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Asian countries face holiday jam

China, Korea grapple with blockbuster season

The Christmas rush is on in Asia. The region’s seasonal entertainment crunch of tight release schedules and screen shortages is under way, and this is one hangover that’s likely to drag on all the way through Christmas to the Chinese New Year on Jan. 29.

The cause is an unholy competition for screens and audience eyeballs between the seasonal Hollywood blockbusters and the biggest local and Asian movies.

“We are killing each other and nobody is willing to move dates,” says one indie distributor-exhibitor from Hong Kong.

Scramble has become tighter as productions from China and Korea have become bigger business, while U.S. pics are shifting toward more internationally coordinated releases.

“The crush is the product of a crowded year-end U.S. release schedule; the fact that many of those films are releasing day-and-date in Asia; stronger-than-normal local product and films released in the fall that are going out before end January to ride Academy Award nominations,” says Kurt Rieder, UIP’s Asia Pacific prexy.

It’s a tossup whether China or Korea has the bigger heartburn over local films but the two markets are managing their cornucopias very differently.

Mainland China has Hong Kong’s foreign-lingo Oscar nominee “Perhaps Love,” which got off to a healthy start in its first weekend (released Dec. 2 through Stella Mega Media), China’s Oscar submission “The Promise,” helmer Zhang Yimou’s “Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles” and “A Chinese Tall Story.”

But, where Korea has gone for free-market survival of the fittest, Chinese authorities again have cleared the decks to give local pics the best chance.

Authorities ensured the quota of 20 revenue-sharing foreign films (of which 16 were Hollywood pics) was used up by the end of November. “Memoirs of a Geisha,” releasing Feb. 9 in China, and “King Kong” will likely be the first 2006 Hollywood releases.

“Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” however, was already released, with 80 million yuan ($9.8 million) to date.

Early January in China looks problematic.

In the absence of a viable ratings system, censorship issues have hit both “King Kong” and “Geisha.” The latter, dealing with tricky issues of Japan and sex, has been passed for release, but its outing is diplomatically being held back until after Chinese New Year, which is deemed less sensitive.

“Coming after the U.S. and Japanese releases we may suffer from piracy, but we may be partially protected in that we are releasing a Mandarin dub, rather than the original English version,” says Li Chow, Columbia TriStar general manager in China.

Meanwhile, “King Kong” helmer Peter Jackson and the censors, who either pass pictures for all auds or fail them completely, are said to be coming to an understanding over the pic’s violence. But it’s unclear whether the Chinese release would be ready for late January.

That is likely to leave the Chinese New Year holidays dominated by “Fearless,” a traditional martial arts vehicle for Jet Li, helmed by Ronny Yu and produced by Bill Kong (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Kong also is producer of “Riding Alone,” making it look like Bill Kong, not “King Kong,” is this year’s Santa Claus in China.

Even without another “Kung Fu Hustle” or a Feng Xiaogang-helmed comedy, Chinese authorities are predicting big things for the year-end releases.

The People’s Daily recently quoted Weng Li, deputy director of China Film, forecasting that annual B.O. will reach $250 million, a 30% increase from 2004, when local films had a 55% market share. “I believe that these (local) blockbusters will bring a new round of investment into the Chinese film industry,” says Mao Yu, an official at the State Administration for Radio Film & Television.

In Korea, which is widely forecast to have its biggest December, it’s the strength of the top local titles, not regulation, that spells trouble for Hollywood fare.

Korean distribs are making head-on challenges to the biggest U.S. pics. Detective story “Bystanders” went up against “Goblet of Fire” last weekend, while “King Kong” (Dec. 15) may be toppled by a one-two combo of meller “The Intimate” and actioner “Typhoon.”

Most anticipated film of the year, “Typhoon” is a contempo story of a pirate who has betrayed both Koreas; the CJ Entertainment pic cost a reported $15 million. It will be released Dec. 14 on 513 screens, accompanied by Korea’s largest P&A budget, more than $4 million.

Christmas week sees the release of high-profile Korean romancer “My Girl and I” and romantic comedy “Rules of Seduction.” Dec. 30 sees “The Chronicles of Narnia” double-teamed by actioner “King’s Man” and biopic “Blue Swallow.”

Screen space is in short supply, especially for titles handled by independents. Several have had to shift dates. Most notable is “The Promise,” which had hoped for a release at the same time as China, but is now looking at Lunar New Year, as Chinese New Year is known in Korea. “This is not ideal, as we open ourselves to pirate discs coming from China,” says Michelle Son, head of international at distrib ShowEast. “But with (Korean superstar) Jang Dong-gun also starring in ‘Typhoon,’ we had little choice but to move.”

Even Showbox, which operates in the hardtop and distribution sectors, has not been immune. It has shifted noir actioner “Running Wild” from December to January, which is already crowded with “Geisha” (Jan. 12), local actioner “The Beast” (Jan. 19) and Korean-financed “Daisy” from “Infernal Affairs” co-helmer Andrew Lau.

At least in Korea the choice is simple: local or Hollywood? But in cosmopolitan Hong Kong, scheduling is made tougher still by the territory’s changing relations with China. Two of the Chinese films in December, “Perhaps Love” and “Chinese Tall Story,” and January’s “Fearless” are by Hong Kong-based helmers and Hong Kong shingles. They are being marketed as local Hong Kong films, but release dates are dictated by the mainland debuts, chosen by the Chinese authorities.

Chinese New Year looks particularly scary, with three local titles — “McDull the Alumni,” a live-action retread of a popular comic and film series, “Fearless” and “Shopaholic,” a comedy with “Promise” star Cecilia Cheung Pak-si and Lau Ching-wan — taking on “Narnia,” “Munich” and Columbia’s “Fun With Dick and Jane” Jan. 26.

Pressure on Hong Kong screens is heightened by “Goblet of Fire’s” late release and how long “Perhaps Love” stays on screens. Benchmarked against other recent musicals, consensus forecast is that it should exceed “Chicago’s” $1 million local B.O.

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