Cantonese Take Out

It was bad enough when “Jurassic Park’s” dinosaurs trampled over Hong Kong stalwarts to become the all-time box office champ of the territory in 1993. But when Keanu Reeves outdistanced Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fatt in last year’s “Speed,” it was confirmation that Cantonese filmmakers are in a decided slump.

How big? They’ve lost one-third of their home market since 1992, when 33.2 million tickets were sold to Canto blockbusters in Hong Kong. Last year, only 29.1 million admissions were recorded, despite increased production to 192 films, and the trend looks set to continue.

Not only was the overall Hong Kong market down a dismal 19.4% in 1994, but the prices Southeast Asian buyers are paying for Canto features have shrunk to an estimated one-fifth of 1992 levels. (All HK films are in Cantonese; Mandarin is the main language of films from mainland China.)

“Jurassic Park” was the first foreign feature to climb to the top of the local HK box office – even on a yearly basis – in more than 10 years.

Western pix have consistently done one-fifth of the business of Canto features, rising to one-third in 1994. But their performance has been consistent, hovering around the 9 million admission mark for the last five years.

“Speed” wasn’t last year’s champion in Hong Kong, grossing HK$46.43 million ($6.4 million) because Western films are taking over, say pundits – but because Hong Kong films are on their knees.

The industry admits its own shortcomings.

“Everyone knows it’s because the quality of Hong Kong films is down,” says Peter Tsi, director of Motion Picture Industry Assn. of Hong Kong(MPIA).

Adds Bill Kong, chairman of Edko Films, a local distributor and operator of 18 theaters: “The trouble with Hong Kong films is that they can be very poor. The quality has seriously declined over the last two years.”

Maria Orzel, marketing manager of UIP – Southeast Asia, who released “Jurassic Park” and notched up three films in Hong Kong’s top 20 last year, says: “We learned the hard way that you can only release top-quality product in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Now Cantonese films have to go through the same process.”

Some say time may be running out. The current slump started in 1993, when admissions to Hong Kong films dropped by 8.2 million.

That was blamed on audience fatigue, when every possible permutation of the period-actioner hit the market at the same time.

Tsi admits: “We also expected 1994 to be bad. We’re not surprised. Having run out of ideas for costume martial arts movies, producers haven’t found anything to fill the void. There have been very few creative movies released over the last 24 months.”

Almost everybody has bombed in this newly persnickety market – from actionmeister Tsui Hark to the more artsy Stanley Kwan – even Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fatt, Hong Kong’s two top marquee names, have nose-dived. Nothing is a certainty anymore.

Dropping prices

And basing their bids on the low Hong Kong box office tallies, buyers in Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia have dropped their prices dramatically.

It’s going to be tough, admit producers, to bring that Southeast Asian market back to its 1992 levels. “We released too much overpriced rubbish,” said a local director. “Now we’re paying the price ourselves.”

Hong Kong people are still movie-mad, but they prefer to watch at home. In 1989, 44.8 million tickets were sold in this territory of only 6.2 million people.

That was down to 29.1 million last year – blamed by some on the rise of the multiplex. Ticket prices have doubled – the multiplexes, mainly operated by UA, charge the highest rates in Hong Kong, between HK$50 ($7) and HK$55 ($8) per head, and other owners have followed suit.

Up until 1992, giant cinemas held audiences of 1,500-plus at cheap rates, but with the rise of property prices in Hong Kong, only a handful of these are now left.

‘Dramatic change’

“That’s a dramatic change in the screening environment,” said Tsi. “Five years ago, you got a bigger seat, a bigger screen, a much cheaper ticket. And traditionally, families went together. That’s not a sensible option anymore. The demographics have changed completely to the point where teenagers are now supporting the local film industry.” There’s no doubt that audiences are sending the film industry a clear message.

“A lot of unscrupulous producers raced in and saturated the market in 1992,” says Kong. “They dropped the budgets to an average of HK$8 million ($1.1 million) per picture, raced through post-production and saturated the market. It’s not that Hong Kong people like Cantonese films vs. Western films, or vice versa. They just love good films. Things have to change.”

Bulging budgets

Tsi estimates that budgets will soar to HK$30 million ($4.2 million) to HK$40 million in 1995.

Meanwhile, Orzel has her own analysis. ” ‘Jurassic Park’ took HK$61 million ($8.8 million), and that’s still at least HK$12 million ahead of the rest of the field,” she says. “It attracted some people who had never seen a Western film before. And they realized they were being shortchanged.”

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