Hong Kong and China Box Office to Take Separate Directions at Chinese New Year

In the more than six months that protest movements have rocked Hong Kong, a whole range of business sectors have become color-coded, as both Beijing-loyal blue elements and yellow pro-democracy forces have weaponized the economy.

Companies on the front line include leading bank HSBC, airline Cathay Pacific and even the subway operator MTRC. Effects range from a poorly observed boycott of Starbucks, where a family member of the local franchise holder has spoken out against protesters, to lonely hearts who choose to flag their political colors on dating apps in order to avoid future incompatibility.

Hong Kong movie-goers have largely turned their backs on mainland Chinese films. The phenomenon is not entirely new, but it is starkly illustrated by the upcoming Chinese New Year season.

Films releasing in Hong Kong over the next two weeks are a mix of those driven by Hollywood’s global schedules – “Dolittle” and “Spies in Disguise” release on Jan. 23, while “The Grudge” and “Dark Waters” hit Jan. 30 – along with a rich helping of local movies that are Hong Kong-themed, Hong Kong-set and old-fashioned Hong Kong-style.

In prime place are two comedy actioners “The Grand Grandmaster” and “Enter the Fat Dragon,” and “All’s Well Ends Well 2020,” the eighth iteration of a classic family comedy franchise.

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Over the border in China, the Chinese New Year season has become the biggest cinema-going period of the year, when it is common to go out in large family groups. The biggest mainland studios and top commercial filmmakers stake out the season with Chinese-language franchise films and tentpoles. And Hollywood releases get put on hold until February.

Some of those Chinese films will die a quick death, but may clock up $200 million before doing so. Others will pull ahead. Recent history suggest that patriotic ones are likely winners. Two years ago, Dante Lam’s “Operation Red Sea,” a high-octane actioner about a Chinese army rescue mission failed to open on top spot, but went on to earn $576 million. Last year it was the turn of “The Wandering Earth,” a new flavor of patriotic Chinese sci-fi that eventually catapulted to $691 million.

This year at least nine films will vie for that kind of boost and release on Jan. 24 and 25. They include: Chinese comedy franchise “Detective Chinatown 3”; action comedy franchise title “Lost in Russia”; sports drama “Leap,” about the Chinese women’s volleyball team; disaster action film “The Rescue,” with a civilian coastguard team cast as heroes; and period actioner “Vanguard,” which re-teams Jackie Chan with director Stanley Tong.

“Rightly or wrongly, Hong Kong audiences are resistant to mainland films. All distributors in Hong Kong are feeling that,” says Albert Lee, formerly a top executive, who now runs the Hong Kong International Film Festival. “It is a long-term trend, but it may have accelerated over the past six months. People are more sensitive than before.”

The patriotic themes that are increasingly being promoted by mainland studios at the behest of Communist-controlled authorities will alienate a broad swathe of Hong Kongers. But the divide goes deeper.

With Hong Kong having been under British rule until just 22 years ago, the two places have enjoyed different paces of economic development, different institutions, and social development that has pulled in different directions. The differences translate into different humor, and separate cultural reference points. Mainlanders and Hong Kongers get nostalgic about different things.

Structures are different too: China has no film rating system, but interventionist censorship; Hong Kong has light touch censorship, and a well-developed film classification regime.

The divide between Hong Kong and China was also written plainly in the 2019 box office. Hong Kong’s top ten films last year were all Hollywood titles. On the mainland, Chinese films increased their market share to 65% of total box office and squeezed Hollywood from 5 top ten films in 2018 to just two last year.

“They are different cultures now,” said one Hong Kong-based distributor, who operates on both sides of the border, and requested anonymity. That is bad news for Hong Kong’s Beijing-loyalist government, which is proposing ever closer economic and cultural ties with the People’s Republic, and is seeking to mandate respect for the motherland with national anthem and security laws. But the cinematic divide accords with survey data which says that fewer than 40% of Hong Kong residents identify themselves as Chinese first. That figure is lower still among the young.

“Hong Kong audiences have completely different taste from mainland audiences. Hong Kongers these days are looking for genuine Hong Kong films, (particularly) of the genres, such as action comedy, which have been lost for a long time,” says Winnie Tsang, CEO of Golden Scene and distributor of “The Grand Grandmaster.”

She claims to have the support of all the cinema chains in the territory for the film and expects to open “Grandmaster” on 60 screens, more than a quarter of available venues, plus two more in Macau. The film’s promotional music video is going gangbusters, with 160,000 views on its first day – about three times what might be considered a good score.

The swing towards films that are hyper-local is problematic for Hong Kong’s film industry. Once the mightiest in Asia, it now has divided loyalties.

Hong Kong films that, because of their themes or presentation, have little chance of getting a commercial release in the mainland must necessarily be made with lower budgets. And exports to other parts of Asia can no longer be relied on. “Grandmaster” had to be fully financed by its director Dayo Wong.

Drawn by better paydays, and new horizons, most of Hong Kong’s top directors are working entirely in mainland or have dual careers on both sides of the border. But the mainland films made by Tsui Hark, Andrew Lau, Raman Hui (“Monster Hunt”), Peter Chan and Lam have mostly not gone on to achieve good performances in Hong Kong.

“It’s a business. The way that films are being distributed is that local films go first, especially on an important playdate like Chinese New Year,” says Lee.

And in business, some firms will always try to hedge their bets.

Having expanded from artist management into theaters in both Hong Kong and mainland China, Emperor Motion Picture is one company attempting to be simultaneously blue and yellow. It will release Patrick Kwong’s Hong Kong romance “You Are The One” before releasing “The Rescue” a few days later on Jan. 30.

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