While Beijing sees the film business as an industry that should promote moral values and positive feelings, China’s swelling ranks of filmgoers seem a lot more interested in hammer-wielding superheroes, fast cars falling out of aeroplanes and flesh-hungry dinosaurs.
So far this year, the biggest box office successes in China have been this type of Hollywood fare (think Avengers: Age of Ultron and Fast and Furious 7).
In the dinosaur category enter Jurassic World, which set a record by making $1 billion globally in just 13 days. More than $170 million of that so far has come from China, where unusually the movie opened two days ahead of its first screening in the US and has proven especially popular in higher-margin formats like IMAX. On the popular Douban website, Chinese audiences give it eight stars out of 10.
(Few should be surprised: when Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur classic Jurassic Park was re-released as a 3D movie in China in 2013, it took $57 million, which was more than it made in North America.)
Chinese films can find it hard to compete, particularly when distributors, exhibitors and shopping mall owners all are keen to push Hollywood product because of the huge revenue it offers.
A quota system has capped foreign movie imports to China to 34 titles a year. But in reality Hollywood’s movies rarely make it past this quota because Chinese distributors are unlikely to bring in smaller movies, since they are unable to generate the same box office buzz as the blockbusters. Meanwhile Hollywood’s big budget behemoths are themselves ‘capped’ in number by their sheer cost and the need for studios to marshall armies of marketing staff to promote them. The result: an output of about 10-15 ‘big bets’ by Tinseltown per year (a couple of which gross over $1 billion), and a few that fail spectacularly (such as Disney’s John Carter in 2012).
One of the things American studio like about China is that their big bets look substantially less risky these days. Why so? Because for Chinese audiences spectacle seems a lot more key than plot, making it a lot easier to predict what they want to see (the incredible success in China of the high action but plot-light Transformers franchise was not lost on Hollywood execs). And what could be more spectacular than dinosaurs on the loose? Indeed, when you factor in the China dimension, the decision to make Jurassic World (with bigger and more fierce dinosaurs) was the cinematic equivalent of a no-brainer.
Still, in order to level the playing field somewhat, Chinese media regulators created an unofficial “blackout” periods during which Hollywood movies have to give way to Chinese films. The summer window usually begins in mid-June and runs until the end of July, and only for domestic productions to screen.
Among the big Chinese movies running during this year’s window are Hollywood Adventures and the latest instalment in the Tiny Times franchise, as well as SPL 2: A Time For Consequences, Xiao Yang’s The Ark of Mr Chow and Chen Kaige’s latest, A Monk Came Down the Mountain.
The period is not officially sanctioned but widely acknowledged by cinema operators. Last year, of the $4.76 billion earned at the box office in China, homegrown films accounted for 54.5% of the total,with the blackout periods giving a clear run for movies like Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain.
Even still, the top 10 listings last year were still dominated by foreign movies, with those within it grossing $1.8 billion in 2014, or around a third of the total box office in China. Michael Bay’s robotic sequel Transformers: Age of Extinction accounted for $320 million of that figure alone.
This isn’t the first blackout period Chinese films have enjoyed this year. During the Lunar New Year period in February, Hollywood’s blockbusters were again absent from screens. Taking advantage of this The Man from Macau 2, made over Rmb973 million ($156.8 million) in box office receipts making it one of the top 10 box office performers in China’s film history (and that top 10 includes foreign films).
Likewise Jackie Chan’s Dragon Blade opened around Chinese New Year and took $117 million.
Indeed, the Lunar New Year holiday led to the country’s biggest-ever box-office month earning $650 million, which by some reckoning made China the world’s top film market that month.
Other big ticket domestic items included Wolf Warrior, directed by and starring martial artist Wu Jing, which made nearly $80 million.
Chinese audiences will have to wait till late July for their next Hollywood fix when Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation will screen followed by computer-animated comedy Minions and in August Fantastic Four (yes, more superheroes).
Meanwhile as Chinese film companies invest overseas, and as a wave of co-productions start to get made, the definition of what qualifies as a foreign movie will become trickier for local regulators.
For example, state-backed movie company China Film Group took a stake – believed to be around 10% – in Furious 7. In future situations where a Hollywood film gets substantial financial backing from this movie distribution giant, will the blackout still apply?
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