China's 2014 Box-Office Figures Set to Miss Industry Target

Jiang Wen - H 2014

Jiang Wen - H 2014

Although receipts are up nearly a third, some late-year homegrown big hitters, such as 'Gone With the Bullets,' haven't lived up to expectations

China looks set to fall short of the 30 billion yuan ($4.83 billion) target the industry eyed earlier in the year, as a clutch of domestic tentpoles failed to make the anticipated impact in the world's second biggest film market.

Around this time of year, China's film authorities clear the decks of Hollywood fare to allow domestic movies a better shot of reeling in some Yuletide receipts, and a lot of hope was riding on three big titles: Jiang Wen's 3D epic Gone With the Bullets, Hong Kong director Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain 3D, and Gu Changwei's romantic comedy Love on the Cloud.

Box-office receipts so far in 2014 are running at around $4.51 billion, and between them, the three movies needed to earn another $320 million (2 billion yuan) to bring the year's box office past the 30 billion yuan marker.

This is a key time for Chinese movies as the country's film bosses try to balance out domestic and foreign box-office takes, following the big performances of movies like Transformers: Age of Extinction, which took $320 million here. The market continues to grow strongly as the number of screens keeps rising, and domestic movies still account for the lion's share of total box office, but Hollywood movies are making more inroads into the box office for big-budget movies.

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While the domestic trio have performed strongly in the Chinese box office, they have not managed to match Michael Bay's robot extravaganza. Age of Extinction was tailored specifically for a Chinese audience and reaped the rewards.

By Dec. 27, with just four days to go until the end of the year, Bullets had racked up $72.34 million (449.43 million yuan), Tiger Mountain had earned a cume of $38.8 million (241.14 million yuan), and Love on the Cloud had grossed $18.76 million (116.55 million yuan).

Chinese box-office revenue rose 32 percent in the first nine months of the year to hit $3.55 billion (21.6 billion yuan), already nearly equaling last year's full-year total of $3.55 billion.

A surprise hit in the final weeks of the year was the coming-of-age drama Fleet of Time, which has so far taken a cume of over $91 million.

Adapted from a popular novel by Jiu Yehui and directed by Zhang Yibai, Fleet of Time features Ni Ni, Eddie Peng and Ryan Zheng in a story about a group of school friends growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, key periods during which China was transformed.

Gone With the Bullets, which is set in Shanghai in the 1920s, is the follow-up, although not exactly a sequel to Jiang's hugely popular Let the Bullets Fly. In the movie, Ma Zouri, played by Jiang himself and Xiang Feitian (Ge You) start a beauty contest, which ends tragically, and the story runs from there.

The movie suffered in the run-up to release from censorship headaches — it wasn't clear until pretty much the day of release that the film would make it onto the screens.

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Critics have complained that the movie is unfocused and the plot is confusing, which some believe could reflect last-minute changes sought by the censors, while others say the fault lies with the movies.

After strong presales, the producers had hinted that Bullets would give Transformers: Age of Extinction a run for its money, but the last installment of Michael Bay's robot franchise still holds that record, with $90 million in its opening weekend from 166,446 screenings, with 14.7 million admissions.

Bullets also did less than The Monkey King in February, which took a record $41 million on its opening day and made nearly $65 million in its first four days.

Another big movie that had been expected to wow the crowds was John Woo's The Crossing, but this also failed to set the box office alight.

According to data from the research group Entgroup, The Crossing's cume was $31.77 million by Dec. 25 after 24 days on release. The Crossing is showing in two parts in Asia and was produced by Woo and his longtime collaborator Terrence Chang.

The movie may have been affected by changing demographics in the Chinese market, which emerges as a shift away from historical epics toward contemporary romantic comedies. Ning Hao's Breakup Buddies, about a recently divorced man who goes on a road trip with his best friend, is a case in point, taking $190 million in box office this year.

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Zhang Huijun, president of the Beijing Film Academy, told the Xinhua news agency that there was a trend toward younger movie audiences.

"We are glad to see more young people going to cinemas. They are not only in favor of big screens and sound effects, but also consider it a way to socialize," said Zhang.

Other movies doing well in the last days of the year include Pang Ho-Cheung's ensemble drama Women Who Flirt, which has grossed $36.67 million, and the romantic comedy Meet Miss Anxiety, which was directed by South Korean film director Kwak Jae-yong and stars Zhou Xun, Zhang Zilin, Tong Dawei and Wallace Chung. It has collected $25.37 million.

Dozens of movies do battle during the wildly competitive Chinese New Year movie season, which includes the fast-emerging Christmas and New Year market as well as the huge Lunar New Year bonanza in mid-February, a record run of 95 days this year, with dozens of films lining up to woo audiences.

Twitter: @cliffordcoonan