Screen queen

China’s box office could soon surpass US. That’s a boon for Fan Bingbing


Fan Bingbing at the Cannes Film Festival

Fan Bingbing knows how to make an entrance. For the opening ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, the Chinese actress chose an imperial yellow silk gown embroidered with dragons and ocean waves. The next year, she turned heads again with another traditional Chinese gown, red but embroidered with white cranes.

Fan’s Cannes appearances have helped to take her career into the style stratosphere. She is now an ambassador for L’Oreal (not surprising given her porcelain skin) and has also signed with luxury brands Chopard and Louis Vuitton.

“Fan represents products that a Chinese consumer would want to buy because she wears them, but also she represents a girl’s individuality and ability to stand out,” says Brian Buchwald, chief executive of Bomoda, a website focused on Chinese luxury consumers.

Born in Qingdao, Fan, 31, first rose to stardom in 1999 for her role in the first two seasons of the popular TV series Princess Pearl. Since then, she has focused more of her efforts on film, appearing in Feng Xiaogang’s Cell Phone (2004) and other features like Lost in Beijing (2007) and Chongqing Blues (2010). She was recently named number one on Forbes China’s Celebrity 100.

But Fan’s ambitions are more global. After signing with Hollywood talent agency WME last year, she has just been cast in next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past (where she will play a teleporting mutant, Blink). That follows a small role in Marvel’s Iron Man 3.

Fan’s rise has coincided with China’s own leap up the global box office rankings. In 2008, ticket sales in Chinese cinemas were only Rmb4.8 billion ($781 million). But that number jumped to more than Rmb16.8 billion by 2012, says the Chongqing Economic Times, surpassing Japan and positioning China as the world’s second largest box office. The cinema world has become a proxy for China’s commercial oomph. Last year Chinese property developer Dalian Wanda also grabbed headlines when it bought AMC Entertainment, the second-largest American cinema chain for $2.6 billion to become the world’s biggest cinema owner.

Industry experts say it won’t be long before China’s box office surpasses the US too. Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, told the Chinese media: “As the second-largest film market in the world, China’s box office will reach Rmb22 billion this year, and it will overtake the US to become the number one in the world within five year’s time.”

The Hollywood bosses are taking heed, forming partnerships with domestic studios to add more of a Chinese flavour to their movie fare. For instance, Marvel partnered with Beijing-based DMG to produce Iron Man 3. DMG helped Marvel to get clearance to release the film in China and also assisted in incorporating Chinese elements – like casting Fan – in the film to appeal to local cinemagoers (see WiC147 and WiC192).

Other Hollywood studios have followed suit. Paramount has chosen to set the next Transformers film in China and partnered with state-owned China Movie Channel and Jiaflix to co-produce it. It has even launched a reality TV show to pick Chinese extras for the anticipated blockbuster (see WiC188). Last month media reported actress Li Bingbing will also join the Transformers 4 cast.

However, as Hollywood studios have also been discovering, the Chinese market comes with pitfalls too. While the leading studios get to keep around half of box office receipts in the US, they only retain about 25% in China. The Chinese government also imposes blackout periods for imports in key holiday periods to boost domestic producers. Last year it even scheduled the release of three Hollywood films – The Amazing Spider Man, The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus – in the space of a few days. Some say it was a conspiracy to reduce their total takings (see WiC161).

And then there’s the issue of censorship. Django Unchained, the Quentin Tarantino film about a slave out for revenge, was abruptly pulled from cinemas after China Film Group issued a notice instructing operators to stop showing it, citing “technical” problems. No one was able to explain the move, beyond speculation that the film regulators had overlooked a brief bit of nudity in the film (see WiC189) and suddenly had to backtrack. It reappeared on screens in early May, by which time audience enthusiasm had already waned. Django grossed only $2.8 million in China (it took $424 million worldwide).

Another problem for Hollywood is a competitive one: Chinese-made films are quickly gaining traction. Offerings like Lost in Thailand, Beijing Meets Seattle, So Young and American Dreams in China have attracted huge local audiences by co-opting Western storytelling techniques but tailoring scripts, stars and styles for Chinese filmgoers (Beijing Meets Seattle drew comparisons with Sleepless in Seattle and Americans Dreams in China with The Social Network).

So far this year Chinese productions have largely caught up with Hollywood in local receipts. In the first quarter, US films saw cumulative gross fall by 22%, while Chinese language films soared 128%. The result: American films are now performing at about the same level they did three years ago, when the box office was half the size it is now.

For the successful moviemakers, the rewards can be attractive. Enlight Media, currently China’s hottest property in studio terms, has seen its share price nearly triple in the last six months. Another studio Huayi Brothers, is trading at its all-time high, up more than 240% over the same period. One reason for their success is that the Chinese studios are becoming savvier, avoiding bigger budget historical epics and focusing on budget films, particularly romantic comedies that take place in a contemporary setting. So Young and Lost in Thailand both cost relatively little to make but enjoyed huge takings (see WiC195).

However, although Chinese films are doing well at home, they are yet to enjoy similar success overseas. A report from the Institute for International Communication of Chinese Culture, which was set up by Beijing Normal University and IDG’s China Media Fund, shows that China exported 59 film titles in 2012, a 13% increase from the year before. But receipts, including box office and copyright sales, were only Rmb1 billion, about half of their 2011 gross.

“China’s domestic box office has been booming in recent years, but Chinese film’s exposure and influence in the global market has not lived up to many people’s expectations,” concludes Huang Huilin, professor of Beijing Normal University.

Perhaps as Fan Bingbing and her ilk build more of an international following via outings in Hollywood blockbusters, their star power will entice the global audience to give Chinese films more of a chance…

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