Taiwan handled the coronavirus outbreak so effectively that the island’s cinemas did not need to close. But Hollywood studios largely stopped releasing movies, leaving the field to the independent distributors.
For the year to mid-June, seven-year-old GaragePlay (aka Moviecloud when in acquisitions mode) achieved the previously unheard of feat of topping the distributors’ box office chart. Its cumulative takings amount to $7.98 million (NT$236 million), narrowly ahead of United International Pictures with $7.77 million (NT$230 million), Sony on $7.16 million (NT$212 million), Warner Bros on $5.06 million (NT$150 million) and Disney in fifth with $3.98 million (NT$118 million).
“I can’t pretend that we did this alone – the studios pulled back their releases — or that the numbers are great, but it is interesting to see how a wide range of Asian and independent U.S. titles can keep playing,” says company founder and CEO, Wayne Chang, a former executive at Catchplay.
The company’s working assumption is that audiences are becoming increasingly fragmented. Handling up to 100 titles per year, with some going straight to DVD and TV, maximizes its chances of connecting with different sectors and demographics. It also aims to distribute 300 films per year to VoD platforms.
By far its biggest title this year has been “Ashfall,” the Korean disaster action movie which was a Christmas release, but went on to achieve $3.92 million ($116 million). It was followed by the January release of STX’s “The Gentlemen.” Inevitably, things went South after that.
Chang says that the Chinese New Year period – celebrated in Taiwan, but with a completely different lineup of titles to those in mainland China – was satisfactory. But once virus cases started to be seen widely in Asia audience numbers began to drop.
Mainland Chinese films are limited to 10 per year in Taiwan, and are selected by lottery. None have gone ahead in 2020. Jackie Chan-starring “Vangard” had been approved for a Taiwan outing through local firm Long Shong. But when distribution in the People’s Republic was cancelled, the Taiwan release was also called off.
What has taken the place of Hollywood and Chinese titles has been an eclectic mix of Asian titles: Korean family comedy “Secret Zoo” $1.10 million (NT$32.5 million); Vietnamese serial killer horror “Kumanthong,” itself a remake of a Thai film $360,000 (NT$10.6 million); and, Japanese horror “Howling Village” from Takashi Shimizu $250,000 (NT$7.4 million).
Taiwan has been held up as a shining example of how to fight COVID-19, through closed borders, rigorous testing and mask wearing. To date the population of 24 million has recorded just 443 cases and 7 deaths.
Although Taiwan cinemas were never ordered to close, spectators stayed away in droves. Box office receipts were down by roughly 90% in March and April, before bouncing off the lows by some 15% in May. “Some cinemas were selling only 50-60 tickets per day and decided instead to close for renovation,” Chang said. “Now the problem is no longer the virus, but the lack of big films on release.”
Things could warm up soon, even if Hollywood’s summer slate, with highlights including “Tenet” and “Mulan,” gets blown off course at short notice, by a second wave of the coronavirus.
GaragePlay is putting out a restored version of classic 1988 Japanese anime film “Akira” for a June 24 outing in 4K and Imax formats. Its summer highlight is “Peninsula,” the sequel to Korea’s pan-Asian horror smash hit “Train to Busan,” which is pencilled in for late July. Its second half 2020 slate also includes Janelle Monae-starring “Antebellum,” Rachel Brosnahan- and Benedict Cumberbatch-starring “The Courrier” (aka “Ironbark”), Jessica Chastain-starring crime actioner “Ava” and Japanese animation “Doraemon The Movie: Nobita’s New Dinosaur.”
Chang claims to work closely with all of the territory’s streaming players, local and foreign, but does not see it as the greatest growth opportunity. “All the telcos (who also control cable networks) are saturated. There is little revenue growth for content there,” he says. Instead, MovieCloud has set got involved with the Korean and Japanese releases of hit Indian films including “Dangal,” “Hindi Medium” and “Secret Superstar.”