x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

China becomes the best new talent in cinema

The premiere of the Chinese film Aftershock has proven what most in the film-making business already know - that the country has become a major player in global production for the silver screen.

An audience in Tangshan watches the premiere of Aftershock, a film about an earthquake that struck the city in 1976. It is thought to have killed more than any other in the 20th century.
An audience in Tangshan watches the premiere of Aftershock, a film about an earthquake that struck the city in 1976. It is thought to have killed more than any other in the 20th century.

Cinema fans queued up in their thousands and box office records were smashed - the hype surrounding the film Aftershock places it firmly in the Hollywood blockbuster category.

But Aftershock is a record-breaking Chinese film centering on the tragedies of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which 250,000 died, and the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, which left nearly 90,000 dead or missing. After its release late last month, Aftershock made its first 100 million yuan (Dh54.2m) in only three days at the Chinese box office, faster than any other film from the country. It could yet be the first movie from the world's most populous nation to chalk up 500m yuan in ticket sales.

But while the film had a Chinese director, the celebrated Feng Xiaogang who has a string of other hit films to his name, its heritage also shows the seriousness with which Chinese cinema is being taken globally. The film was produced by the Chinese company Huayi Brothers Media and the Canadian corporation IMAX, making it the first IMAX film to be made outside the US. It is no wonder major North American studios are showing ever greater interest in China, as the country's fast-paced economic development has created an avid crowd of film lovers for whom no weekend would be complete without a visit to the pictures.

Thanks to rising incomes, even the relatively high cost of a cinema ticket in the big cities does not put many people off. Dr Junsong Chen, a lecturer in marketing at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai, says with a ticket typically costing as much as 150 yuan, a night out at the cinema for two people can easily cost US$100 (Dh367), including the cost of a meal. "Why do people love to spend more money on a movie? It's because it's become one of the most important entertainments in life," Dr Junsong says.

Official figures show box office revenues in the first half of this year were 4.84 billion yuan, or 86 per cent higher than in the same period last year. The big increase this year is partly attributable to James Cameron's Avatar, which has become the highest grossing film of all time in China, with takings of about $200m. "In most main cities people love these kinds of movies, even if the price is so high," says Dr Junsong. "China is now becoming a very important market for American movies."

Foreign films secured 60 per cent of box office takings in China in the first quarter of this year, representing 1.8bn yuan. With film revenues increasing so rapidly in China - last year's box office total was 43 per cent up on 2008 - analysts predict further expansion for the already buoyant domestic film-making industry, which released 288 movies in the first half of this year. The industry is predicted to release 500 films this year, putting the country in third place for movie-making behind India and the US.

China has already created a string of big-screen superlatives including the world's largest film studio, Hengdian World Studios - a vast complex that includes recreations of palaces and temples. Throughout the 2000s it produced big international successes, such as House of Flying Daggers (2004), a joint production of mainland China and Hong Kong. Many Chinese-language films that achieve the most success internationally have tended to be joint productions between mainland Chinese studios and counterparts in Hong Kong, Taiwan or the US, with some of those made solely in mainland China finding it harder to secure overseas distributors.

But the domestic market alone offers plenty of opportunity for growth. For example, while Avatar made about $200m at the Chinese box office, it grossed about $750m in North America, illustrating the scope for Chinese cinema revenues to expand. "The number of releases will continue to grow," says James Roy, an analyst with China Market Research Group. "There will be a crop of new artistic talent able to operate within the confines of what's allowed to be seen, and provide compelling entertainment. As an activity it's a rising trend and the number of releases will increase to meet that demand."

Theatre operators and studios are looking to reap rich rewards, with IMAX chief among them. In recent interviews, Richard Gelfond, the chief executive of IMAX, said the company aimed to have at least 65 outlets in China within four years, ranking the country alongside Japan and Russia as one of IMAX's fastest-growing markets. Last month, IMAX reached a deal with Guangzhou Jinyi Film and Television under which eight theatres will open, in addition to the four already agreed on by the two sides.

But challenges remain for the domestic industry, with an estimated 70 per cent of Chinese films not making a profit. Only the minority of films that become hits make a return for investors. In future, things could be more difficult still as competition from abroad may increase. Currently, the state-owned China Film Group controls the distribution of films in the country, and it lets in only 20 foreign films a year on a profit-sharing basis.

That in effect limits the number of high-grossing overseas films that can be screened in China, something that is done "to protect the local industry", says Mr Roy. Other foreign films are bought by the China Film Group for a fixed fee. "It's interesting the things able to get through," Mr Roy adds. "Sometimes there are issues that don't seem a big deal to people outside China but which touch upon sensitive issues."

Even if chosen as one of the 20 profit-sharing movies, a foreign film may still face hurdles in China. Avatar was pulled from some 2D screens, despite its continuing popularity, to make way for a local film about Confucius. However, international factors could limit what some may see as favouritism towards the domestic film industry, as the World Trade Organisation has said China has until March next year to allow foreign film studios to distribute their pictures in the country.

But wherever the balance of power in China ends up settling between Chinese and foreign filmmakers, few doubt the country's film sector as a whole has a bright future. "As a leisure activity, people [previously] would get their giant televisions and watch pirate DVDs," says Mr Roy. "[Now] going to the movies is something young people we interview see as a leisure activity to do with friends or a boyfriend or girlfriend."