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China's blockbuster line-up signals tough year for Hollywood

Hong Kong

CHINA'S biggest week of the year for movie-goers is packed with at least 12 new releases - all in the local language - a sign that Hollywood studios are headed for another challenging year in their No. 1 overseas market.

The line-up of potential Chinese New Year blockbusters for the week of Jan 24 to 30 is drawing even more attention than usual because China is set to overtake the US as the world's largest movie market this year.

The milestone is also important for US filmmakers, who have come to rely on revenue from China to backstop big-budget "tentpoles" - films made to be big earners to offset the financial riskiness of a studio's other titles.

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Beijing-born Jean Su, a producer and co-founder of Broadvision Pictures, a Los Angeles-based independent film and TV studio that focuses on movies for global audiences including North America and China, said: "Chinese and American audiences are tired of these tentpole movies."

She noted that some recent tentpoles have not done well in the US and may not get the box office numbers they expected in China, either.

The rising dominance of Chinese blockbusters is in line with a broader shift toward local goods as a trade war with the US stokes nationalism. Older American franchise films like Fast & Furious and Transformers, that used to offset mediocre box office sales in the US with big China receipts, have seen their share of China's estimated US$29 billion movie market dwindle.

At the same time, some of China's franchises look to be on the rise.

Detective Chinatown 3 and Lost in Russia, instalments of two of China's most commercially successful comedies, are among the films forecast to do well over the holiday. Leap, based on the true story of the Chinese women's volleyball team, is another potential blockbuster amid rising interest in nationalistic themes.

While China's filmgoers are becoming choosier, especially when it comes to Hollywood movies, there's still a big Chinese audience for great work from the US, said Gary Michael Walters, chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based Bold Films, which produced films such as Whiplash and Nightcrawler. Overall box office sales increased by 4.1 per cent in China last year, while the slice accounted for by Hollywood titles fell to about 36 per cent, the lowest since at least 2011, according to data from China's largest online ticketing platform Maoyan Entertainment.

He predicts that even if Hollywood's market share in China drops for another year, US films will probably show a net gain in revenue from the country, given broader growth in the market.

There were some successes last year among US films in China: Disney's Marvel franchise entry Avengers: Endgame had US$614 million in gross box office last year in China, enough to make it the year's third-biggest film there, reported movie website IMDb.

A gain this year in China would have to come without the likes of an Avengers: Endgame, which did especially well as a popular franchise that tied up themes built up over years.

The first likely 2020 Hollywood hit in China may be Mulan. Disney's US$150 million live-action feature, starring Yifei Liu, Donnie Yen and Jet Li, is scheduled for a March 27 China release, said IMDb.

Some film studio shares have benefitted from the second-half surge in China's box office last year. Beijing Enlight Media, the company behind 2019's highest grossing movie in China, Ne Zha, gained 55 per cent in 2019, the biggest annual surge since 2015. The stock rose as much as 1.7 per cent in early Shenzhen trading Wednesday.

On the schedule for Chinese New Year 2020 is The Rescue, a maritime disaster thriller directed by one of China's most successful action movie directors Dante Lam and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Peter Pau. Such action themes have been popular in China, with the Lam-directed Operation Red Sea as the top grossing film in 2018 and Wolf Warrior 2 being the all-time No 1 box office ranking.

Jiang Ziya: Legend of Deification, an animation film based on an ancient Chinese legend, is ranked as the second-most anticipated film on the holiday schedule, going by a poll conducted by Maoyan. The most anticipated was Detective Chinatown 3.

Liu Zhenfei, data analyst at Maoyan Entertainment, said: "In the past, people wondered what would be the all-time highest sales if all of the top grossers were released during the same season.

"This year, the New Year season is that kind of matchup, with what will probably be the best-of-the-best-selling films in one week." BLOOMBERG