Hollywood Blockbusters Battling Head-to-Head in China: a Trend?

Dark Knight Rises Batman at Night Still - H 2012
Warner Bros.

Dark Knight Rises Batman at Night Still - H 2012

Imax CEO Richard Gelfond on Thursday told analysts that short-term concern over consumer spending is opening more slots for local Chinese-language titles.

TORONTO – Was the recent simultaneous debut of superhero movies The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises on Imax screens in China a one-off or a trend?

“It’s somewhere in the middle,” Imax CEO Richard Gelfond declared Thursday as he addressed analysts after the release of the giant screen exhibitor's third quarter results.

Gelfond said other Hollywood titles have faced off against one another in China, including Total Recall and The Bourne Legacy debuting at the same time.

And back on August 27, Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight Rises and Columbia Pictures’ The Amazing Spider-Man opened simultaneously in China.

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“In the short run, you’re probably going to see a little bit more of it,” Gelfond insisted, before adding that Chinese authorities were not looking to reduce the box office of Hollywood movies as much as raise the commercial prospects of local titles by giving them more playtime.

So more slots have been opened for Chinese-language movies at the local multiplex.

“One way they can have more slots is to take the U.S. movies and bunch them around certain dates,” Gelfond explained.

If anything, he argued more playtime for local titles aims to get more Chinese consumers spending in shopping malls, where major multiplexes are located, to keep the wider economy humming.

Local exhibitors and the China Film Group, which earns distribution fees as Hollywood movies play in that market, haven't been impressed with head-to-head battles of Hollywood titles reducing their combined box office, Gelfond argued.

But greater consumer spending trumps all.

“Given the Chinese government’s objective of keeping the internal economy growing, and the consumer economy growing, my personal opinion is … that will be more important than the particular play between Chinese and U.S. box office,” he argued.

At the same time, short-term issues around boosting consumer spending were likely to play themselves out, Gelfond said, making competing Hollywood action pictures potentially no long-term policy or trend in China.

Foreign pictures competing at the local Chinese multiplex are watched closely by the major studios, given the growth potential of that fast-growing exhibition market.

And with the China Film Group setting release dates in the world’s second-largest film market, the cannibalization issue illustrates just how little leverage Imax and the major studios have in China.

Analysts also wanted to know whether China creating screen clashes between Hollywood titles was going to be copied by others.

“I think there’s no chance that happens. In China, there’s government regulation that controls when films happen. That doesn’t happen anywhere else,” Gelfond told analysts.

The Imax head also cautioned the Chinese government is no monolith and competing voices set policy in that market.

And Gelfond pointed to recent concessions by Chinese authorities when it comes to Hollywood movies, including relaxing exhibition quotas.

“I know it feels like the Dark Ages, but it was only six months ago that they changed the splits and allowed the extra 14 films in,” he observed.