Welcome to China Film File, a weekly brief on the business of movies in China. In this week’s news: Transformers shatters China’s box office records amidst sour deals and protectionist government memos, Huayi Brothers and Enlight Media will cumulatively generate $854 million in film funds, and a banned film wins the Grand Jury prize at the Shanghai Film Festival.
As expected, Transformers: Age of Extinction blew China’s box office away with a record-shattering opening weekend. Friday’s opening-day sales of nearly $27 million were higher than any other movie ever released on the mainland. The film’s opening weekend take of $90 million was $2.5 million short of the entire opening weeklong take of previous record holder The Monkey King. With sales only $10 million less than its American premiere, the film’s exceptional release has pulled China’s film market into full focus globally. Both thoroughly marketed in advance and designed from the ground up with the Chinese market in mind, Transformers features many Chinese product placements, mainland stars like Li Bingbing, and multiple segments shot across the country. The blockbuster’s expected total ticket sales are now on track to top Avatar’s cumulative $220 million, giving anxiety to China’s government as it tries to build up its domestic film industry.
Although the film’s producers are probably elated over the overwhelming success of the blockbuster, they are not without frustration after becoming embroiled in a major legal battle following a sour deal with a hotel in Beijing. Erupting over a deal the film’s producers made with luxury hotel Beijing Pangu Plaza in order to place the hotel prominently in scenes of the film, things became tense when a decision was made to cut around 20 seconds of footage relating to the hotel in the film. Unhappy with the edits, the Pangu group decided to sue the production for its investment back and even made attempts to hold the film’s release back.
Because the film was expected to do so well, its release prompted preemptive official memos from a state regulator in the China Film Bureau, chief Zhang Hongson. “This is the year when the battle between Hollywood and China really begins. Chinese films are encountering serious challenges and 2014 is a crucial year to decide who the winner will be.”
Zhang’s protectionist statements echo state concerns that China’s film industry will lose a significant share of its own market if imported productions aren’t managed properly before the mainland’s foreign film quota is raised in 2018. Although China’s locally produced films edged out Hollywood fare over the last year, the chief’s worries are sustained by his prediction that “With the release of Transformers 4: Age of Extinction, domestic film’s market share will fall below 50 percent.” Zhang even went as far as to urge theater chain owners to hold back the film from all possible viewing slots in order to help the national film industry, adding that, “The main point is that we need to defend and fight for our cultural territory. On the economic aspect we will have to see if we will be forced to surrender.”
Although the comments seem overly combative, the chief’s words highlight significant market tensions that will definitely only mount in what will be a crucial next few years for China’s film industry.
Two of China’s largest film studios, Enlight Media and Huayi Brothers, have laid separate plans to cumulatively generate an $854 million film fund to further tap the current immense growth of China’s film industry. Enlight plans on raising $451 million for movies and television content, while the CG blockbuster-heavy Huayi Brothers plan to raise $320 million to fund a reported 12 movies and five television series.
The 17th Annual Shanghai Film Festival’s competition awarded its highest prize, the golden goblet, to a Greek film named Little England by Pantelis Voulgaris. Set in the 1930s, the period romantic drama also culled the festival’s award for Best Director. Controversially, actress Gong Li, the festival’s head jurist, awarded the second prize to a Chinese film that was banned from the public view named The Uncle Victory.
Just after the selection was made, it was revealed that Huang Haibo, the lead actor of Victory was caught with a prostitute and is serving a 15-day prison stint along with six months of “re-education.” The jury’s decision to highlight the banned film was most likely a statement about the film and the current incarceration of Haibo. The festival ended up screening the film privately but canceled five public screenings and declined to comment about the film to journalists.