Toronto: Legendary East Chief Says Chinese Film Market Poised for Major Expansion

Zhang Yimou
Joe Pugliese

The world's second-biggest film market is set for 70,000 screens

The Chinese film market is set to expand massively in the coming years, with more theater screens and more major companies entering the industry, Legendary East chief Peter Loehr told a panel at the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Even at a low penetration, China should have about 70,000 screens. Screens are being built every single day. The audience is demanding the screens and the audience is going up,” said Loehr, who was in conversation with TIFF’s artistic director, Cameron Bailey, at the Asian Film Summit section of the festival.

Loehr is a 19-year veteran of the Chinese film industry, having worked as an independent producer and as CAA’s China boss, before joining Legendary’s Asian film unit.

Legendary East is currently working on a big budget movie, Great Wall, with leading Chinese director Zhang Yimou.

When it came to Great Wall, Legendary decided to go big.

“There is a lot of middle-budget film-making being done in China. When we were looking for added value, we thought we should make the kind of movie that we make in the U.S., with big budget and special effects,” he said.

“Zhang Yimou is a master at what he does and the scale of what he does is very well utilized on this movie,” he said.

Loehr said there had been some internal discussion about whether Zhang Yimou had done a movie of that scale and responded, saying that he'd done the biggest production ever, with the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

The production is currently in casting; the screenplay is finished and they are moving towards production beginning next year.

There were still structural issues to be dealt with in the China market, but the arrival of major listed companies into the film market, such as e-commerce giant Alibaba and tech firms like Tencent, would see the industry grow in sophistication.

“We are looking at companies who control markets moving into the film market. Alibaba is the world’s largest e-commerce site and it’s natural that it will want to move into the industry,” he said.

One of the problems in China is that 99 percent of the income comes from box office, but this over-reliance on one revenue stream could change.

And the box office for event movies was also impressive.

“The average ticket cost is around $6.50, but the opening night prices for tickets for a Transformers or a Godzilla is around $26. There is a huge appetite for the event movie,” he said

Regulation of the online market, which has been a big theme in recent days as censorship of TV shows online has been introduced, was inevitable, because it exists in cinema and TV, so it was only really a matter of time before it started to apply to online content.

In the absence of any ratings or classification system, filmmakers are basically trying to make PG movies.

“There are certain genres that work very well and certain that don’t. If I want to make a horror movie with zombies everywhere, that’s probably not going to work,” he said.

“There is a strong desire among Chinese companies to make co-productions. There is a lot of capital that can be deployed in China to help a young filmmaker to get their film made. If you have the right idea and interesting concept, there is a lot of opportunity. If you have an actual real co-production there is a possibility to have a breakout success,” said Loehr.