By Phil Contrino
It's hard to watch Pacific Rim without thinking that it was built to play well in China.
Pacific Rim prominently features Chinese characters who pilot Crimson Typhoon (pictured above), one of the strongest robots featured in the film. The appeal doesn't stop there. It's no coincidence that while taking time off from fighting invading aliens the pilots are seen playing basketball, a wildly popular sport in China. "China is our number one market outside of the United States," Heidi Ueberroth, president of NBA International, told Reuters earlier this year. "The growth has been very significant and very much on track, and we are very much still just scratching the surface."
In addition to featuring Chinese characters in key roles, director Guillermo del Toro brings Pacific Rim to an action-packed conclusion in Hong Kong. The use of that setting may help the film gain more traction with Asian moviegoers.
Pacific Rim is already off to a great start in key Asian territories. Warner Bros. reports that the sci-fi flick took in a healthy $9.6 million in Korea over the weekend, which puts it 146% ahead of Rise of Planet of the Apes after its opening weekend.
The $38.3 million debut Pacific Rim managed in North America is largely viewed as a disappointment--the film is being criticized for not even topping the critically-lambasted Grown Ups 2. Yet Pacific Rim will have the last laugh once global receipts are counted if the $53 million overseas debut from only 50 percent of markets is any indication. Pacific Rim's performance in China will be particularly crucial when it comes to making up for a lackluster performance at home.
China-based sources tell BoxOffice that Pacific Rim could earn as much as $60 million in China when it opens on July 31. That would be an impressive showing considering that 2013 hasn't been a huge year for Hollywood in the Middle Kingdom. Star Trek Into Darkness earned just over $57 million, and Man of Steel is sitting at $62.9 million after this past weekend. It bodes well that Chinese moviegoers turned Transformers: Dark of the Moon--an effort that is often mentioned in the same breath as Pacific Rim--into a strong $172.3 million hit in their country. (The first Transformers film made $37.3 million in China when it debuted in 2007.) If Pacific Rim can tap into the same crowds that lined up for Michael Bay's action extravaganza, then it will it be in very good shape.
It's important to keep in mind that Pacific Rim will face tough competition from other Hollywood efforts. According to EntGroup, White House Down is slated to open on July 22 with Fast & Furious 6 following on July 26. Couple that with a surge in attendance for homegrown products--Chinese films boast a market share over 60 percent in 2013--and it's not hard to imagine Pacific Rim failing to make a big impact.
BoxOffice recently caught up with Max Peskin, Global Communications manager for Beijing-based Vasoon Animation Co.
Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, Peskin moved to Beijing eight months ago in order to work within China's booming animation industry. Peskin opens up to BoxOffice about the animation market in China, what Chinese families are looking for when they go to the movies, and why Hollywood's animated films still do so well in China.
BoxOffice: Tell us a little bit about Vasoon Animation Co. and your role there.
Peskin: Founded in 1992, Vasoon Animation is China's leading and oldest private animation studio. With over 180 animation professionals, Vasoon internationally produces a complete range of entertainment products, including animated feature films, animated TV series, artistic animated shorts and novels. Vasoon Animation has released features such as Kuiba, Kuiba 2, Spring Mood and Bird. The most recent feature Vasoon has released is Kuiba 2, which debuted on May 31st, 2012. Not only was it China's first animated film featured with 3D, but also was China's first feature with Dolby Atmos.
As the Global Communications Manager, it is my obligation to give the organization an international facelift and push Vasoon into the international spotlight. I submit Vasoon features to film festivals, prepare/submit press kits, manage Vasoon's online presence, reach out to distributors, production studios and other media outlet.
How long have you been living in China? Did it take you a while to adapt to life there and what were the toughest obstacles you had to face?
I have been living in Beijing for roughly eight months. In 2010 I studied at Fudan University for six months, so I already had a general understanding of what to expect while living in China. Regardless, the language proves to be the toughest obstacle when living in Beijing. Despite the language barrier, Vasoon has given plenty of support to make my transition easier.
If you had to sum up the state of Chinese animated films right now, how would you do it?
Chinese animation is rapidly improving the visual experience for their audience, however it still lacks the necessary creativity to break into international box offices. Local studios still struggle to develop an original animation style and a captivating story in order to capture a global audience. However, as local studios compete against each other and receive support from the government, there is a high likelihood of a studio producing an international blockbuster. Although the animation industry has difficulties with movie promotions and film distribution, a powerhouse studio would likely aid the local studios' efforts if the film has strong potential.
Why do you think that China's moviegoers respond so positively to animated films from Hollywood?
