Five Chinese movies put on an explosive fireworks show at China’s domestic box office over that country’s New Year’s holiday weekend, one that is resonating with the global film industry and beating anything Hollywood has done in almost two years.
All five ranked among the top 10 movies at the worldwide box office last weekend. The $282 million five-day stretch at the box office showed that at least on occasion, homegrown Chinese hits can match the grosses of American blockbusters.
The No. 1 movie was the Jackie Chan-produced “Dragon Blade,” which stars John Cusack and Academy Award winner Adrien Brody as Roman soldiers lost in China, with a $56 million four-day haul (top photo).
The drama “The Man from Macau” brought in $43 million and was followed by the fantasy tale “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” and French director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem,” at around $31 million each. Even a documentary about a TV reality show, “Where Are We Going Dad?” topped $21 million.
To put those numbers in perspective, there hasn’t been a weekend that strong in the U.S. since “Fast & Furious 6” drove a record Memorial Day weekend in 2013.
“The growth of the Chinese film industry, and the box office, is definitely happening faster than we expected,” said Ying Ye, managing director of Eastern Light. The company is the Asian arm of Arclight Films, which is opening “Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” (photo above) in limited release in the U.S. this weekend.
“Where just three years ago, making $20 million over the course of a movie’s run was good, today success can mean $100 million or even $200 million,” she said.
What’s behind the unprecedented clout shown recently by Chinese films at the box office?
Bigger budgets – “Dragon Blade” cost $65 million to make – have helped increase production values with improved post-production and special-effects work, along with the strategic use of Hollywood actors.
The Chinese government, in addition to maintaining its iron-clad limits on foreign releases, has aggressively backed the film industry with grants, and stoked continued exhibition sector growth by loosening regulations that include restrictions on movie merchandise sales.
China’s box office hit $2.7 billion last year and will overtake that of the U.S. by as early as 2017, some analysts have suggested. While acknowledging that China’s movie biz will inevitably approach that of the U.S. in terms of financial scope and influence, most Hollywood studio executives are skeptical it will happen that quickly.
“Those numbers out of the holiday are incredible” said Craig Dehmel, Twentieth Century Fox’s executive vice-president of international distribution. It’s worth noting that Chinese distributors stacked their New Year’s holiday with high-profile releases, much as Hollywood studios do in the summer or at the holidays, and that there was no competition from Hollywood movies.
Fox has had a front-row seat for China’s box office boom, and has bet big on its future.
Last year, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” took in $116 million and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” grossed $115 million there. “Avatar” is No. 2 behind “Transformers: Age of Extinction on China’s all-time box office list, and Jim Cameron has three more of them coming, with the first to arrive in 2017.
Fox International Productions, the Sanford Panitch-led unit that makes local-language films in foreign countries, just signed a $130 million deal to make films and TV programs in the region.
With budgets growing and production values rising, it seems inevitable that Chinese producers will aggressively try to connect with American moviegoers at some point.
So far, the only two Chinese movies to score in the United States have been the 2000 Oscar-winning “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” which grossed $128 million for Sony Classics, and the 2002 martial arts epic “Hero,” which brought in $54 million when Miramax released it stateside in 2004.
“To compete and get a share of the American pie is the ultimate goal for many in China, but the way to do that is by partnering with Hollywood on true co-productions,” said Wayne Lin, a marketing executive with China Lion, which is developing and shopping partnerships in six Chinese projects.
Christian Bale and Nicholas Cage have appeared in Chinese films recently, but What’s behind the unprecedented clout shown recently by Chinese films at the box office?
American stars including Christian Bale and Nicholas Cage have appeared in Chinese films recently, but those roles were mainly for Chinese audiences anxious to see their favorites alongside Hollywood stars.
Will the day ever come with Chinese movies can battle toe-to-toe with American-made movies in the United States?
“I think you could pair Kevin Hart with just about any Chinese actor in a buddy movie and have a hit right now,” said BoxOffice.com senior analyst Phil Contrino.