Mature markets, dedicated filmgoers boost sales

Asia contains some of the world’s biggest developing nations (India, China) as well as some of the globe’s most dedicated moviegoers (Singapore, South Korea). So it should come as little surprise that box office in the region is generally up.

China

Of all the countries in the world, China has the potential to see the biggest growth in its theatrical territory — even though its market is still one of the most underscreened and most politicized.

Already, Chinese exhibitors are talking of a monthlong moratorium in December, allowing for only one film in release: part two of the John Woo historic actioner “Red Cliff.”

Given that the last 31 days of the calendar year is peak season for filmgoing, the month can make all the difference between a good and a bad year for the whole industry. The only credible challenger at that time would be Chen Kaige’s “Mei Lan Fang,” his biopic of a Peking opera star, which, if it is allowed to be released then, would be a neat piece of all-Chinese counterprogramming.

In 2007, December allowed a great deal of catch-up for Chinese-language movies, which in the first half had taken a terrible beating as Hollywood picture after Hollywood picture caught fire.

This matters greatly in a territory where production numbers and the ability to square up to American power (preferably by manipulating releases and carefully deciding which films get through the 20-movie import quota in order to achieve a majority share of the box office for local pics) are matters of policy.

Restricted as they are, Hollywood and other foreign films are enjoying double-digit growth in China as more multiplexes open, with the twin effects of expanding spectator numbers and pushing up average ticket prices. The biggest films of the year put up the kind of numbers that would be respectable in any territory — “Transformers” ran away with some $35 million last year; this year, “Forbidden Kingdom” has nabbed $26 million — but rental splits are still meager even for official “revenue share” titles.

According to state media, B.O. in 2007 hit RMB3.3 billion ($455 million), up 26% from the 2006 total of $361 million.

Hong Kong

To the surprise of many, theatrical revenue grew last year, by 9% to some $133 million, thanks to mainstream hits.

But distributors seem perennially in the dumps over pics that fail to catch on and cumulative totals that are only as good as opening weekends in the good old days.

Reasons for the gloom include limited opportunity for theatrical circuit expansion in one of the most densely populated territories in the world, and the failure of several genres to hold folks’ attention.

Hong Kong’s own Cantonese productions have largely fallen into the specialty category as producers have instead switched to Mandarin-language movies with mainland coin and mainland auds in mind. South Korean films also proved to be a passing fad and are being bought and released in much smaller numbers than only a couple of years back. Chinese specialty titles barely raise an eyebrow in Hong Kong.

The good news came in the form of mainstream pics that are, increasingly, working across the Greater China region, such as “Kung Fu Dunk,” “Warlords” and “Lust, Caution.”

South Korea

After a decade of growth, it was inevitable that the South Korean theatrical juggernaut had to stall — and it did in 2007.

Takings dropped 5.5% from 2006’s record levels but still came in at the second-highest figure ever. Admissions totaled 158 million, giving a gross of more than $1 billion. That makes South Korea a market roughly the same size as the much more populous India and more than twice the size of China.

The B.O. retreat coincided with a slowdown in the multiplex building boom and a reversal of the fortunes of the local industry, which had driven growth in earlier years.

The market share for South Korean films tumbled from 65% to 51%, and admissions for local films dropped by 26% — enough to provoke widespread talk of crisis. (Taken together with the slump in exports of the last two years, the crisis talk in the production and finance sectors seems justified.) Though the top two pics were Korean, the number passing the 2 million ticket-sales landmark that generally defines a big hit slumped from 16 to just 10. Production in a narrowing range of genres and rising marketing costs were widely blamed for the lack of movies that really connected with auds.

What is less clear is whether the reduction of screen quotas had any impact. The requirement for cinemas to show local films was cut under pressure from U.S. trade negotiators from 146 per year to just 73 in mid-2006.

Whether or not a correlation can ever be proved, Korea remains one of the few territories in the world where hit films can score more than $50 million. That was achieved by “D-War” (“Dragon Wars” in the U.S.) and “May 18,” while “Transformers” came within a whisker of that figure.

Next four places were occupied by Hollywood studio franchises (“Pirates,” “Harry Potter,” “Spider Man” and “Die Hard” sequels), for once making the Korean chart look more like most other developed-country markets.

Poor performance of local films has continued in 2008, with only “The Chaser” proving a runaway hit. Plethora of small and new distributors acquiring imported films made Korea one of the most aggressive buying territories at the recent Cannes market.

Malaysia

The fast-developing Southeast Asia territory has enjoyed a blistering box office recovery since a 2003 low. Admissions climbed from 12.8 million in 2003 to 27.9 in 2006 and an estimated 34 million in 2007. Last year’s gross revenue was RM320 million ($10.5 million), up 24%.

Reasons have much to do with demographics (an expanding middle class with disposable income) and the popularity of the biggest Hollywood titles. A tougher stance on piracy has also helped.

The upward trend has encouraged a new round of multiplex building and the re-emergence of local film production.

Share stakes in the biggest three cinema chains have also changed hands in the last 18 months as performance and valuations have increased — and Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest group decided to cash in its chips in Malaysia and focus more on the mainland Chinese market instead.

Malaysian productions climbed from just 10 in 2002 to 28 in 2006. Budgets are extremely low, and pictures tend to fall into two categories — festival-bound arthouse titles or commercial pictures featuring local TV stars.

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