Auds give thumbs down to Canton-language pix

The continued nose dive of Hong Kong films (Cantonese-language productions) is causing alarm bells to ring throughout the territory – and the industry to question whether things will ever pick up again.

Figures for the first eight months of 1995 indicate that Hong Kong movies were down HK$105 million ($15 million) at the box office over the same period last year – and 1994 itself hit a record low.

Go west

Western films have rallied somewhat – boosting their box office take by $7.1 million – but admissions to Hong Kong cinemas were down by 2 million tickets over the same period in 1994 (which itself fielded a 20% drop over 1993). This is the third straight year in which audiences have simply stayed at home, and the market has shrunk by about 40% in that period.

Throughout that time, overseas films have stood fast in terms of admissions – around the 9 million mark. But Hong Kong films have taken a hammering.

As recently as 1989, Hong Kong residents couldn’t get to the cinema fast enough – 44.8 million tickets were sold in that year, making local audiences one of the most frequent cinemagoers in the world. Last year, that was down to 29 million.

19 million sold

In the first eight months of this year, only 19 million tickets were sold, with Cantonese-language productions taking a bath again, as audiences gave the big thumbs down to Cantonese film. With production costs for a local movie running anywhere from $589,000 to $5 million, and stars such as Andy Lau commanding $1 million per picture, only four local films this year have made more than $30 million at the box office.

“It’s gotten to the point where we have to ask, does the market exist anymore? Is it just fading away?” says Wellington Fung, the general manager of Media Asia, which produced five medium-to-low budget films this year. “It’s all very well to put more money into your production, but what’s the point if the audience just isn’t there? You’ll only lose it. It’s the same old trap – you need a star to guarantee returns, the stars’ prices are all but unaffordable, you lose every which way you turn.”

Finally, theater owners – slammed as “rapacious” in the past for raising admission prices to $8 in the middle of the slump – are planning to drop prices by half for specified times and dates.

Chan fans

One thing’s for sure – if it wasn’t for Jackie Chan, the local film industry would be in an even worse position. His two movies this year, “Rumble in the Bronx” and “Thunderbolt,” have grossed $15 million, more than one-sixth of the combined gross of Hong Kong movies through the end of August.

The top-performing Western film this year has been “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” taking $4.5 million, but overseas movies are performing strongly in the $2 million to $4 million range – even “Leon,” a small production from French director Luc Besson, has managed to gross $2.8 million, putting it in 10th place for the year. Even “Showgirls” opened with $1.1 million on 22 screens over five days – tripling the take of Canto-production “Young Policemen in Love,” which opened on 25 screens at the same time.

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