With China‘s National Day holiday week still in swing, the box office got an extra boost this frame thanks to the timely release of Breakup Buddies, a sort of follow-up to 2012’s smash hit Lost In Thailand. Playing on half the screens in the massive market, the film grossed just under $38M in China this weekend, sending its cume since release on September 30 to about $93M. (It also went out in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand at the weekend.) The original film was arguably responsible for a reversal in China’s fortunes in December 2012, when box office share was lagging behind that of U.S. films. That year ended with Hollywood out front but Lost In Thailand made global headlines and bolstered the unofficial practice of blackout periods when no foreign studio movies are released, allowing high-profile local titles to goose box office in the People’s Republic.
December will see three Middle Kingdom movies expected to do mega-business — one it’s even been suggested could break the all-time record set in July by Transformers: Age Of Extinction. Conversely, all the big-ticket Hollywood films on deck have been stuffed into October. But even with the success of Transformers 4 and its $301M (Paramount’s official number), Chinese movies are slightly ahead in market share for the year.
Official numbers for the first nine months of 2014 have not been released, but figures posted last week by M1905, the website of state-backed movie channel CCTV6, suggest that takings have reached 21.6B RMB ($3.51B), essentially equal to the full 2013 haul of 21.8B RMB. Figures provided to Deadline by research firm Ent Group show that as of September 24, Chinese films had an accumulated box office of 10.99B RMB. At the time, that was 51.84% of the total 21.2B RMB box office, giving imports just under half of the market. Breakup Buddies will have increased the local number this weekend.
Right now, the Top 10 box office is split down the middle, with five from Hollywood and five from China. Behind Transformers is The Monkey King 3D, followed by X-Men: Days Of Future Past; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; local reality TV transfer Dad, Where Are We Going?; comedy The Breakup Guru; Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes; Chinese drama The Continent, The Amazing Spider-Man 2; and Breakup Buddies nudging out The Man From Macau at No. 10.
One exec opines that the powers that be in China “won’t let” any imports that haven’t cooperated with the government to blow past a certain threshold. Transformers 4, which had an official cooperation agreement, and Iron Man 3, which also worked with China, are still the biggest recent Hollywood pictures in the market. That, suggests an exec is “pretty remarkable” and could be seen as “a silent use of force in order to get Hollywood thinking more ‘correctly’ about things; i.e.: utilize the China film industry as a whole and you’ll be rewarded. But if you don’t…” Another Hollywood exec says, “There is a loose awareness generally in the industry that there’s an interest to make a vibrant local business.” But this same person adds, “With the magnitude of growth (in the market), it’s really hard to complain about anything.” In other words, even though studios get a flat 25% share of the revenue on quota-approved films, that’s still a lot of money, especially when spending on P&A is minimal and grosses are often huge.
Now that Breakup Buddies is on its journey, the three major Chinese movies to come are John Woo’s Titanic-esque The Crossing on December 2; Let The Bullets Fly sequel Gone With The Bullets on December 18; and Christmas Eve release The Taking Of Tiger Mountain (see trailers below). In contrast, the last four major studio movies are all due this month. Guardians Of The Galaxy opens on October 10 (after the National Day holiday week has ended); Hercules goes out October 21; The Maze Runner on October 28 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles hits October 31. Those films will each get their official four-week windows before wrapping their runs and there will be no other big Hollywood title released locally through New Year’s Day.
“The government will do everything possible to save face by making sure that domestic films top imports by year’s end,” says a Hollywood source, adding, “It is interesting how much control the government continues to force — just when Hollywood thinks they figured it out, too.” Recently, the release of Nicolas Cage-starrer Outcast was halted hours before its previews. Last year, Django Unchained was pulled on the morning of release by the censors before later making its way back into theaters following some cuts.
However, the same U.S. exec says any limits China could put on the upcoming Hollywood titles make for a slippery slope “as they’ll also want to hit a 30% year-on-year growth rate and possibly top $5B for 2014.” Some projections, largely coming from government sources, say that box office for this year could exceed 30.7B RMB or $5B. I’ve been given another estimate that falls short of that mark with 28B RMB, or $4.56B. That’s still less than half the North American total in 2013, but it’s hardly chump change and would maintain China’s unidsputed position as the No. 2 world box office leader that annually outperforms itself.
Another question has arisen recently — and that’s whether Gone With The Bullets, the Jiang Wen sequel to 2010’s massive hit Let The Bullets Fly ($110M), could ultimately surpass Transformers as the biggest movie ever in China. The big-budget 3D sequel set in 1920s Shanghai stars the director along with Qi Shu and You Ge. At the U.S. China Film & Television Industry Expo that I attended a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, Shanghai Film Association Vice Chairman Wang Tianyun predicted that the film would be the one to beat Transformers. December release dates are lucrative, no doubt, and FilmBizAsia has noted that audiences are less price-sensitive to 3D films in that corridor when 2D releases are scarce. Although Hollywood has bemoaned a practice of pitting studio films head-to-head, high-profile Chinese films have a found success regardless of full-frontal competition. But some folks aren’t quite so optimistic about Bullets. An analyst says, “Despite all the strengths of the highly expected Chinese films in Q4, to surpass Transformer 4’s 1.98 billion (RMB) box office record remains a big challenge.” Still, watchers tell me it is expected to cross $200M, as is Breakup Buddies.
Ahead of Gone With The Bullets comes John Woo’s The Crossing on December 2. The two-part epic is set during the Chinese Civil War. Beijing Galloping Horse is producing the film, which revolves around three couples from different backgrounds whose lives are affected by the sinking of the steamer Taiping, which led to the deaths of over 1,500 passengers and crew. Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro (House Of Flying Daggers), Huang Xiao Ming (The Banquet), Tong Dawei (The Flowers Of War) and Japan’s Masami Nagasawa star. Veteran director Woo and the cast came to Cannes in May to promote the movie with the helmer noting he had been moved to tears each day on set by the actors’ performances in his passion project. Judging by the SRO crowd of Chinese media at that Cannes press conference, and the hype that’s already surrounded this movie locally, it’s tipped to do huge business. No U.S. release is as yet fixed.
On Christmas Eve comes Tsui Hark’s 3D The Taking of Tiger Mountain, based on Qu Bo’s 1950s novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest. It’s a battle of wits between a Communist soldier and a gang of bandits hiding in northern China. The book was previously made into an opera which reportedly inspired the director to seek out ther rights. The film follows Tsui’s smash 2013 pic Young Detective Dee: Rise Of The Sea Dragon.
Check out trailers for The Crossing and Gone With The Bullets, along with a teaser for The Taking Of Tiger Mountain: