China On Screen: First Half of 2016 Started with a Bang, Ended with a Fizzle

  • By the end of June, China’s red-hot box office had outpaced the 2015 total by just 21%, far slower than the 60% year-on-year rise tallied at the end of February
  • Spectulators say regulators may soon open China’s summer box office to Hollywood imports typically kept out during peak moviegoing months
  • After months of Hollywood competition, new Chinese-language releases include a crime thriller, a “youthful romance,” and two hotly-anticipated animated features

A still image from Big Fish Begonia, a Chinese animated feature that took more than 12 years from inception to screen. (Courtesy Mtime)

The first half of 2016 at the Chinese box office can be described perfectly in a four character Chinese idiom: 虎头蛇尾, or hǔ tóu shé wěi (literally “tiger’s head, snake’s tail”) meaning it started with a bang, and ended with a fizzle.

The New Year’s holiday in January and Spring Festival in February smashed box office records. Stephen Chow’s eco-fantasy hybrid The Mermaid became the first film ever outside of North America to top $500 million in a single territory, and overall ticket sales reached unprecedented heights in February when China’s sales outpaced North America’s monthly box office total for only the second time in history.

But the following months saw a rare slowdown for a market that has grown exponentially in the last decade. A dearth of high quality films as well as uneven distribution contributed to two consecutive months of slowing growth in April and May.

As it stands, China’s red-hot box office had outpaced the 2015 total by just 21% at the end of June, a far cry from the 60% year-on-year rise at the end of February, and the 48% growth it saw in the entire year of 2015. Can the Chinese box office make up some ground in July, a month that typically has been considered off-limits to imported films? There is some speculation within the industry that regulators may be on the verge of opening the market up given the release of Warner Bros’ Tarzan on July 19.

Still, this weekend’s new releases offer up a wealth of options for domestic audiences starving for local language fare after months of big-budget Hollywood entrees— from the Hong Kong crime thriller Cold War 2 and the “youthful romance” flick Never Gone, to two hotly-anticipated domestic animated features, Big Fish Begonia and Rock Dog.

Below, CFI will take a brief look at the two sequels in wide release this weekend to determine their box office potential. We will have an update on the two animated films in our regular box office recap next week.

Cold War 2 (寒战2)

China Distribution – China Film Group Co. (中国电影集团公司)
U.S. Distribution – WellGo USA

Cold War was a critical and commercial success when it was released in 2012. It swept the 2013 Hong Kong Awards winning nine of the 12 categories in which it was nominated, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor, while it grossed RMB 254 million ($39.6 million) on the Chinese mainland during November, a particularly slow moviegoing period.

Even though Hong Kong thrillers have had a tough time casting off the RMB 300 million spell in China — The White Storm (RMB 238M), Firestorm (RMB 308M), Overheard 3 (RMB 309M), Helios (RMB 210M) — CFI believes that Cold War 2 can hit between RMB 400M-500M ($60M-$75M) thanks to the success of its predecessor as well as the addition of popular actor Chow Yun-fat.

Never Gone (致青春·原来你还在这里)

China Distribution – Beijing Weiying Shidai Technology Co.,Ltd (北京微影时代科技有限公司)
U.S. Distribution – China Lion Film

Chinese moviegoers will certainly recognize the first three Chinese characters in this film’s title 致青春 (zhì qīngchūn), literally “delicate youth”, which were used in the 2013 film So Young (致我们终将逝去的青春). So Young, directed by Chinese superstar and billionaire Vicky Zhao, can be considered the earliest ancestor of the “youthful romance” genre that has taken China by storm in the past few years. The movie grossed RMB 720 million ($114.7 million) and is still counted as the commercial apex of this genre.

Never Gone, apart from being adapted from an online novel by the same author Xin Yiwu, has little in common with So Young. Popular young actor Kris Wu (Mr. Six) and and actress Liu Yifei (The Forbidden Kingdom) both bring their girlish features to the screen in hopes of driving their legion fans to the cineplex. CFI is predicting a solid opening weekend fueled by star power, but a steep drop off once it fails to attract a general audience.