Local films are losing ground to Hollywood imports at the Chinese box office. Liz Shackleton explores how China’s production sector, still in a relatively early stage of development, is approaching the marketplace

Although China’s box office increased by 37% to $1.2bn in the first half of 2012, the picture was not rosy for locally produced films.

Following the widening of import quotas, Hollywood blockbusters such as Titanic 3D, Marvel’s The Avengers and Men In Black 3 dominated the market in the first six months, while the market share of local films dropped from more than 50% to only 30%.

The situation was reversed at the end of June when Huayi Brothers’ Painted Skin II: The Resurrection opened at the beginning of a “national film protection month”, in which US films were kept off screens. The period fantasy became China’s highest-grossing local film ever with a box-office haul of $115m (rmb725m).

More recently, four local films were released during the National Day holidays (October 1-7) to respectable but not stellar results. Huayi Brothers’ Tai Chi Zero came out top, grossing $18m up until October 7; followed by Enlight Pictures’ The Assassins, starring Chow Yun-fat, with $13.8m; Double Xposure, starring Fan Bingbing, with $13.1m, and Dangerous Liaisons, starring Zhang Ziyi, with $8.3m.

The National Day box office was considered underwhelming, but that has been the case for the past few years; the industry actually saves its biggest guns for the period from December to Chinese New Year in February.

Hotly anticipated films scheduled for release at the end of this year include Feng Xiaogang’s Back To 1942, starring Adrien Brody and Tim Robbins, and Jackie Chan’s Chinese Zodiac.

‘We need to learn from Hollywood’s marketing experience and production techniques’

Ann An, Desen International Media

Still in its first decade of development, the local production sector faces many challenges in addition to Hollywood competition. But local producers sound resourceful when asked how they can compete. Instead of throwing money at the problem and increasing budgets, they are starting to examine ways of improving production standards and differentiating their product.

“It is good that more Hollywood films are coming in as it forces us to make different kinds of films and really focus on how to appeal to the local audience,” says Zhang Zhao, CEO of Le Vision Pictures which produced Lo Chi-leung’s recent hit The Bullet Vanishes.

Ann An, chairman of Desen International Media, which has produced films such as 14 Blades and Zhang Yang’s Full Circle, argues that Chinese producers have much to learn from the new competition: “This is not the time for Chinese films to compete head-to-head with Hollywood. What we need to do now is learn from Hollywood about its marketing experience and world-leading production techniques.”

More emphasis is also being placed on marketing and distribution, which in development terms has lagged behind China’s production and exhibition industries. “The issue now is how do we distribute and do marketing in China rather than talking about regulatory issues,” says Zhang.

Two other problems have plagued the Chinese film industry since it started to commercialise in 2002: over-production and lack of diversity in film genres. However, there are signs that both are abating as the market matures.

According to EntGroup, the number of films produced increased by 6% to 558 last year, only a third of which reached theatres, but this compares with a 15% growth rate in 2010. The Beijing-based market research company believes this is because the market is maturing and the flood of hot money is starting to recede.

The market has struggled to produce a more diverse range of films due to censorship restrictions, which make contemporary subjects difficult, and the proven success of period martial-arts films in the $10m-$20m bracket. “With this budget you can hire China’s A-list cast and if you have the right script it would not be difficult to make $50m at the box office,” says An.

In recent years, there has been an increase in romantic dramas and comedies, thrillers and animated films. Hits this year include Ning Hao’s heist caper Guns N’ Roses [pictured]. But production costs are rising and only a handful of these films recoup at the box office.

On china’s slate

From the latest Jackie Chan adventure to Feng Xiaogang’s anticipated film with Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody, Liz Shackleton profiles the hottest new Chinese titles

American Dreams In China

Hong Kong’s Peter Ho-sun Chan directs this drama about three university graduates who establish a multi-billion dollar business in China. Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei and Deng Chao head the cast, which also includes supermodel Du Juan. Filming took place this summer in Beijing and New York. Chan’s We Pictures is producing with China Film Group.

Contact Katherine Lee, We Distribution, kat@wedistribution.com

Chinese Zodiac

Jackie Chan directs and stars in this globe-trotting action adventure which is scheduled for release in both regular and Imax versions on December 20. Produced by Chan’s JC Group, Huayi Bros and Emperor Motion Pictures, the film was shot in Beijing and France where it took in locations including Chateau de Chantilly and Musée Condé.

Contact Ramy Choi, Jackie & JJ International, ramychoi@gmail.com

The Four 2 and 3

Enlight Pictures is planning two 3D sequels to Gordon Chan’s wuxia action title The Four, which grossed $30.9m at the Chinese box office this summer. Based on Wen Ruian’s novels about four detectives in ancient China, the first film in the trilogy starred Deng Chao, Ronald Cheng, Collin Chou and Crystal Liu.

Contact Zhang Yamin, Enlight Pictures, missy_film@foxmail.com

Gone With The Bullets

Leading Chinese film-maker Jiang Wen is preparing a sequel to his 2010 hit Let The Bullets Fly and eyeing Gong Li and Ge You to head the cast. The sequel will be set in the warring 1920s, like the original, though the plots of the two films will not be closely connected.

Contact Marco Ma, Buyilehu Films, homber@gmail.com

Journey To The West

Stephen Chow is writing, directing and producing this film, loosely based on the Chinese classic, which is set for release during Chinese New Year. The film is produced by Chow’s Bingo Group and backed by ChinaVision Media Group, Edko Films and Village Roadshow Entertainment Group Asia. Wen Zhang, Huang Bo and Shu Qi head the cast.

Contact Alice Chow, Bingo Group, alice.chow@bingogroup.com.hk

The Last Tycoon

Chow Yun-fat is starring in this period gangster thriller which tells the story of real-life gangster Du Yuesheng who built his crime empire in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. Backed by Bona Film Group, the film is directed by Wong Jing with Peter Pau on board as DoP and Infernal Affairs director Andrew Lau as producer.

Contact Virginia Leung, Distribution Workshop, virginia@distributionworkshop.com

Lethal Hostage

Directed by newcomer Cheng Er, this fast-paced crime thriller was critically acclaimed on its release in August and grossed $4.8m (rmb30m). Reminiscent of the work of Ning Hao, who helped produce, the film follows six characters embroiled in the drugs trade on the China-Burma border. The ensemble cast includes Sun Honglei.

Contact Ronan Wong, Beijing Galloping Horse, huangguoxian@xmbt.com.cn

Back To 1942

The highly anticipated feature from China’s most commercially successful director, Feng Xiaogang, depicts the devastating famine that claimed three million lives in China’s Henan province during the Second World War. Tim Robbins and Adrien Brody star alongside Xu Fan and Zhang Hanyu. The film will also be released in December in an Imax version.

Contact Leslie Chen, Huayi Brothers, leslie.chen@huayimedia.com


Produced by China Film Group and directed by Jay Sun, this $20m action adventure was filmed in several international locations including Dubai. The story follows a gang of thieves attempting to steal the famous Chinese painting Dwelling In The Fuchun Mountains, which was split in two 300 years ago. Andy Lau, Zhang Jingchu and Lin Chi-ling head the cast.

Contact Ricky Tse, Media Asia, ricky_tse@mediaasia.com

The White-Hair Witch

Bona Film Group is financing this period fantasy directed by Jacob Cheung and produced by Tsui Hark and Huang Jianxin. The 3D production, which stars Fan Bingbing and Huang Xiaoming, started shooting at the end of October. Tim Yip is on board as art director.

Contact Virginia Leung, Distribution Workshop, virginia@distribution workshop.com