Chinese box office could soon top U.S.

Growth in China and other territories are the bright spots for the movie biz, panelists agreed at Monday’s International Day programs at CinemaCon in Las Vegas.

“If you are a betting person, you’d clearly put a healthy wager on the international box office,” said Paramount Intl. prexy Andrew Cripps.

Distribs talked up the massive potential of China, where box office grew 64% last year to top $1.5 billion. In five to 10 years, the country could become the world’s top market, said Warner Bros. Intl. prexy Millard Ochs, especially if restrictions on importing foreign titles are lifted.

“It’s very important for us to be in China,” said Richard Fox, exec VP of Warners Intl.

The market is boosted by a strong currency, Fox said, with a faithful moviegoing population.

Studios are also focused on taking the right approach to breaking into local-language productions.

Fox Intl.’s first local foray into China, 2010’s “Hot Summer Days,” cost $2.4 million, according to Fox Intl. prexy Sanford Panitch, andgrossed $24 million locally. The film helped kickstart Fox’s presence in that territory; studio also has been active in other markets, most notably, in India via local studio division Fox Star.

Fox Star’s next Indian release is Ramesh Sippy Entertainment’s “Dum maaro dum,” set to screen April 22 in Dolby Surround 7.1, it was announced at the conference.

Working on a global scale requires a nimble approach, execs said. “The real challenge is setting up the precedent in all of those countries,” said panelist Matt Brodlie, senior VP of Paramount Worldwide Acquisitions.

Jason Reed, exec veep and general manager for Walt Disney Studios Intl. Production, concurred.

“You never really understand how a territory works until you’re on the ground talking with the local filmmakers,” he said. Reed described Disney’s overseas efforts as a “branding mission” in such growing markets as China and Russia.

Christian Grass, U’s prexy of international production and acquisitions, said the studio is focused on markets where it has existing operations, but also is looking to continue to expand.

Warners, which distributes roughly 52 local films per year in various markets, is working to broaden its overseas scope to include more local tentpoles, not just genre pics.

Panelists also emphasized the importance of maintaining a healthy overseas release slate and developing relations with international filmmakers. Last year, 10 of the top 20 worldwide grossers were directed by non-Americans.

The growth of the international B.O. is focusing attention on international talent, too. For example, a Warners Intl. exec recommended German star-helmer Til Schweiger for a role in the upcoming “New Year’s Eve.”

“This is not about Hollywood studios taking over, it’s about developing those partnerships and working with the local players,” Grass said. “Because at the end of the day, the best expert for a local market has to be that market.”

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