'Harry Potter' breaks records in Hong Kong

Blockbusters dominate multiplexes; smaller films shut out

Related: 'Potter' is magic overseas

HONG KONG -- It's hardly surprising that "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" smashed local boxoffice records in its first weekend, opening with HK$4.5 million and taking HK$23 million ($2.96 million) in five days.

The highly anticipated sixth installment of the "Potter" series from Warner Bros. became the highest first-day grossing film of 2009, highest weekend debut of 2009, highest nonholiday opening and the highest non-Chinese five-day weekend debut. It also surpassed the first weekend of last year's highest-grossing film, "The Dark Knight," also from Warner Bros., which raked in HK$16.5 million in its first four days.

"Potter" did well certainly because of its brand name, but also because it opened on 120 screens, in a city with 183 screens total. Summer blockbusters tend to take over multiplexes, but it has become increasingly evident this year. The previous weekend gross record-holder of 2009, Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" -- distributed in Hong Kong by Intercontinental and opening two weeks before "Potter" on 125 screens -- took in HK$21.8 million during its first five days. Multiple houses in cinemas showed the same title, while smaller films struggle to find time slots, not audience members.

This hijacking of screens has made scheduling independent and smaller films "extremely difficult," independent distributors said. Counterprogramming takes luck and guts, as exhibitors insist upon showing the same blockbusters on all their screens, pushing others to early morning or matinee shows, out of reach of smaller films' intended (working) audiences.

For example the French biopic "Coco Before Chanel," distributed by Lark Films and Emperor Motion Pictures, which targeted female and/or older and more sophisticated audiences. The film took in HK$5.2 million in five weeks, but screens were cut from 18 to seven during its third week, none of the screens able to maintain a full five-show, when "Transformers 2" opened.

As a result, "Chanel" grosses dropped 60%, but ironically, houses were mostly full.

"We chose a summer date for 'Chanel' as counterprogramming, and we are proud of the boxoffice take, but we do believe that if the screens weren't cut and split as much, the intake would have been higher or we would have reached the HK$5 million benchmark sooner," said Jennifer Hung, distribution and marketing manager of Lark Films. It proves to show that audiences had to make an effort to accommodate the inconvenient showing time, or to go see mainstream blockbusters. "Female audiences are underserved, but they play along," Hung said.

"It's understandable in a business point of view, when most people want to see the Hollywood blockbusters," said Winnie Tsang, managing director of independent distributor Golden Scene, whose Francois Ozon-directed "Ricky" opened on July 9 on three screens, but couldn't garner a full show even on its opening day.

"Exhibitors refused to back down and offer more shows for smaller or art house films, so as distributors, we are forced to who Hollywood blockbusters. At the end of the day, audiences will have less and less choice," Tsang said.

The choice might also lie with technology. The big winner of the summer so far has been 20th Century Fox's 3-D offering "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," which opened on July 1 on 56 screens, 50 of which were 3D theaters. It grossed HK$14.7 million during its first weekend, increasing its screens to 64, and accumulated to HK$29.7 million as of Sunday. Per screen, it even did better than "Potter."

"We are more constrained by the number of 3D screens available, but we have secured all the 3D screens in Hong Kong," said Anita Cheung, GM of 20th Century Fox International. Circumstantial factors also contributed to the film's success: It's been called the winner of the swine flu outbreak, which caused class suspension and summer holidays to come earlier for school children, who promptly became bored. "Class suspension has certainly helped the film," said Cheung. "Nevertheless, early July also has been traditionally a slot for family films."

However, even 3D family fare like Pixar's July 30 release "Up" will have to compete for screens. The Intercontinental-distributed animation will show on 31 3D and 13 2D screens. Then it has to prove whether it can hang on to its 2D screens, when Paramount's "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra," also distributed by Intercontinental, opens a week later on a targeted 60 screens.

The number of screens for the "G.I. Joe" opening is relatively limited, only because it's the first in a series. If it does well, the sequel might dominate the city's multiplexes, as has become the norm.