Co-pros are no-go

This week, instead of virtual reality, some cold hard reality: there’s no pot of gold waiting for you at the end of the Chinese co-production rainbow.

Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon and co-produced by Universal, Legendary, LeVision and China Film Group, succeeded in eliciting a universal “Meh” from audiences around the world, earning roughly $172 million USD in China (a figure which once would have been astonishing but now is unimpressive) and around $35 million USD in North America. With combined production and marketing expenses in the neighborhood of $250 million USD, and global revenues expected to peter out at $320 million USD (prior to exhibitors taking their share), it’s safe to say that investors in “the biggest-ever U.S.-China co-production” are less than thrilled.

On the bright side, we’ll hopefully be spared a glut of formulaic Great White Hope films set against the backdrop of other historical Middle Kingdom marvels, pimped by puffy Chinese real estate companies with their eager Hollywood studio mascots in tow. Folks actually have to think now, and that’s a good thing. So, let’s elevate that thinking with some straight talk.

First, the unfortunate fact is that…(full post on AWN)

Co-pros are no-go

China goes Wilde for “Zootopia”

Zootopia China

Disney’s ZOOTOPIA made box office history this weekend when it became the top-grossing animated film of all time in China with over one billion RMB (more than $174 million USD), surpassing the reigning champ, DreamWorks’ KUNG FU PANDA 3.

In doing so, the talented folks at Disney Animation Studios have engaged Chinese audiences in a way that their colleagues at Pixar still fail to. Despite being revered by Chinese animation students, and by mainland companies aspiring to be “the Chinese Pixar” (usually without any real comprehension of what that entails), Pixar has an ongoing relevance problem in China (demonstrating that “quality” alone is perhaps not the best business model). Forbes addressed this struggle in an article last October – charting Pixar’s inability to outperform middling flicks such as PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, MR. PEABODY & SHERMAN and THE SMURFS in mainland China – prior to the release of Pixar’s Academy Award-winning INSIDE OUT.

In addition to being a great film by a brilliant director, INSIDE OUT was also a business success by all reasonable accounts: grossing $856.8 million USD worldwide, with $356.46 million USD of that in North America and $500.35 million USD in international receipts. Yet in mainland China, INSIDE OUT only grossed $15.32 million USD: just 3.1% of its international total and a mere 1.8% of its worldwide gross. Only poor BRAVE checks in lower with 0.8% of its worldwide gross coming from China. With Disney’s second-largest theme park about to open in the world’s second largest film market, you can be sure that this resonance gap is a topic of conversation in the Disney board room.

So, what makes China go “Wilde” for ZOOTOPIA? Western studios hoping to appeal to Chinese audiences with the inclusion of superficial “Chinese elements” should note that ZOOTOPIA contains none whatsoever. Based on my observation in Chinese theaters, scrolling through WeChat posts, and conversations with Chinese colleagues, the appeal of ZOOTOPIA in China (and specifically, to China’s young adult females) appears to be: that it is funny but “real” (anyone who has sat all day in a Chinese bank or bureau gets the sloths); Judy is a relatable heroine (particularly with her parents’ pseudo-supportive encouragement to stifle her dreams); and Nick Wilde is a rakishly charming anti-hero (with a wounded heart in need of redemption, no less).

It’s been interesting to see the recent spate of fan art popping up online, depicting a love interest between Judy and Nick (all G-rated, of course – this is China). Nick Wilde appears to have usurped BIG HERO SIX’s Baymax as the ideal Chinese women hope their boyfriends would aspire to. And just as well. Despite earlier online buzz about Baymax being the “perfect boyfriend”, all the ladies in the house should know that Baymax would drive you batty after just a few hours (if that long). Nick Wilde is quicker on the uptake and a lot more fun to hang out with.

Has Disney cracked “the China Code” with ZOOTOPIA? Time will tell. Like most box office successes, the true driving factors are almost always a surprise (if even recognized) and rarely repeatable. In any event, foreign interests will only be allowed a certain amount of success in mainland China. Ever since Chinese media authorities were embarrassed in 2012 by foreign films taking more than 50% of mainland box office receipts, control over global fare has been exerted in increasingly unpredictable and effective ways. Foreign film fortunes will be pegged as a minority percentage of China’s domestic box office for the foreseeable future.

