'Curse' leads strong domestic business

BEIJING — The mandarins of Chinese cinema can look back with satisfaction on a boffo year in 2006, with revenues at a growing number of cinemas rising by nearly one-third to RMB2.62 billion ($336 million), compared with $256 million a year earlier.

A growing number of Chinese are going to the movies, and it appears that what they want to see are period war films with lavish costumes and lots of martial arts — solid films that won’t raise the hackles of China’s hawkish censors.

Even more satisfying for the heads of the powerful state-run film companies and private production companies is the news that the year’s bumper crop of costumed chopsocky epics held their own against foreign invaders from Hollywood, with domestic pics racking up five of the top 10 films; Hollywood accounted for the remaining five.

There were 330 feature films made in China last year, a rise of 70 on the previous year. Chinese filmmakers also made 112 digital movies and skeins, according to Tong Gang, director of the Film Bureau of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT).

It’s not entirely surprising that the domestic biz did so well — it had a lot of help from regulators who imposed four blackout periods during the year, during which time new releases of Hollywood pics were banned in order to boost domestic product.

“Domestic films accounted for 55% of the box office in 2006, a slight growth over 2005,” Tong says.

A big factor driving the strong performance appears to have been improved exhibition facilities. Eighty-two new cinemas were built during the year, adding 366 screens in 2006, bringing the total to 1,325 theaters with 3,034 screens, he says.

Zhang Yimou’s $45 million “Curse of the Golden Flower” stole the show during 2006, saving face after so many other

local movies failed to gain B.O. traction. Stirring mix of swords, cleavage and palace intrigue made “Curse” a candidate for most successful film ever in China. Released in December, “Curse” already has earned $31 million. Another martial arts historical epic, Feng Xiaogang’s “The Banquet,” made a respectable $16 million during 2006.

Both pics received lukewarm critical receptions, but Chinese auds were wooed by muscular marketing and wide distribution. “Curse” dominated digital screenings during the year, to the point where helmer Jia Zhangke was threatening to sue over the fact that there was nowhere to screen his Venice-winning “Still Life.”

Film Bureau VP Zhang Hongsen defends the continued focus on martial arts epics with historical themes and big battle scenes, saying they are considered a safer bet by Chinese investors.

Tong also hails the performance of a number of medium- and small-budget films during the year. The surprise hit of the year was the Ning Hao-helmed summer sleeper “Crazy Stone” by Hong Kong’s Focus Films and Warner’s production unit JV Warner China Film HG. Pic was made on a shoestring but took in a respectable $3 million in ticket sales.

In third and fourth places on the top 10 list were “The Da Vinci Code” and “King Kong,” each with $13 million. This is a particularly strong performance for “Code,” as it was removed from theaters early after apparently angering religious groups in China, despite its popularity with auds.

Last year was a good year for mainland productions with big Hong Kong input. In addition to “Curse” and “Banquet,” which had Hong Kong finance and co-producers, “Fearless,” starring Jet Li, was the fifth highest-grosser, with nearly $13 million. Jackie Chan starrer “Rob-B-Hood” was sixth with $12 million, while the Jacob Cheung-helmed historical epic “Battle of Wits,” which featured Andy Lau, was ninth with nearly $9 million.

More Chinese are watching pics on the bigscreen, despite the lure of widely available, cheap pirate DVDs and illegal movie downloads.

Tong believes that while domestic blockbusters put in a strong performance, they did suffer from similar themes and simple content.

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