Milt Barlow on the Challenges of Bringing Chinese Films to U.S.
At 59, Milt Barlow, the veteran Australian distributor and former CEO of Village Roadshow (1988-98), has found a new life taking Chinese cinema to the Chinese Diaspora. Having grown his own business in New Zealand into a company that Village Roadshow bought and turned from a $35 million video business to a $250 million broad-based entertainment distribution business in New Zealand and Australia in 10 years, Barlow is now focused on how to repeat that success at his new company, China Lion, in a new market altogether. An exclusive partner with AMC, the No. 2 U.S. exhibitor (5,500 screens), to bring Chinese films to North America, China Lion will deliver 15 pictures from China to big-city America and Canada each year, a "catchment area" of about 2.5 million Chinese living mostly in and around New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto. China Lion also plans to find a partner in Vancouver, where AMC has little presence. On the sidelines of the American Film Market on Wednesday, Barlow caught up with The Hollywood Reporter's Jonathan Landreth and leaked a bit of news about which films are next on the new company's slate.
The Hollywood Reporter: How'd you get the idea to become a distributor of films in a language you don't speak, from a country you visited for the first time earlier this year?
Milt Barlow: My earlier company, Incubate, has been the exclusive distributor of Chinese films in Australia and New Zealand to Sky City Cinemas since mid-2008. We noticed that there are 120,000 Chinese in Auckland, about 11% of the population, and we asked, "Why aren't we doing Chinese movies?" Where Chinese used to go to cinemas in Chinatowns, second- and third-generation Chinese now want the multiplex experience.
THR: How did that experiment do?
Barlow: We learned that we had to try to focus on the Chinese audience and take the mainstream audience where we could get it. If they come, that's great. Second, we learned that we had to distribute into modern multiplexes and third, we needed to do day-and-date distribution with China to avoid losing money to an [expatriate Chinese] audience long deprived of the theatrical experience and used to finding their films on pirated DVD or illegally online.
THR: What was your first Chinese film?
Barlow: In 2008, we did Ip Man on three screens in New Zealand and grossed $120,000, which is great for that market. With Ip Man 2, we did $250,000, even better.
THR: Are Aussies and Kiwis put off by subtitles?
Barlow: Subtitled films are not as much of a challenge in our markets as they are in North America, especially the U.S. We watch a lot of European and now Asian films.
THR: How are the Chinese films doing these days?
Barlow: Often times, Chinese films are, in their opening weekend, the No. 1 film and have the highest gross in the market. When we put out Founding of the Republic we sold out for 10 nights. People were coming to ask if they could pay to stand in the back and, much to my surprise for this soft-propaganda film, much of the audience was young Chinese people.
THR: How many Chinese are there in Australia, and what's your business like there?
Barlow: There are 400,000 Chinese in Sydney and 300,000 in Melbourne. It takes a while to seed the market. While the Aussie audience was six times bigger than that in New Zealand, it took a couple of years to get it to be bigger at the box office. Now we have competitors there in companies such as Dream Movie from Singapore and Madmen and Hopscotch, too -- but we have the exclusive Chinese movie contract with Event Cinemas, the No. 1 exhibitor in Australia.
THR: What about the U.S. market, why haven't that many Chinese films played here? Is Hollywood somehow protectionist?
Barlow: No, no. It's open to anybody who wants to have a go at it. My China partner [producer] Jiang Yanmin, who also did effects on Aftershock, is a 25-year veteran and the founder of Technicolor in China. When we met in January, we got on like a house on fire and saw we could merge my experience working with Western companies and his knowledge of the producers landscape. I asked him if we could get Aftershock into the U.S. and he said, "Yes." So that's what we're going to do, sum two great parts.
THR: How has director Feng Xiaogang's IMAX earthquake movie Aftershock done since its U.S. release on Oct. 28, getting a positive review from the New York Times?
Barlow: Of the 15 films released last weekend, ours opened at fifth on only 24 screens. Let's leave it at that.
THR: What's next for China Lion?
Barlow: First, let me say about AMC that I couldn't have asked for a better partner. After experiments with Bollywood and Latin cinema, AMC embraced the idea of Chinese cinema right away. I made this deal with AMC President Bob Lenihan before ever even meeting him. Our model is to do day and date releases. Chinese films will be a tough sell for the audience that doesn't already enjoy world cinema. But let me tell you, I took my sister-in-law to see Aftershock and she'd never seen a Chinese movie. She cried the whole way through and said it was among the best movies she'd ever seen. If you can get a European audience into the best Chinese films made, they'll see that Chinese movies these days are among the best films out there. It'll take time to figure out which theaters do best for us, but we're planning on 15 films a year for AMC.
THR: What specific films are next for China Lion?
Barlow: Let me tell you a bit of news: We've just signed an output deal with Huayi Brothers Media for all their films for North American release. Next, we'll release Feng Xiaogang's If You Are the One II on Dec. 23, day and date with China. As you know, the first one did $46 million and "ftershock has done $100 million in record-breaking box office in China alone. Next, yesterday, the Shanghai Film Group and Poly Bona have pledged their support for China Lion. We're talking with SFG about what titles will come up, but with Poly Bona, we've already got the What Women Want remake for a spring release in North America.
THR: How much have you invested in forming China Lion and when will the company be profitable?
Barlow: Let's just say that we're well funded for the long-term. Within two years we should be able to gross $25 million. Within six to nine months, a big martial arts film should be able to do $1 million to $2 million.
THR: Is there an advantage to being from Australia and New Zealand when working with China?
Barlow: The U.S. studios have a way to go when it comes to engaging China. Right now, I think Fox has put their finger on it, putting their focus on making movies like Hot Summer Days and The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman, distinctly for the Chinese audience.