Filmart: China's Return to Surging Box-Office Growth Fuels Dealmaker Optimism

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The biggest recent U.S. studio tentpoles, such as 'Black Panther' and 'The Last Jedi,' have stumbled, but prestige fare and foreign-language films are finding a new foothold in China.

Global film buyers and sellers will be descending on Hong Kong Filmart, Asia's largest and most influential movie market, in ebullient spirits this week. And for good reason: China's theatrical box office is back to roaring growth, and the country's fiercely competitive streaming video giants are desperately hungry for quality content, both domestic and international.

"It's going to be a very busy market," says Chinese industry veteran Ronan Wong, who recently joined WME-IMG China as vp film & television. "The Chinese market is more energetic than it has been in years — both box office and video platform subscription numbers — and Filmart always sets the trends for the year ahead."

Following 2016's drastic box-office correction, when growth plummeted to just 3.7 percent, the movie business in China is indeed booming again. In February, China's box office smashed the global one-month mark for the most ticket revenue in any territory, generating $1.59 billion in sales. With a series of blockbusters simultaneously doing record business over the Chinese New Year holiday — $548 million for Bona Film Group's Operation Red Sea; $529 million for Wanda Film's Detective Chinatown Vol 2; and $350 million Edko Entertainment's Monster Hunt 2 — the local theatrical market surged 39 percent over the first two months of 2017.

But top-line growth is only part of the optimism currently suffusing the Chinese industry, international producers and local distributors say.

"In the past couple of years, the Chinese market has not only grown but also diversified, with premium filmmaking in various genres and from various countries finding an audience and doing healthy business," says Yoyo Qu, founder and CEO of newly launched Sweet Charm Media, which focuses on acquiring premium international films for theatrical release in China.

It used to be that Hollywood and Chinese tentpoles took so much of China's theatrical revenue pie that little was left over for mid-budget movies or titles from other territories. That picture has started to change, however. In 2017, Indian sports drama Dangal, starring Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, struck a surprising chord with Chinese audiences, earning $193 million and smashing every local record for an non-Hollywood imported film. Thai high-school thriller Bad Genius, meanwhile, earned $41 million, and the Spanish thriller Contratiempo earned $26 million.

The trend has continued into 2018, with Kahn repeating his surprising Chinese market heroics with his follow-up, Secret Superstar. Another Bollywood family drama about overcoming the odds, the film has taken in $118 million — the most by any imported pic so far this year.

The Hollywood studios have had a notably slower start in the Middle Kingdom in 2018. Marvel Disney's global juggernaut Black Panther is the U.S. industry's biggest performer thus far, having earned $95 million after 10 days, topping Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ($77.9 million) and the thoroughly disappointing run of Star Wars: The Last Jedi ($42.6 million). Even Black Panther, however, quickly stalled after its impressive $67 million opening weekend, as eroding word-of-mouth lead to a humbling second-weekend defeat to Tomb Raider.

But at the same time that the tentpoles were stumbling slightly, Hollywood prestige fare was finding a new foothold at the Chinese multiplex — and local buyers and distributors say they are eager to capitalize on the emerging potential of the category. Several recent Oscar favorites have opened to impressive numbers, such as Darkest Hour ($5.8 million) and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri ($6.9 million). Best picture winner The Shape of Water opened Friday and has earned over $10 million. While such totals are modest in comparison to the numbers put up by Hollywood tentpoles and breakout genre titles, prestige fare of this kind was thought to have no market in the Middle Kingdom at all just two or three years ago.

"We will be looking for premium films from all over the world to bring to China's big screens, and also international content investment opportunities and prestige library titles," says Qu of her company's plans in Hong Kong. "For the right titles and partnerships, the business prospects in China for these categories has never been brighter."