Hollywood Blockbusters Drive China’s Box Office as Local Fare Stumbles

Summer blockbuster season isn’t just an American phenomenon. In China, Hollywood movies are poised to earn about $580 million this month, continuing a dominant run in 2017 that’s likely to have wider implications for the Sino-U.S. relationship, including ongoing talks on import quotas and revenue share.

Since the Chinese New Year period, when local-language films did big business, turnstile traffic in the Middle Kingdom has all gone Hollywood’s way. In April and May, titles including “XXX: Return of Xander Cage” and “The Fate of the Furious” lifted Hollywood’s monthly box office share to more than 80%. June should see a repeat of that, thanks to “Wonder Woman,” “The Mummy,” “Alien: Covenant” and the soon-to-be-released “Transformers: The Last Knight.”

“The onslaught of the Hollywood tentpoles, plus an Indian juggernaut, has coincided with the weakest output of [Chinese] releases, many of which were the result of shoddy imitations without much merit to start with,” said Raymond Zhou, China’s leading critic and industry commentator at China Daily.

“The Hollywood blockbusters are not necessarily better in quality, judging from Chinese word of mouth, but the Chinese movies are decidedly weaker than usual. And there is little sign of improvement,” he added.

The lopsided performance of Hollywood and Chinese films poses a tricky problem for China’s industry overseers.

Through import quotas, blackout periods and bunched-up releases, Chinese regulators usually manage to limit foreign films to 40% of the box office while delivering 60% to domestic titles on an annual basis. But data from Chinese consultancy EntGroup shows that in the first five months of 2017, Hollywood powered to a 51% share, while qualifying Chinese titles tumbled to 43% — even though the 26 imported films were vastly outnumbered by 125 local ones.

Thus, Hollywood is fueling China’s box office growth and propping up its fast-expanding number of cinemas. If Chinese regulators tried to enforce the normal 60-40 ratio in favor of domestic titles, there would be cries of protest not just from studios across the Pacific but from exhibitors at home.

That’s where the current situation could affect trade negotiations between Washington and Beijing. The prevailing agreement on the film industry, with an annual import quota of 34 revenue-sharing films, has been in place for five years and is now under review.

The 34 figure is a minimum, not a maximum, and Chinese officials have often applied a degree of flexibility. Last year, to counter an unexpected downturn at the box office, they allowed in 40 revenue-sharing foreign films, plus additional Hollywood releases on a flat-fee basis.

Upping the import quota would therefore be an easy, relatively painless way for Chinese negotiators to let the U.S. side score some points while achieving their own aim of shoring up box office growth. “The government is hoping to keep the industry growing by encouraging more Hollywood movies,” said Zhao Li, senior analyst at EntGroup.

U.S. negotiators want changes in other areas as well: shorter blackout periods; longer advance notification of release dates; a bigger share of gross revenue for quota films, now pegged at 25%; and the ability of studios to choose their own distributors and run their own distribution operations in China.

The control-obsessed Chinese government is unlikely to give ground on distribution. And the U.S. dominance of the Chinese film market makes it less likely, not more, that Beijing will want to increase the size of its payouts to Hollywood.

One studio distribution executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the most likely areas of substantive change appear to be the blackouts and notice periods.

China’s Film Bureau, along with the state-owned distributor China Film Group, determine the release dates of revenue-sharing foreign films and typically give only four to six weeks’ notice. That sharply limits the ability to build a proper marketing campaign, which infuriates Hollywood.

China has also played fast and loose with blackout periods. Sometimes they can benefit Hollywood: Last year, with ticket sales slowing, officials shortened the six-week summer blackout and gave three Hollywood titles — “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “The Legend of Tarzan” and “The Secret Life of Pets” — unusual August releases.

But the fluidity makes planning difficult. Upcoming films “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “War for the Planet of the Apes” are believed to have been approved for release, but no dates have been confirmed as the Film Bureau waffles over how hard to apply the blackout this year, the distribution executive said.

One round of U.S.-China trade talks has been held, with little headway reported. The next is unlikely to happen before the Chinese Communist Party’s National Congress, which is tentatively scheduled for October. “The discussions could easily go on until next year. China has no advantage to be gained from hurrying the process,” the executive said.

Chinese filmmakers are using the fallow period to regroup and chart a new direction following their disappointing performance at the box office so far this year. Groups like Huayi Brothers Media, Bona Film Group and Dalian Wanda Group are looking at mega-budget spectaculars for their 2018 slates. “They are producing large tentpole movies, based on big IP, because they consider that the only way to compete with Hollywood,” said Zhao.

Exhibition giants such as Wanda still envisage the theatrical market doubling in five to seven years, making the Chinese market significantly bigger than the
North American market. If it takes Hollywood blockbuster muscle to achieve that, so be it.

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