Fighting to retain fans

New blockbuster is mauled by critics, but luckily it’s insured against failure

Fan Bingbing w

Fan Bingbing: starlet brings glamour to new Jackie Chan movie

After years of growth, China’s box office reported a surprising halt in the second quarter of this year. Data from Entgroup shows that ticket sales contracted 7% in the period. The fall was the first year-on-year quarterly decline in five years. July is also looking lacklustre, with the box office take dropping almost 20%, the first time that ticket sales have been reported as down in the middle of the summer, traditionally the blockbuster season.

Industry promoters pointed out that overall growth in the first half of the year was 21% (to Rmb24.6 billion) although that compared with 48% year-on-year growth in the first half of 2015.

Analysts blamed a weaker selection of films at cinemas, and said that the slowdown was also linked to regulations imposed in March by the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, which is trying to stamp out inflated ticketing figures.

The action was taken after the distributor behind Ip Man 3 admitted buying millions of yuan of tickets in an effort to boost its sales.

Will Jackie Chan’s latest comedy -action film Skiptrace lift the industry out of its current doldrums? So far, the results look promising. The movie, which is being shown on 35% of the country’s screens, went on to collect 60% of ticketing revenues – Rmb400 million ($60 million) – in the first four days of its release, the most successful debut for Chan in his long career.

Skiptrace tells the story of a Hong Kong detective (played by Chan), who is forced to team up with a fast-talking American gambler (Hollywood star Johnny Knoxville) after the detective’s niece (played by actress Fan Bingbing) runs into trouble with a crime boss.

The film reportedly cost Rmb300 million to make, a hefty sum by Chinese standards.

Chan, one of the producers, told Beijing Times he first came up with this buddy-comedy-meets-travelogue project over two decades ago. He had originally intended the role that Knoxville plays for action star Jet Li, so when Li turned it down the screenplay had to be reworked. Along the way, the production also endured changes of financier as well as director. In the end, Finnish filmmaker Renny Harlin stepped in. He moved to Beijing two years ago and he has inked a deal with Alibaba Pictures to finance his next film, an adaptation of the Chinese video game Legend of the Ancient Sword.

Despite the strong box office performance, reviews for the film have been less positive. On Douban, the online film review site, Skiptrace received 5.8 stars out of 10. Critics classed it as “rubbish”, saying the story made little sense. Most seemed to agree that the action scenes felt “outdated”.

“Everything from the story to the punch lines is old and cheesy. It’s also clear that Jackie Chan has aged, even his movements are slow. He should retire after this film,” one reviewer wrote.

Tencent Entertainment also thinks that the action star, 62, is showing signs of his advanced years: “What is undeniable is that Jackie Chan has aged. His movements are clumsy and seem powerless. It is not the same brave and quick star we used to know and love.”

In an interview with the Beijing Times, Chan admitted that it is difficult to introduce creativity in the martial-arts genre. The film star also said that – after half a century working in action films – it is hard to think of new breakthroughs. “Audiences today like to watch romantic comedies and sci-fi films… But I believe they will come around (to embrace action films). Their taste is constantly changing. The most important thing for us is to catch up to their pace.”

Despite the criticism, Zhejiang Talent, the producer of the film, has little to worry about. That’s because two weeks before the film’s release, one of its subsidiaries had signed a deal with Alibaba Pictures, Shanghai Hehe Film and Tianjin Lianrui Pictures to offer a guarantee that the movie would surpass Rmb1 billion at the box office. In return, the three studios have paid Zhejiang Talent Rmb300 million upfront, says QDaily, an online newspaper.

Box office guarantees are hugely popular in the Chinese film industry. As mentioned in WiC317, the model became widespread after being implemented for Stephen Chow’s blockbuster hit The Mermaid. The distributors earned a windfall when The Mermaid broke records by making $550 million in ticket sales.

This time round, Talent will receive 70% of the profits if the film grosses between Rmb1 billion to 1.2 billion, while the three studios – acting as guarantor – will receive the remaining share. But if the feature rakes in Rmb1.4 billion or more, the guarantors will receive 70% against Talent’s 30%, says Entertainment Capital, an entertainment insider’s blog.

In some ways Talent is buying a financial option that Chan and Fan Bingbing will lure a decent sized audience but that Skiptrace isn’t going to break any records. Based on what the critics have said, that might be a smart punt.

One reason that Talent has signed the deal is because it gets paid in advance – covering its production costs – instead of having to wait until the end of the film’s run for payback.

Moreover, it minimises the potential downside from some intense competition during the same period. By Southern Metropolis Daily’s calculation, there are as many as 90 new films scheduled to hit the big screen between July and August, compared with 86 in total in the entire second quarter of the year.

Meanwhile, Chan didn’t seem too bothered when he was asked if he is starting to feel old. “Seven years ago Fan Bingbing plays my girlfriend and till this day she looks the same while I have aged so now I play her uncle,” he responded with a smile.

But don’t expect him to retire anytime soon. “People always say that Jackie Chan is too old and he can’t fight anymore. That makes me very angry. I am old but I want young people to know that I can do so much more,” he told Wen Wei Po, a Hong Kong newspaper.

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.