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Hong Kong viewers boost U.S. fare

Chinese titles steadily declining

HONG KONG — The bottom might be falling out of the world’s financial markets, but for Hong Kong exhibitors, Christmas has come early — as long as they’re showing Hollywood pics.

With another six weeks to go to the end of the year, total box office grosses for the territory have hit $126 million to date, well over the $123 million total registered in 2007.

Strong showings from this year’s slate of summer Hollywood tentpoles, like “The Dark Knight,” “The Mummy 3” and surprise smash hit “Journey to the Center of the Earth” buoyed takings for the year, with “Knight” surpassing 2007’s top dog “Spider-Man 3” ($7.2 million).

Chinese films, however, continued the trend over the past several years of steadily declining market share. Even with Stephen Chow’s January hit “CJ7” taking top spot in 2008, only six Chinese-language films made it to the top 30, a drop from nine in the previous year. The only other Chinese-language film to break into the top 10 was the first installment of John Woo’s period epic “Red Cliff,” with a middling $3.1 million cume.

Faring worse yet are Hong Kong-specific films with little financial input from the mainland. The highest charting Cantonese-language film for 2008, “L for Love, L for Lies,” at No. 17, managed only a tepid $1.6 million gross, compared with 2007’s “Protege,” which took $3.3 million to land at No. 6.

It’s unlikely to get any better, either. “In terms of the number of Chinese pictures and box office take, we predict a further decline next year, especially with the strong lineup of films from the U.S. majors,” says Perry Yung, senior director of sales and marketing at Intercontinental Group, a local distributor that handles films from DreamWorks Animation and Disney.

It might seem like the exhibition business is in trouble — the number of screens is down slightly, ticket prices are flat, and businesses are quickly downsizing due to the economy.

But Yung says that in a difficult economic climate, cinema is a bright spot, with the average ticket price at an affordable HK$60 ($7) .

It also helped that most of 2008’s chart leaders were released in the first half of the year, before the crest of the banking meltdown. Since then, however, weekly box office takings, especially in October, have been lackluster, largely hovering around the $1.4 million mark.

For exhibitors like Vicky Wong, assistant general manager of UA Cinemas, things still look upbeat. “In November, we had ‘Quantum of Solace,’ and while it is very rare that we can get such a good film for a slow period like that, I think people are still looking for entertainment,” she says. Wong also points to the coming holiday season as proof of even bigger cumes to come.

December will see the premieres of high-profile Chinese-language films like Tsui Hark’s “All About Women” and the Nicholas Tse-starrer “Beast Stalker,” as well as Christmas releases from U.S. majors like “Australia” and “Madagascar 2,” which should propel 2008’s box office takings past the $135 million mark.

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