Mainland throws its own monkeywrenches

Hollywood is not the biggest worry in Hong Kong: It’s whether to work with the mainland China market or not.

“The number of Hong Kong films is going down, but the number that are co-productions with China is increasing,” Woody Tsung, prexy of the territory’s Motion Picture Industry Assn., says.

“Problem with that is the growing dependence on the China market and the difference between the audiences. It is very difficult to make a movie that pleases both China and Hong Kong.”

A case in point: The period action genre, such as “The Banquet” and “The Promise.” Both were big hits on the mainland but disappointments in Hong Kong. “The Banquet” did not even figure in Hong Kong’s top 20.

Local industry managed only five of the top 20 ranking films of the year in Hong Kong.

Top film was the Jet Li-starrer “Fearless,” a co-produced throwback to old-fashioned martial arts actioners. It passed the milestone RMB100 million ($12.8 million) in China, helped by producer-distrib-exhibitor Bill Kong’s ability to hold it on screens. It scored a boffo $3.9 million in Hong Kong.

Jackie Chan-starring comedy “Rob-B-Hood” was the only other Chinese-language film that worked well in both places.

“Almost all the drop in B.O. this year (about 5%) is due to the non-performance of local movies,” BVI’s Asia sales VP Jo Yan, says. “And much of that has to do with the way local movies are handled and released in China.”

Most have to go day-and-date in the two markets for anti-piracy reasons. But crush of big Chinese films in December period does not suit crowded and highly competitive Hong Kong. On the mainland, officials are largely able to clear screens in December for local movies and make strenuous marketing and promo efforts.

Mainland factors can create a release crunch at the end of the year in Hong Kong. On Dec. 22 local heavyweight “Curse of the Golden Flower” debuted against star-driven “Confession of Pain,” “Happy Feet” and “Casino Royale.”

(Chinese New Year on the mainland is less auspicious as city-dwellers leave town to go back to their rural roots, but in Hong Kong, Chinese New Year is usually good for local comedies.)

Yan suggests Hong Kong’s status as an also-ran market may reverse itself when the mainland China market matures.

“When the Chinese theatrical market is more developed, there will be more big movies and they will not all be released in the December period,” he says.

Nobody, however, knows when that will occur and meantime others are less upbeat.

“Hong Kong is becoming more like Taiwan,” says one local distribution and marketing exec. That’s not a compliment. It usually translates as meaning a market that is increasingly shallow, dominated by Hollywood’s event films.

Ten years ago top films regularly grossed more than $HK50 million ($6.4 million) in Hong Kong, one-third more than this year’s best “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Top 10 films “Superman,” “X-Men 3″ and “Cars” all arguably underperformed against expectations — as did bomb of the year “Poseidon.”

The biggest stars remain significant for the Hong Kong public with Johnny Depp, Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise leaders among the international names. Chinese superstar Chow Yun-fat had no film in the market before “Flower.” Stephen Chow was absent completely. (Good news is that both have pictures out next year.)

But a handful of films again proved that storytelling counts for plenty.

Japanese comicbook adaptation “Death Note” and its sequel were both low-budget films with creepy but compelling plots. But they worked.

Sleeper hit was “Eight Below,” a heart-warming tale of dogs stranded in the Antarctic. Marketing was unremarkable, but word-of-mouth and playdates expanded over several weeks. Like the good old days.

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