China Box Office: Local Films Rule First Quarter of 2013

"Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" (Stephen Chow, 2013), $166.8 million

Hong Kong comedy actor-director Stephen Chow first established a cult following in mainland China with his 1990s adaptations of the same classic Chinese novel that serves as the basis of Journey to the West. Those popular early efforts -- the A Chinese Odyssey series -- are nothing compared to Journey in financial terms though. Even though Chow doesn't appear in this effort, Journey passed the 1-billion yuan threshold ($160 million) in China in just 16 days, four fewer than Lost in Thailand took to reach that milestone -- which serves as something of a marker for definitive blockbuster status in China. 

Bolstered by the runaway success of homegrown hits, Chinese filmmakers have taken nearly 70 percent of total ticket sales in the year's first three months.

HONG KONG -- Three months into 2013, the gloomy predictions for China’s local film industry that haunted 2012 seemingly have dissipated, with figures showing homegrown productions earning twice the amount of imports during the first quarter of the year.

According to aggregates of weekly earnings figures released by the state-backed China Film News blog and the much-visited authoritative Dianyingpiaofangba (Chinese Film Box Office) portal, total box-office takings from January to March stand at $830.6 million (5.15 billion yuan), representing a year-over-year increase of 38 percent.

Earnings of Chinese films took up about 69 percent of the takings, with the total of $569.3 million doubling the total revenue generated by local films during the same period in 2012. It’s a figure bolstered by strong performances from Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which has made $200 million, and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, the second-highest-grossing new release with $46.3 million.

The boom also was due to the stamina of December releases such as Lost in Thailand and CZ12, which have added $42.3 million and $55.5 million to their respective tallies in 2013. The former remains the highest-grossing local release ever in China, with $203.2 million, ahead of the still-running Journey by just $24.2 million.

Riding on the buzz created by Lost in Thailand and the festive goodwill shown by local audiences on homegrown films, Chinese-language comedies have enjoyed remarkable runs as 2013 rolled in. Joining Say Yes ($32.3 million in February) is Finding Mr Right, a Seattle-set romantic comedy that has generated $38.9 million since its March 21 release, and The Chef, The Actor and The Scoundrel, which already has racked up $12.3 million since its March 29 bow.

Such strong performances have put international films into the shade, as Hollywood products fared poorly this quarter with takings of just $261.3 million -- a drop of 23 percent compared with the same period last year as tentpole releases have failed to spring to life. The highest-grossing import, Skyfall, only took $60.8 million, followed by $50.8 million for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

Third on the import rankings is A Good Day to Die Hard ($31.6 million and still in release), followed by Cloud Atlas (a surprisingly competent $27.4 million) and Resident Evil 5: Retribution ($17.3 million and counting).

While Skyfall and The Hobbit could be seen as having a slow rollout in China, some Hollywood hits petered out with lackluster results: Jack Reacher, for example, took just $16.2 million, with Les Miserables failing to capitalize on its Oscars exposure with just $11 million. Jack the Giant Slayer continued its miserable run in China: The film took in only $6.8 million during its first seven days in release, eclipsed by the strong run of Oz: The Great and Powerful, which now stands as the ninth-highest-grossing import of in the first quarter at more than $9 million since its March 29 release.

With April's Hollywood imports hardly in the blockbuster league -- Django Unchained is the one release with better prospects of making a killing in China -- good news for the U.S. studios likely won't arrive until May with Iron Man 3, which is set partially in Beijing and stars local A-listers Wang Xueqi and Fan Bingbing.

In Hong Kong, where earnings are counted independently from the rest of China, Bruce Willis reigned supreme at the box office. A Good Day to Die Hard topped the city’s box office for the first quarter, raking in $3.7 million (HK$28.6 million), according to the Hong Kong Motion Pictures Industry Association. Journey to the West follows closely, with a $3.6 million take in director Chow’s hometown -- arguably a measly sum compared with the film’s Chinese box-office gross. The Grandmaster came third, grossing $2.7 million. The still-running Oz the Great and Powerful is the only March release that shows promise, with a $2 million take since its March 7 opening.

Overall box office for the three months ending March 28 totaled $43.4 million, a 1.9 percent drop from the same period last year, when total takings were $44.2 million. The difference might be attributed to the $4.5 million take of January 2012 release of Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, whereas none of the 2013 releases so far has broken the $3.9 million mark.