[SCMP Column] Movie Magic Still Elusive

December 31, 2016

Carrie Fisher’s death in the dying days of 2016 could have provided a dark but fitting theme for this my last Inside Out of 2016. So many people have died – including my own father. And it is a year marked by so many experiences that deserve mourning – like Trump, and Brexit, and Syria.

But let’s use her death for more positive purposes. As Princess Leia of Star Wars fame she provides a feisty glimpse into the always vital, often escapist, world of cinema – a world that for all of my lifetime has been dominated by the US and Hollywood.

But on the cusp of 2017, and with China becoming such a potent force in so many parts of the global economy, is it reasonable to ask how much longer this will remain so?

George Lucas and Star Wars, first released almost 40 years ago, is still today one of the world’s most commercially successful films – ranking third in inflation-adjusted terms, at US$2.8bn in box office earnings, compared with Gone with the Wind at US$3.4bn and Avatar at US$3bn.

In a list where nine of the top ten box office earners of all time have been made in Hollywood (Dr Zhivago the only exception), Hollywood still seems firmly entrenched as the world’s dominant film maker. And just as Hollywood seems still to reign supreme, so the Star Wars franchise retains an awesome globe-dominating appeal. The latest Lucas Films offering – Star Wars: Rogue One – has earned an estimated US$573m since its release in the US and Canada just two weekends ago.

So it is maybe premature to talk about Hollywood’s demise. But as in so many areas of economic activity, there are rumblings from China that force the question: how soon before this dominance is eroded?

The question occurred when I read earlier this month that China has this year overtaken the US in terms of its total of cinema screens. With an estimated 27 new cinema screens being opened every day, China is now home to no less than 41,500 screens – compared with just over 40,000 in the US.

Then of course there are the octopus-like tentacles of Wang Jianlin and Dalian Wanda, China’s fiercely predatory entertainment conglomerate, which (not satisfied with becoming a force in European football) is in the process of becoming the world’s dominant cinema-owner, and a significant force in the film industry worldwide. Nothing if not ambitious, Mr Wang’s aim is to control 40-50% of the global movie-going market by 2026.

After acquiring AMC and Starplex in the US, and subsequently Odeon and UCI in  Europe Mr Wang boasts that Wanda today accounts for 15% of box office revenues worldwide, with the aim of building this to 20% by 2020. At the same time he aims to invest in all six of the big US film studios, and is currently targeting Dick Clark productions which controls the Golden Globes franchise.

With the world’s largest population of cinemas and cinema-goers, you must inevitably ask how soon before China and China’s film-makers become global box-office forces like George Lucas or Stephen Speilberg. I suspect the answer – in spite of Wang Jianlin’s grand ambitions – is not any time soon.

While China may have more cinema screens than anyone else, and a bigger population, this does not directly or automatically point to global box office dominance. China may have boasted 1.26bn cinema ticket sales in 2015, but the fact that American’s watch at least four times as many films every year means that US box office admissions still outrank China (1.36bn admissions last year). And of course India and Bollywood put both the US and China in the shade, selling more than 9bn admissions last year.

Even with the manful help of Matt Damon, and the lissome Jing Tian, the Zhang Yimou Christmas blockbuster Great Wall – launched by Wanda’s Legendary film company on the same day in China as Rogue One was launched in the US – earned a disappointing $66m over its opening weekend. While the film captured 70% market share nationwide, it still lagged behind Legendary’s other 2016 blockbuster Warcraft, and even further behind the Alibaba offering, The Mermaid, which today stands as China’s biggest all time box office earner, bagging $554m so far.

For perspective, despite its box office leadership inside China, The Mermaid would still fail to get into the world’s Top 50 box office earners worldwide. And despite the reputation inside China of producers like Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Wong Karwai or Feng Xiaogang, few of these would register with filmgoers living outside Asia. Someone like Taiwan-born Ang Lee, with Wedding Banquet, Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is probably much better known for his work from the US and a home in New York. While China released over 600 new films in 2014 (the latest year for comprehensive figures), the US still outgunned it with over 700 films – and again, India put everyone in the shade. Bollywood produced 1,966 films.

While Wanda is probably the most noticeable of China’s film industry players, we cannot underestimate the competitive challenge that comes from others biting at its heels – like Alibaba which is co-financing films with Stephen Speilbergs’s Amblin, Huayi’s cofinancings with STX in the US, and Tencent’s Tang Media investing in IM Global in the US. Indeed, it may be through such co-financing initiatives that China’s presence becomes most forcefully felt.

Since 2014, Chinese entertainment groups have invested at least US$5bn directly in the US film industry – enough to arouse security concerns in Congress. While the challenge from China in the global film industry remains real, this Congressional angst strikes me as bemusingly preposterous, similar to the cultural nationalistic instincts in France that have kept so many good US films out of France, and allowed so many mediocre French producers to continue making mediocre films.

As China’s influence grows, let us just hope the result is a richer diversity of excellent films that allow us to while away some leisurely holiday-season hours. After all, China’s filmgoers deserve a smattering of escapism as much as any of us.
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