Distributors and producers frequently bemoan the difficulty of understanding fast-moving audience trends in China. Affecting the outcome is the scale of country (some films skew toward northern or southern audiences, other titles play better in provincial towns than in the mega-cities and suburbs) and all are affected by word of mouth driven by ubiquitous social media.
For the tech giants encroaching on the film sector, such as Tencent, the response to such uncertainty is to draw on big data for insight and help in making production, distribution and marketing decisions. For more traditional distributors, such as Bona Film Group, the problem is how to strike a balance between having a slate wide enough that it stretches across different genres, and one that has enough tentpoles for the Chinese calendar’s four or five main holiday periods.
Box office in January this year dragged along at levels below 2018’s take. But the Chinese New Year holiday in February was highly competitive and produced the biggest B.O. numbers on record. Bona scored strongly with “Pegasus,” which scored over $255 million.
Predicting what happens in the rest of 2019 gets harder still. That’s because Chinese film production volumes were dealt a sharp blow in the second half of last year by a new industry regulatory regime and the crackdown on individual tax liabilities and the scramble to re-write contracts between talent and production companies.
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This year, too, politics and sensitive anniversaries have a large impact on the releasing calendar. This year marks the centenary of the May 4, 1919, anti-imperialist student protests, as well as 70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
To celebrate these (and to drown out a trio of anniversaries that are less comfortable for the Communist government), film companies have been urged to deliver a string of movies with patriotic and nationalist themes.
Bona’s slate is studded with these, most notably propaganda movie “AKA: Chairman Mao 1949,” directed by war film specialist Ning Haiqiang, to be released mid-September shortly ahead of the week-long National Day holidays.
Some efforts to bring government-backed propaganda titles into the modern age have seen budgets, production values and star-quotients all increased. But the trick has worn thin and 2017’s “The Founding of an Army,” which was backed by Bona and directed by Hong Kong star helmer/actor Andrew Lau, was a $61 million box office disappointment. It was crushed by the massive hit “Wolf Warriors II,” released the same day.
Bona learned the lesson that patriotic movies that are well-made and hail from the private sector can be genuinely popular. It’s “Operation Mekong” in 2016 and last year’s “Operation Red Sea” — both directed by Dante Lam — earned $172 million and $575 million, respectively. Bona has a multi-film deal with Lam, whose next action-heavy title, “The Rescue,” set within the China Coast Guards, has already staked out a prime February 2020 release slot.
Other films with nationalist stirrings on Bona’s slate include fact-based pair “The Bravest,” about firefighters tackling a blaze that might have scorched North Korea, and Lau’s “The Chinese Pilot,” based on a real 2018 aviation incident that was high on drama and heroism, and low on casualties.
Bona’s slate is peppered with Hollywood titles that are slotted into release dates in between the Chinese holidays and blackout periods. These are either sourced from the company’s multi-title co-financing and distribution arrangement with Sony Pictures Entertainment (“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”), from China-U.S. co-ventures (Fosun’s Ang Lee-directed “Gemini Man”) or are the largest films on the indie market, often secured with significant investment from Bona (AGC’s Roland Emmerich-directed “Midway” and New Regency’s James Gray-directed “Ad Astra”).
The line-up is rounded off with more traditional vehicles for local stars. Lau produces and stars in “Find Your Voice,” a classical music drama. “Ip Man 4: The Finale” rounds off the Wilson Yip-directed franchise, and pits Donnie Yen against British action star Scott Adkins, just in time for the Christmas peak season.
Below is Bona’s release schedule through the February holiday season.
“Chasing the Dragon II” (pictured)
Director: Wong Jing
Stars: Tong Leung Ka-fai, Louis Koo
“A City Called Macau”
Director: Li Shaohong
Star: Bai Baihe
“The Invincible Dragon”
Director: Fruit Chan
Stars: Zhang Jin, Juju Chan
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Stars: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio
Director: Tony Chan
Star: Huang Xiaoming
“The Longest Shot”
Director: Xu Shunli
Stars: Yu Nan, Wang Zhiwen
“AKA: Chairman Mao 1949”
Director: Ning Haiqiang
“The Chinese Pilot”
Director: Andrew Lau
Star: Tang Guoqiang
Director: Ang Lee
Star: Will Smith
Director: Roland Emmerich
Stars: Luke Evans, Woody Harrelson
“Find Your Voice”
Director: Adrian Kwan
Star: Andrew Lau
“Ip Man 4: The Finale”
Director: Wilson Yip
Stars: Donnie Yen, Scott Adkins
“The Fat Dragon”
Director: Wong Jing
Stars: Donnie Yen, Jessica Jann
Director: Dante Lam
Star: Eddie Peng
Director: James Gray
Stars: Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones