Chinese Films in the US: Not a full house

Updated: 2013-08-30 11:05

By Wang Jun and Liu Yiyi (China Daily)

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Chinese Films in the US: Not a full house

The change

Rosen said the change started with the US Academy Award nominations in 2006. Almost all of the nominees for Best Picture were independent films. Because the independent films were so successful, every major studio including Warner Brothers, Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures started to set up their own small companies within their main studios and began to produce independent films.

Soon after that, there was greater competition in the independent-film industry, which made making those films more expensive. As a result, instead of booking foreign-language films, multiplex theaters began to book independent films from major studios. It became more difficult for foreign-language films to be on any screens in major theaters.

There was also competition from France, Italy, Japan, Sweden and elsewhere, which basically eliminated Chinese-language films. "The competition is so fierce," Rosen said, "even American independent films have not done that well since 2006."

Janet Yang, an American film producer, said the overall movie industry in the US is declining. "There are so many other distractions in our daily life. We have to admit that movies are no longer the dominating entertainment," she said.

Yang said the box office is facing challenges. "If you read reports that the box office is going up, that is only because the ticket price is going up," she said. "There is no growth in the number of tickets being sold."

Co-production films

Rosen agreed. "Ninety percent of the Chinese overseas box office receipts are from co-production films", he said. "The co-production has been declining greatly these years because China is getting stricter about what co-production is. It is hard for films to be accepted for co-production today."

Regulations for doing a co-production film in China cover a film's content, the number of Chinese stars and the percentage of funding provided by a Chinese company. The requirements may result in unsatisfactory global box-office receipts outside China. The makers of Iron Man 3, which was released this summer, decided not to do a co-production in Chinese.

Distributors are still hopeful.

"China Lion is gaining audiences these years, and China Lion is very confident with what they are doing," Lundberg said. The company's box-office gross in 2010 was $365,000 and increased to $818,000 in 2011 and $1.7 million in 2012.

Christopher Chen, vice-president of business development with Endgame Entertainment, an American company that co-produced Looper, said that per-screen-average box office should be the key criterion of the success of independent films. The overall box office may be low because the film is only played in a limited number of theaters, but the film is still a good film if the per-screen-average box office is high, he said.

Pfardrescher said Well Go is continuously growing and is doing very well. He attributed Well Go's success to strong relationships with digital platforms, such as Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon and Sony Play Station. "The max majority of Well Go's revenue comes from home entertainment, which is everything outside the theater," he said.

Transition period

Yang said that the film industry is in a transition period, and agreed that the digital platform is the future. She said theaters are only for the big budget, profitable franchises and everything else should go digital.

Pfardrescher said releasing films in movie theaters is very expensive. Well Go came up with a new model to release Ip Man: Final Fight. The film was first available through video-on-demand (VOD) digital platforms and then released in selected theaters a month later in September. Pfardrescher said this new model - releasing films on digital platforms before the traditional movie-theater release - makes it possible to reach general marketing exposure with less expense.

Lundberg said Well Go partnered with China Lion and helped to distribute several films such as A Simple Life on digital platforms. China Lion has its own channel on Hulu and has part of its content available on Netflix and other pay-per-view digital platforms.

Pfardrescher said China is now having its "golden time" for film production. He expects more good Chinese films in the future. Lundberg said the outside world is entering into China these days, and he believed that it will help China to produce more interesting stories.

Yang, a US-born Chinese, said she fell in love with China and began to learn Chinese when she visited China for the first time as a teenager. Later, she got her bachelor's degree in Chinese studies from Brown University.

From her personal experience, she said it takes time for Westerners to understand Chinese culture. Understanding between the two countries and the two cultures is growing, but it is a long journey, she said.

Yang said she has been waiting for the success of Chinese films since the 1980s. "Today is the golden time for the Chinese film market. This day finally arrives."

But in terms of marketing, when measuring the success of Chinese films, one should keep "realistic expectations", Rosen said.

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(China Daily USA 08/30/2013 page20)

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