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Kung Fu Panda sequel has it all – except an ideal China release date?

Bai Baihe

Panda hugger: Bai Baihe voices Tigress in the Mandarin version

Kung Fu Panda 2 (released in 2011) ended with a surprise: the eponymous panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) wasn’t an orphan after all. So many in the audience may have guessed that when the third instalment of the franchise came along, it would feature Po’s reunion with his estranged father.

But what was harder to predict was how strongly Kung Fu Panda 3 would perform in China. The first film had made Rmb135 million ($20.56 million) in 2008. The second raked in Rmb600 million. So would the third quadruple its take again?

The latest film in the franchise opened at Chinese cinemas last weekend, generating almost Rmb400 million ($60 million) in ticket receipts, the highest opening weekend ever for an animated movie (and according to Variety, $16 million more than the US opening). It could collect as much as Rmb1 billion in box office receipts, industry commentators have suggested.

But for DreamWorks, the studio behind the film, that would be something of a let down.

“In a market that has quadrupled in size during those four years, anything less than a $250 million final gross for Kung Fu Panda 3 will be deemed a disappointment,” says Robert Cain, author of the blog ChinaFilmBiz.

In its favour is that the film is getting very positive reviews on social media. For example, on Douban, the popular film review site, it received a rating of 8.1 out of 10.

DreamWorks has also worked hard to appeal to Chinese audiences, essentially releasing two different films: one is the global English-language version, the other is in Mandarin.

The Chinese language version has actually been reanimated so the characters’ facial expressions match the local voice cast, which includes pop singer Jay Chou and actresses Bai Baihe and Zhu Zhu.

The script is also different, making quips about Chinese food and culture. DreamWorks tapped Raman Hui, director of the highest-grossing Chinese animation, Monster Hunt, as a consultant for the film.

“I used to hate watching films with Chinese voice-overs because I feel like they are meant for old people (who don’t understand English) or those who are so lazy they don’t even want to read subtitles. But the Mandarin version of Kung Fu Panda 3 transforms the film into truly a Chinese feature,” says film critic Ke Bi.

“The Mandarin version is fantastic! It’s so good I want to watch the English version too. After all, when a film is that good it is normal to watch it twice,” one audience member gushed.

All good, but the film may still fall short of its revenue targets. The problem for DreamWorks, some say, is that the timing of the release was terrible. It came out a week before the Lunar New Year, when moviegoers are either rushing home ahead of the holiday or busy shopping for gifts for family members. That leaves less time for trips to the cinema. And besides, next week sees the release of a slew of homegrown blockbusters including Mermaid, a fantasy film from comedian-director Stephen Chow and Monkey King 2, which stars Gong Li and Aaron Kwok.

One box office commentator even called Kung Fu Panda 3’s choice of opening day “a tragedy”.

The timing of the release looks even stranger because DreamWorks has a lot at stake with its latest offering. Jeffrey Katzenberg, the studio head, told the Wall Street Journal that he has been flying to China at least once a month over the past five years to cultivate local relationships and oversee the formation of Oriental DreamWorks, the joint venture between the Hollywood studio and several Chinese media companies including Shanghai Media Group and private equity firm China Media Capital. Kung Fu Panda 3 is the new entity’s first project.

“The film has at least one third of Chinese blood,” Legal Evening News proudly declares.

Moreover, being a joint production means that DreamWorks will collect a larger share of revenue than a standard foreign import, which would typically be capped at 25% of box office receipts (see WiC311).

Fang Gan, president of Oriental Dreamworks, defends the decision to release ahead of the Chinese New Year: “In choosing this release date, we are just in time for school winter vacation, Valentine’s Day, and Chinese New Year. I believe during this period when most Chinese families come together that Kung Fu Panda 3 will offer everyone a terrific choice for family entertainment.”

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