Problems persist in pic boom

China's B.O. explosion masks quality, reporting issues

China’s film market is booming. But while the burgeoning number of new cinema screens is fueling wild expansion, the pressure to get one of the key slots in the sked is growing.

This means big-budget pics are dominating, but the government still wants small-budget pics to have an outing, so there is increasingly vicious competition for space.

Chinese B.O. zipped past $1.5 billion last year for the first time, leaving China well placed to become the world’s second biggest film market in coming years.

Last year’s B.O. receipts were 10.172 billion yuan ($1.53 billion) last year, a 64% increase from 2009, when revenues were $940 million, the State Administration of Radio, Film and TV (SARFT) said in a report.

Nansun Shi, who produces her helmer husband Tsui Hark’s films via their Film Workshop, predicts “China box office will continue to grow, again, by a double digit percentage. De facto growth is almost guaranteed with the increase in the number of screens, forecast at about 1000 new screens in 2011.”

Shi will be in Berlin for Asian pic sales outfit Distribution Workshop and as managing director of Irresistible Films, which promotes new filmmakers.

“The number of films made will also grow. In 2010, over 520 films were made but less than 150 were released theatrically,” she says. “It is, indeed, getting more competitive to get theatrical release.”

The cost of production is skyrocketing however, and the cost increase cannot be recouped from Chinese B.O. alone. So filmmakers are looking for stories that will attract a broader aud.

Many Chinese investors are now looking at working with Hollywood — which Shi worries will yield mixed results. “There is no shortage of people coming to China looking for money. There will be some successes but many more failures. This is a very chaotic period for the industry. It will hopefully settle down in three to five years’ time,” said Shi.

The boffo 2010 figure puts the Chinese biz on track to meet the government’s target of more than $3 billion by 2012.

Tong Gang, director of the Film Bureau section of SARFT, has tried to calm any irrational exuberance that might be creeping into the biz. He criticized the quality of Chinese movies, which he said struggled to compete with the likes of “Avatar” and “Inception.”

“Ten billion yuan is just something to feel good about, but not to show off about,” Tong told a news conference.

The top-grossing Chinese film in 2010 was the Feng Xiaogang disaster movie “Aftershock,” which earned $100 million.

Tong outlined some of the problems facing the biz in China, such as piracy, the reporting of false box office figures and inadequate overseas sales. He said the Film Bureau would boost cinema supervision and set up an open and transparent box office reporting system as soon as possible.

There were 526 action films — up 15% from 2009 — and 16 animated films produced in 2010, SARFT said, while there were 16 documentaries, 54 educational films, nine specialist movies and 100 digital films produced by the state broadcaster CCTV 6 movie channel. This makes China the world’s third-largest film producer after Bollywood and Hollywood.

“The coming year will feature a lot of films which the growing China market will invest in — and I see more American/European films and filmmakers wanting to explore collaborating with China and the rest of Asia,” said producer Lorna Tee.

“The task is not an easy one as local films that are doing very well in the China market do not appeal so much to the international audience now,” said Tee, a former Variety Asia business development manager.

The China market, despite massive growth, has a very complicated distribution system and only a handful of films actually turn a profit, even when they’ve earned big B.O.

More from Berlin Daily: China & Taiwan:
Problems persist in pic boom | Taiwan movie biz rides high | China’s quota under pressure

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