TIFF Offers Its Own Look at Booming Chinese Film Industry

Chinese film officials heralding a cinema revival not seen since the 1930s.

With Chinese film officials boasting that domestic ticket sales will overtake Japan's to make China the world's second-largest movie market in the next five years, moviemakers from the Middle Kingdom are flying their flag high at the Tokyo International Film Festival and its film market here this week.

Japan's total box office gross in 2009 was 206 billion yen ($2.54 billion), according to the Motion Picture Producers' Assn. of Japan, while China's Film Bureau tallied 2009 ticket receipts at 6.2 billion yuan ($910 million), a 44% year-on-year jump.

With two Chinese dramas in TIFF competition this week – Li Yu's "Buddha Mountain" and Zhang Meng's "The Piano in a Factory" – the question of what kind of movies will score in China's new marketplace was a hot topic.

With Hollywood tentpoles like "Avatar" and a raft of locally made films and Hong Kong co-productions of increasing quality lighting up China's theaters, Chinese ticket sales soared 86% in the first half of 2010. Now, official estimates show sales hitting $6 billion by 2015. (U.S. 2009 box office gross was more than $9 billion).

Despite the fact that Chinese films accounted for 56% of the box office gross last year, the two top-grossing movies of 2009 were U.S. studio pictures -- "2012" ($67.5 million) and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ($63 million) -- followed by state propaganda pic "The Founding of a Republic" ($61 million).

Already the world's second-largest overall economy, having overtaken Japan earlier this year, China and its middle class are in the throes of a cinema revival not seen since the 1930s, a boom that is causing a rush to build more multiplexes and attracting the world's attention. And whereas Japan's market has long been saturated with state-of-the-art multiplexes, China will build another 1,500 cinema screens this year, raising the total to 6,000, then doubling it again to 12,000 by the end of 2015, according to the China Film Producers Assn.

Each of these new Chinese theaters means more tickets sold. "Avatar" jump-started the action for China's new exhibitors in 2010, grossing $204 million in China alone and helping to push box office receipts to $726 million in the first half of the year, up 86% from a year earlier, according to Tong Gang, director of the film bureau at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

But all China's grosses are not entirely due to a swelling in the size of the audience, which analysts estimate remains steady at about 200 million filmgoers. Much of the growth comes from those filmgoers' getting richer and developing a cinema habit that's allowing exhibitors to hike the cost of tickets to offset the cost of building nearly three new screens a day, mostly in second- and third-tier cities.

A regular Chinese movie ticket averages 35 yuan ($5.26) but a 3D ticket can cost 80 yuan ($12) and an Imax film -- such as Feng Xiaogang's "Aftershock," the current all-time domestic box office champion, at over 660 million yuan ($99 million) -- can run as much as 150 yuan ($22.53) per head.

All this building suggests that Chinese movie ticket prices will only continue to climb. To fill those screens and meet the demand of China's consumers, 500 films will be made this year, up from 80 or fewer in 2002. Despite China's strong taste for the Hollywood films -- long viewed illegally on pirated DVDs and via Internet downloads -- Beijing caps the number of imported films allowed to share in a percentage of their own gross ticket sales to just 20 a year.

Officials at SARFT, which tracks the country's box office and monitors what's appropriate for Chinese audiences, say that homemade small- and medium-budget films are the answer to keeping the moviegoing going. Recently, Huaxia Film Distribution Co., a cousin of the CFG, agreed to distribute 18 homegrown films, including Zhang Yimou's "Under the Hawthorn Tree."

Beijing's calls for small films aside, Hong Kong co-productions are leading the Chinese-language charge to reach Mainland moviegoers, with films such as Huayi's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" by Tsui Hark grossing 180 million yuan ($27 million) during the recent National Day holiday period. Tsui is now directing Jet Li in "The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate," a $35 million, 3D remake of a martial arts classic that began shooting outside Beijing this month.