What IS happening is that studios such as Disney are training China’s “cinematic AI”. By way of analogy, Google co-founder Larry Page remarked in 2002 that rather than establishing a search engine, Google was really building an artificial intelligence – one that became “smarter” with your every click and query. Flash forward to 2016, when Google’s “AlphaGo” AI is trouncing human Go master Lee Sedol after being “crowd-trained” via its analysis of 30 million moves from games played by Go experts.

The true beneficiary of ZOOTOPIA’s success is China, who controls the board, controls the players, supports its local teams, and continues to learn and improve with every move. The house always wins.

China goes Wilde for “Zootopia”

Big fish

the-mermaid-poster

Investors hoping for big returns from China’s volatile stock market should turn instead to China’s film industry, where Stephen Chow’s THE MERMAID has become the biggest box office hit in Chinese history, with more than $382 million USD since its release date of February 8th, beating the previous record holder, Raman Hui’s formidable MONSTER HUNT.

Likewise, multi-national corporations hoping for big returns from their foreign films should take note of the clear preference of Chinese audiences (and officials) for high-quality local content, in an industry which is truly undergoing revolutionary growth.

 

Big fish

China rising

China's aspirationsIn a watershed weekend for Chinese film, Raman Hui’s live-action / animation epic MONSTER HUNT grossed $72 million USD, placing it atop not only the Chinese box office charts but the international box office charts as well.  MONSTER HUNT led a strong slate of domestic Chinese films including JIANBING MAN and THE MONKEY KING: HERO IS BACK, respectively nabbing the 1st, 3rd and 5th place positions internationally.  MONSTER HUNT rewrote opening day and opening weekend records for Chinese film, redefining revenue parameters at every turn (MONSTER HUNT earned more in mainland China this past weekend than Illumination’s MINIONS did in 50 international territories combined).  And all of this on the heels of huge box office performances from Chinese hits TINY TIMES 4.0 and FOREVER YOUNG.  The dragon is roaring.

Years ago, while lecturing on China’s growing media industry, I presented an adaptation of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (often referred to as Maslow’s Pyramid), representing the aspirations of Chinese content creators & media producers.  At the time, China’s media industry was progressing to a level of self-esteem.  With this past weekend as a marker, it’s safe to say that China has now attained a level of self-achievement.

China rising

Monster hit

天师招聘

As reported by Variety, director Raman Hui’s MONSTER HUNT scared up 172 million RMB ($27.7 million USD) on opening day – setting a new record for domestic Chinese films in a week that also saw 3D animated feature THE MONKEY KING: HERO IS BACK open big, and priming this box office weekend to be China’s highest grossing ever.

More noteworthy than the numbers is the impressive integration of CGI creatures with live actors & environments, on both the technical AND story fronts.  The digital monsters establish themselves emotionally to a degree not seen before in Chinese film – running the gamut from fearsome to comic to adorable.  This feat is even more commendable considering the near-fatal blow dealt to the film from China’s ban on leading actor Ko Kai, following his arrest and conviction for drug use last year.  Not only did producer Bill Kong see his budget balloon by nearly 50% in costly reshoots, but the actors (particularly replacement lead Jing Boran) were required to meticulously register their performances to finished CGI character animation, while simultaneously appearing engaging and unconstrained.  It’s a credit to the cast & crew that you’d never know what this film went through as you enjoy it in the theaters.

MONSTER HUNT is expected to clear $100 million USD in China over its first four days, and should have international legs.  It certainly has heart.  2015 is shaping up to be a watershed year for Chinese feature film.

Monster hit

Monkey business

Monkey King

After 8 years of development and production, October Animation Studio’s animated feature MONKEY KING: HERO RETURNS (did he ever leave?) is playing in mainland China (English trailer available on YouTube, complete with drowsy narrator).  Though commanding fewer than 9% of Chinese screens, director TIAN Xiao Peng’s fresh take on Sun Wu Kong grossed 95.4 million RMB on its opening weekend.  Less than the 100+ million RMB that live-action young adult phenomenon TINY TIMES 4 grossed on opening day, but enough to put MONKEY KING: HERO RETURNS on track to become one of China’s highest-grossing animated feature films.

With an estimated budget in the neighborhood of just $5 million USD, the production quality of the film has been receiving rave reviews by those who understand the context of the endeavor.  Although the story loses steam in Act 2 in a manner typical of most Chinese animated features, MONKEY KING: HERO RETURNS is yet another step forward for China’s resurgent animation industry.

Monkey business