With U.S. studio tentpoles dropping out of the theatrical calendar, Chinese blockbusters may find a rare opportunity to gain some traction abroad. At least that’s what London-based distributor Trinity CineAsia is betting on.
The firm has acquired the Jackie Chan-starring blockbuster “Vanguard” from Hong Kong-based Golden Dragon Pictures for theatrical runs in the U.K., Ireland and Russia CIS. It was produced by Shanghai Lix Entertainment, Hong Kong director Stanley Tong’s production outfit.
“Vanguard” is the ninth collaboration between Chan and Tong, and features the action star jetting between continents in search of the kidnapped client of his international security agency, called Vanguard. While its U.K. release date is still to be determined, it will screen in wide release in Ukraine from Oct. 2 at 163 cinemas and Russia CIS from Oct. 15. on 500 prints. Trinity CineAsia anticipates a box office of around $750,000 for the region, but estimates remain a “moving target” due to changing coronavirus conditions.
Warner Bros. had initially scheduled “Wonder Woman 1984” to premiere Oct. 2, but it was rescheduled earlier this month for Dec. 25. The star-studded Kenneth Branagh-directed murder mystery “Death on the Nile” was also at one point scheduled for early October, but has since been pushed to Dec. 18.
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“There’s a sort of vacuum left by these studio films falling off the schedule. We are definitely trying to take advantage of that,” said Trinity CineAsia co-founder and director Cedric Behrel. It helps that Chan’s star power makes the film an easier sell to a commercial audience than most other Chinese-language titles.
Around 75% of cinemas are currently reopened in Russia CIS. Predictions that 90% could be open by the time “Vanguard” premieres could turn on a dime according to the virus’ trajectory. Meanwhile, 90% of cinemas in Ukraine and 100% of cinemas in the Baltics are open, though theaters in major CIS markets Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan remain entirely shut. Re-opened cinemas all are operating at 50% capacity.
“The only market in the world that’s going back to normal is China, leaving China out of sync with the rest of the world” as the pandemic continues to wreak global havoc, explained Behrel.
“Vanguard” opened in China Wednesday to first day sales of $8.59 million, according to the Maoyan industry tracker, outpacing the opening days of competing volleyball drama “Leap” ($8.2 million) and Disney’s “Mulan” ($8.1 million) but lagging behind “Tenet,” which opened Sept. 4 to $8.9 million.
Behrel outlined the predicament of scheduling theatrical releases at a time when China is hurtling ahead but global cinema-going remains so depressed: “It’s detrimental to wait to release until things get better, because we don’t know when that’ll be, and by that stage the film will be old news and available through piracy and so on. So we had to make this very hard decision — do we go with the film now and take a chance on theatrical or wait knowing that we might not have a second chance in theaters?”
“In this case, we said, ‘Well, let’s go for it,’ because there’s no other films around. There’s a vacuum left by ‘Wonder Woman’ that we can plug,” he concluded.
Typically, CineAsia doesn’t release Chinese films until four to eight weeks after their mainland premiere, since it takes time to dub them and create promotional campaigns, but Chinese partners often don’t deliver materials until very late in the game, often only as the film is set to debut. The turnaround for “Vanguard,” however, was “done at the speed of light,” said Behrel, with the entire film dubbed into Russian and Ukrainian in the space of a week in a mad scramble towards their nearing release.
The U.K. market may prove tricky for “Vanguard,” as the majority of ticket buyers for Chinese-language films tend to be Chinese students, many of whom may not return to the U.K. for school until next January. With the U.K. box office currently operating at around a fifth of its average tally, compared with the same period from last year, this leaves CineAsia doing about 15% of the business it could have done in a normal year, Behrel estimated.
Founded in 2007, CineAsia is a label of Trinity Film known for bringing Asian action content to the U.K. It was set to see its biggest returns to date back in January with the release of Chen Sicheng’s “Detective Chinatown 3,” which was booking extremely well before its Jan. 24 U.K. release was canceled due to the pandemic.
It tried its hand again recently as the U.K. distributor for Chinese studio Huayi Brothers’ blockbuster war epic “The Eight Hundred.” Behrel assesses that CineAsia gave the film the widest release for a Chinese title in the U.K. in over a decade, with the last comparable rollout — barring that for 2017’s U.S.-China co-production “The Great Wall” — dating all the way back to 2009 for John Woo’s war film “Red Cliff.”
“The Eight Hundred” is still in theaters in the U.K. and Ireland, where it is playing across 67 screens, including IMAX and 2D. CineAsia even staged a London premiere at Cineworld IMAX in Leicester Square — no mean feat during a pandemic. (They filled just 300 of the venue’s 721-seat capacity to allow for social distancing.)
Although the title is now the highest grossing in the world so far this year on the back of its popularity in China, where it’s earned a massive $449 million to date, U.K. sales have been “disappointing” to say the least, at less than $100,000, despite the red carpet approach.
The company did not consider distributing “The Eight Hundred” in Russia CIS, as war genre films work less well in wide release across the region, it said.