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Bona Film Group’s Jeffrey Chan Sounds Off on Slow Film Sales

The world has watched as China’s domestic box office has powered ahead. And it has been impressed by the vast amounts of Chinese money available for investment in Hollywood. But global audiences have not yet started watching Chinese movies in any great quantity and Chinese film sales remain stuck in first gear. Variety caught up with Jeffrey Chan, COO of Bona Film group and co-head of sales agent Distribution Workshop, about the region.

After the novelty factor wore off a few years ago, many European territories have switched from theatrical releases of Chinese movies to releasing them only on video. Any bright spots?
International sales for Chinese movies are on the decline, but for some territories there is an advance. Some international buyers, including in North America, are buying for the [diaspora] Chinese audiences in their territories. Our “Operation Mekong” opened badly and exhibitors halved the number of shows. But it bounced back four times higher in its second week, largely because of the film’s great China performance. And we have recently seen something of a rebound in Asia, but it doesn’t take us back to where we were three-to-four years ago.

Have sales companies become more realistic, learning that their big-budget Chinese movies are not going to get wide releases or sales to a major studio?
Not even Jackie Chan films get wide releases outside China. Three or four years ago Chinese companies were making big announcements. Some of the investors believed those were true [and held back sales in hope of a big U.S. deal]. But I think the sales agents always knew the situation.

Is the spread of digital platforms helping Chinese films be more widely seen?
No. Online is even harder. I’m being very experimental in trying out all kinds of digital platforms. But the figures are not there. We put “Unbeatable” on iTunes everywhere. We had help from iTunes and specially hired a marketing agent, but it didn’t do well in major territories.

With “Mekong,” “Monkey King 2,” and “The Mermaid” all doing well, is it right to see Hong Kong movies still as more saleable than mainland Chinese titles?
I don’t distinguish between Hong Kong and Chinese movies any more. Hong Kong has a long history of making commercial films, and some of these old guys like Tsui Hark or John Woo have mastered the art of big-budget films with multiple elements. These naturally have a higher potential to appeal to international audiences. Also, deep down, they have a better understanding of the language of international audiences. But they are also aware that 95% of the box office for their movies is going to come from China, and that they have to add Chinese elements.

Chinese elements are being incorporated into more Hollywood films. Is it working?
Let’s take two films that Bona invested in. “Independence Day 2” has very conspicuous Chinese element. It didn’t do well. Whereas with “The Martian” people raved about how well the Chinese part was weaved in. It seemed more natural. When you have too many forced Chinese elements you may not do well in China, and it may be at the expense of other success elsewhere.

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