Hollywood animated features not only have beautiful animation and family-friendly stories, but also have their content catered for a global audience. In the current film market, it is vital for large studios to capitalize on the international box office revenue, so studios began to adjust their stories to appeal to an international crowd. Pixar is the perfect example of studios catering to a worldwide community, as the majority of their films focusing on the fantasy lives of objects or animals. This content catering tactic discards any racial issues from the movie while still captivating a global audience.
Animation relies heavily on the purchasing power of families. What do you think Chinese families are looking for when they seek out animated films to see in theaters?
Chinese families have similar requirements to western families when it comes to animated movies. They look for a family friendly animated feature that promotes morals and values which would inspire their children. It is also important for these features to not only entertain the children, but also the parents. If parents can also enjoy the feature with their children, it is a win-win for all parties involved.
How long do you think it will take for China to produce animated films that can not only perform well at home but also in other countries?
Government aid and local competition will make this day come sooner than later, 2020 Ernst in Young predicts China B.O dominance, which will increase the ante of the local studios. My guess, the first locally produced animated feature film will come out sometime within the next 5-10 years.
How big of a role does merchandising play in the Chinese animation market. For instance, we all know that Cars 2 was made largely because the property sells billions of dollars in merchandise. Is there anything like that happening in China?
Animated features can generate a strong revenue stream off of derivatives products, so merchandising plays a big role in China. Chinese animation studios that produce original IP eagerly look for merchandising opportunities if their feature has a strong enough following. Arguably the most popular animated television series, Creative Power Entertaining Co.'s Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, has actively worked with Walt Disney to aid their development of derivative products. Even Vasoon manages to do a wide range of merchandising, such as novels, toys, playing cards and clothing. There are several local animation studios which have combined animation production and product manufacturing. One example of a studio that incorporates this horizontal integration is Guangdong Alpha Animation, as the organization has both animation production and producer manufacturing.
NBCUniversal Studios will make headway in Chinese film market after a five-year partnership with Legendary. [Deadline Hollywood]
Could sponsors have made Tiny Times the box office monster that it is? A possible explanation of why the film is dominating other films with more favorable reviews. [China]
American actor Vincent Gallo joins the cast of Sakamoto Junji's Human Trust. [China Daily]
The top story coming out of China is in the middle of the top ten chart. Keanu Reeves stumbled out of the gate with his directorial debut, Man of Tai Chi, a co-production between the state-backed China Film Group, Wanda Group, and Village Roadshow Pictures. The project combined the A-List Hollywood draw of Keanu Reeves with a Chinese narrative in Mandarin and Cantonese. It looked great on paper, suggesting the possibility of more Hollywood stars joining the fray and making films with China directed at Chinese audiences. If there's a formula to it, however, it looks like it will have to be tweaked. Man of Tai Chi flopped in China, grossing $2.85 million after three days in release and occupying fifth place in the weekly top ten chart. The film was also released in IMAX screens across the territory, with the potential of a similar roll-out around the world. After the disappointing numbers out of the gate, audiences outside of China might have to wait a while before seeing the directorial debut of Keanu Reeves.
Tiny Times was the undisputed champion once again, bringing in an additional $24.41 million to take its cumulative total to $67.67 million after eleven days. It has no guarantees to retain its top spot after the early success of Johnnie To's latest crime flick, Blind Detective. The thriller grossed $13.65 million in four days, stealing all the thunder out of Man of Tai Chi by bringing in over five times the admissions of the Keanu Reeves picture.
Man of Steel continued its strong run during its third week in release in China. The Superman reboot has grossed $58.2 million in the market over 18 days and represents about 18% of Man of Steel's $315.3 million overseas gross. This has all been accomplished in the face of strong competition from domestic films like Switch, Tiny Times, Badges of Fury, and Bind Detective -all of which have outperformed Man of Steel in different intervals of its run. Staying power pays off in China, where holdovers can prove a film's long-term success as in the case of Star Trek Into Darkness and The Croods.
Weekly Box Office Results for China.
Expectations were high coming out of the gate for Man of Tai Chi, Keanu Reeves' directorial debut produced in collaboration between China Film Group, Village Roadshow Pictures, and Wanda Group. The film's performance over its first week in China, however, proved to be disappointing, according to a story from The Hollywood Reporter. EntGroup is reporting that Man of Tai Chi earned $2.9 million over the weekend since its Friday premiere, well behind the $137.4 million grossed by fellow new release Blind Detective. Man of Tai Chi went on to suffer steep drops in daily grosses across China, falling down to the mid-table mark of the daily top ten on Sunday.
Keanu Reeves participated in a promotional tour in several Chinese cities for the film to no avail at the box office. Man of Tai Chi was also released in IMAX screens across China, but the film simply didn't stick with audiences. Man of Tai Chi occupied 17% of the screenings in mainland China on Friday but stumbled down to 12.3% by Sunday.