Another Hong Konger who migrated north to seek his fortune is "Bodyguards and Assassins" producer Peter Chan, now directing the martial arts mystery "Wuxia" starring Donnie Yen in Yunnan Province. Chan and We Pictures will unveil first footage of the film, co-starring Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tang Wei, at the American Film Market in November.

With Hong Kongers firmly established in the mainland, Hollywood studios are homing in. Where 10 years ago it was Sony Pictures and five years ago it was Warner Bros. leading Hollywood's China charge, now it's Fox and Disney working on their co-production chops.

Fox International Prods. and partner Huayi Brothers Media grossed more than $19 million off the $2 million spring hit "Hot Summer Days." Now the U.S. studio's recruited "Bourne Identity" director and producer Doug Liman to help present Beijing-based director Wuershan's debut $1.5 million feature "The Butcher, The Chef and the Swordsman," due out Nov. 25.

Huayi also helped Disney produce a Chinese version of the hit franchise "High School Musical," transported to a Shanghai college. The film was Disney's third film in China in four years. Critics said Disney's attempt to make stars of an unknown cast flopped when a misdirected marketing campaign failed to raise interest among Chinese consumers demanding star power.

It's against this competitive backdrop of meteoric growth and Hollywood jockeying that France, New Zealand and Singapore all signed film treaties with Beijing in the last six months in moves to establish toeholds, too. Russia, Britain, India and Belgium are all also negotiating with Beijing.

The Holy Grail for producers from these smaller moviemaking countries would be a piece of something like John Woo's 2008 "Red Cliff," which the Hong Kong director with a decade of Hollywood credits co-produced with money from China, Japan, the U.S., Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The third-century war epic based on a story well-known across Northeast Asia, gross $47 million in China, $53 million in Japan and $9 million in South Korea.

But not every co-production can be a "Red Cliff" and Woo, who's about to start shooting his biggest picture yet, the Sino-US WWII buddy movie "Flying Tigers," says he can make the film with money from the CFG alone if no Hollywood studio wants to pony up. (Fox is making its own picture about the Flying Tigers' founder, U.S. Army Air Corps Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault).

Like Woo, other Chinese film veterans are feeling new confidence. People such as Yu Dong, CEO of Beijing Poly Bona Film Distribution and its co-production arm, Bona International Film Group, are just as often reaching out to Asian neighbors as they are flying to L.A. In June, Yu signed a co-production agreement with Korean powerhouse CJ Entertainment, the company that in 1995 put $300 million into a revamped DreamWorks.

The first project Bona and CJ are working on together is a Chinese remake of a Hollywood picture, director Chen Daming's "What Women Want," starring Gong Li. And Bona's got its hand in another Hollywood remake, this time in English: hit maker Jan de Bont is directing Zhang Ziyi in the classic tale of Hua Mulan, made famous outside China by the 1998 Disney cartoon.

But since not every China co-production can be a "Karate Kid" -- in which Overbrook, Sony Pictures and CFG paired a big Chinese actor (Jackie Chan) with a cute American kid (Jayden Smith) against a Chinese backdrop (The Great Wall) -- the pressure is on to find stories that will appeal to China's audience. After all, "Karate Kid" was a near flop in China after censors muddled the story by cutting the Chinese bully kid characters and approving release for a weekend right before key Chinese school exams. Meanwhile, outside China, director Harald Zwart's $40 million picture has grossed $334 million worldwide, including $176 million in the U.S.

Since the U.S. market is still more competitive than China's, yet China is where the growth is, finding the right story for Chinese viewers is key, just as it is in Hollywood -- but the pressure to get that story right is even greater in China.

"The difference in China is that there's only the box office, no ancillary revenues," said Arnie Messer, president and COO of Phoenix Pictures, the U.S.-Sino co-production company he and "Shanghai" and "Shutter Island" producer Mike Medavoy founded in May with partner Jonathan Shen of Beijing-based Shinework with a view to co-producing. "This very much rewards good films," Messer said. "The explosive growth has drawn out a lot of investors who are now seeking a way to the right stories that will allow them to get a piece of this phenomenon."

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