'Avatar' heats up China boxoffice

Sets opening-day record for a weekday

BEIJING -- Despite record snowfall and bitter cold, "Avatar" burned up China's boxoffice, earning about 35 million yuan ($5 million) Monday to set a record for a weekday opening here, distribution officials at Twentieth Century Fox said Tuesday.

The 22nd century sci-fi movie could be on its way to confirming China as the 21st century's second-highest-grossing territory for Hollywood blockbusters outside the U.S.

Although nearly a foot of snow blanketed China's capital on Sunday and James Cameron's $1 billion global boxoffice hit didn't premiere here until midnight that night, moviegoers still lined up in near-zero temperatures for half-price 40 yuan tickets ($5.85) and sold out the show at the Sanlitun Megabox theater.

"The theater was packed with people coming in freezing, bundled up in hats and coats and scarves," a Megabox ticket seller said on Monday afternoon.

A Monday 4 p.m. show at the Megabox sold out of full-price 80 yuan ($11.71) tickets largely because the heaviest snowfall since 1951 closed Beijing offices and schools, extending the winter weekend.

"Avatar" enjoyed a nationwide cross-media promotion in China, including Cameron's Dec. 23 appearance in Beijing.

The director is well-known to Chinese for "Titanic," which grossed 360 million yuan ($52.7 million) here in 1998, a record that was only broken last July, by "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

The "Transformers" sequel earned 400 million yuan ($59 million), making China its No. 2 territory outside the U.S. Its China boxoffice record was topped in December by "2012," which made 460 million yuan ($67 million).

On Monday, "Avatar" attendance at the Beijing Star City cinema was above 70% and the evening shows sold out, said manager Wayne Jiang, adding, "Monday looked like a weekend."

Jiang said an estimated 4 million yuan ($586,000) came in from the "Avatar" midnight showings -- more than the 3.5 million yuan ($513,000) earned off midnight premieres of "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen."

In a very short time, China has begun to show promise of becoming the world's second-largest market for Hollywood blockbusters, attracting a growing number of the nation's swelling middle class.

Weng Li, spokesman for state-run distributor China Film Group Corp, told news portal Sina.com on Monday that "Avatar" would "create a boxoffice record of 500 million yuan easily."

That's a projected $73 million, of which Fox will be allowed by Chinese law to share roughly 15%, or $11 million.

"I am very confident about 'Avatar's performance in China," a regional Fox representative said, passing over questions about the delay to the film's originally planned Jan. 2 release.

China Film and regulatory body the Film Bureau often shuffle the release dates of the 20 imports allowed into China each year on a revenue-sharing basis. Foreign film blackout periods around peak moviegoing holidays can prevent imports from undercutting earnings by Chinese films. Zhang Yimou's "A Simple Noodle Story" is in theaters now.

China Film, the country's sole licensed film importer, could not be reached for comment. Exhibitors said the delay had been Fox's decision and had allowed more time to set up 3D systems.

A Fox official said that "Avatar" is the first film to be shown in China in both 35mm/70mm film prints and 2D and 3D digital copies.

As in the West, 3D is helping to boost China's gross boxoffice earnings. In the past two months, China has experienced a 20% rise in the number of 3D screens to 700 nationwide, China Film's Weng told Sina.

A Fox official said that 54% of the "Avatar" prints in China are 3D and 46% are 2D. No overall screen count for the film was available.

At Beijing's UME Huaxing International Cineplex, the midnight Sunday "Avatar" premiere reached 90% capacity in its 3D theaters and 100% capacity in its Imax 3D theaters, which sold out two days before opening, manager Liu Hui told the China Daily newspaper.

Most of Beijing's big cinemas offer 3D, but only two show "Avatar" in Imax 3D: Huaxing and the out-of-the-way China National Film Museum.

In December in Beijing, Cameron urged China to open its doors to more foreign films, arguing that it would boost the local industry after the WTO ruled Beijing was illegally restricting movie imports.

China's boxoffice is booming but is still small compared with the U.S. Government data showed revenue rose from 920 million yuan in 2003 to 4.3 billion yuan ($630 million) in 2008, when China had about 4,000 screens, a number expected to reach 6,000 by 2011.

By comparison, in the U.S. in 2008, movies grossed $9.8 billion on roughly 40,000 screens.
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