that action director/actor Ailen Sit passed away today. Sit has worked on films with Stanley Tong, Jackie Chan, and Jingle Ma on films like TOKYO RAIDERS, CHINA STRIKE FORCE, and SUPERCOP. His final film is LET THE BULLETS FLY. As Boss Kozo tweeted earlier, you can find his HKMDB page here.


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