China may pit ‘Skyfall’ vs. ‘Hobbit’

Regulators considering same date for both tentpoles

Having just passed the Chinese censors this week, Sony’s latest James Bond pic “Skyfall” may face another obstacle in China: opening the same weekend as Warner Bros.’ “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

Multiple sources in the international distribution and Chinese film space tell Variety that the China Film Group — the regulating body which selects Chinese film release dates — is strongly leaning toward opening them simultaneously after the Golden Week holiday ends Feb. 15.

CFG denied that there were plans to open the movies head-to-head; the group’s U.S. representative, Joseph Schuster, told Variety dates had not been set. Warner Bros. and Sony declined to comment.

But some sources told Variety they were aware of the rumors, and would not be surprised to see “Skyfall” and “Hobbit” squaring off.

If that happens, it wouldn’t be the first time that CFG has pitted studio tentpoles against one another.

“The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spider Man” were thrown together at the end of August, just days before “Expendables 2” and “Prometheus” bowed the same weekend on the mainland. Altogether, those films earned $191.3 million at the Chinese box office, roughly half of what they could have had they launched separately, according to knowledgeable observers.

In July, Universal’s “The Lorax” and 20th Century Fox’s “Ice Age: Continental Drift” opened the same day.

Hollywood blockbusters tend to dominate the Chinese box office, overshadowing local Chinese productions which the Chinese government wants to grow. That puts China’s regulatory bodies in a delicate balancing act: Maintaining the domestic 30% growth rate while supporting booming exhibs. That often means imposing blackout periods where no foreign films can play in China, or pitting overseas pics against one another to diminish grosses against local product.

“The local Chinese films are supposed to count for 50% to 55% of the Chinese box office,” said Mathew Alderson, partner, Asia Pacific with Harris and Moure attorneys. “These blackout periods are an attempt to redress that imbalance.”

According to data from the government’s State Administration of Radio, Film and TV, total B.O. in China is up 40% year-over-year, at $1.26 billion for the first half of 2012 — but the take for local Chinese films has decreased by 4.3% from 2011.

The re-release of “Titanic” in 3D marks the top-grossing film in China so far this year. “Painted Skin: The Resurrection” came in at No. 2 with $112.3 million at the Chinese box office, making it the top-grossing Chinese film of all time locally. The film also opened during this year’s midsummer blackout period.

“The Silent War,” which earned $37 million, is the only other local film to land in the top 15 so far this year at the Chinese box office.

“The blackouts tend to have their intended effect in the short-term, but they tend to create pent-up demand for Hollywood films,” Alderson said. “After a blackout, there’s often a surge of interest in Hollywood films.”

“Skyfall,” which already has grossed more than $100 million internationally, opens Nov. 9 in North America. Warner Bros. unspools “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” Dec. 14.