China’s Love Affair With Hollywood

Posted: November 4, 2014 in Society and Culture

SOURCE: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/04/business/media/hollywood-works-to-maintain-its-world-dominance.html?ref=business

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” made more than 70% of its money from the foreign box office. Credit WETA/20th Century Fox

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Twice in the last few months, there was a faint knock on the door of American supremacy in the global film market.

In early September, a Chinese-language fantasy, “The Monkey King,” climbed to No. 21 at the worldwide box office, with $186.1 million in sales. A few weeks later, a Chinese comedy, “Breakup Buddies,” shot to No. 22, with $143.1 million in ticket sales as of last week.

As competitive threats go, that isn’t much. But Hollywood can always find something to fret about.

On Wednesday, when roughly 8,000 foreign and domestic film buyers, sellers and producers converge here at the annual American Film Market, domestic film officials will be worrying mostly about subtle shifts and distant footsteps in an international industry that is still dominated by American studios, talent and tastes.

According to Rentrak’s box-office tracking service, United States companies and their partners backed the top 20 performers at the world box office every year for the last five. A rare standout was “Intouchables” in 2012, from France, ranked 16th, with $432.6 million in global sales, just behind Universal Pictures’ British-created “Les Misérables,” with $442 million.

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Credit The New York Times

While the domestic box office has faltered — after a soft summer it is down 3.8 percent for the year, to about $8.5 billion, according to Rentrak — the United States has scored new triumphs abroad. To date, Rentrak’s data shows, the year’s best performer is Paramount Pictures’ “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” with about $1.1 billion in world sales, much of that in China.

In all, markets outside the United States accounted for roughly $25 billion of $35.9 billion in worldwide box-office sales last year, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Precisely what share of international sales was captured by American-based companies is unclear, but they remained dominant.

Still, Jonathan Wolf, the American Film Market’s managing director, has been watching what he calls “a global shift away from U. S. product over the last 25 years.”

Government subsidies for local film have changed tastes in some regions of the world. That shift, and a new generation of television-trained international filmmakers, Mr. Wolf said, have slowly undermined American-based film in ways that will again be apparent at this year’s market.

Over a decade, he noted, English-language film exporters have dropped to about 63 percent from 73 percent among those at his event, while United States-based exporters now account for roughly 47 percent of the American Film Market’s pool, down from 53 percent 10 years earlier.

“That’s continuing, and it’s probably going to pick up a little speed,” said Mr. Wolf, who, like much of the film world, has a sharp eye on China, where the annual box-office take is second only to that in the United States. Ticket sales there have been growing rapidly and are likely to exceed $5 billion this year.

American companies have looked to China for growth through collaborative ventures. But Chinese viewers, with a nudge from government policies that encourage theater owners to keep domestic films on screen, have shown an increasing tilt toward purely Chinese movies.

According to Rentrak, American studio titles accounted for 39 percent of Chinese ticket sales in 2013, down from 44 percent a year earlier. Speaking in October, Rob Cain, a producer and consultant with considerable experience in China, said the American share was back to almost 44 percent.

Of nine films to take in more than $100 million at the Chinese box office at that point, five were Chinese films. But an expected strong performance by Paramount’s “Interstellar” will probably keep the American share relatively high through the year’s end, Mr. Cain said.

China, aside from a deeply rooted, action-oriented Hong Kong movie culture, has yet to become a powerful exporter of film. To date, it has been more like India, a prolific producer whose wares are mostly viewed within its borders, and among a vibrant diaspora around the world.

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Christopher McFarland, left, and Riza Aziz of Red Granite, the outfit behind “The Wolf of Wall Street,” rely on Russian sales, which may be in doubt. Credit J. Emilio Flores for The New York Times

But powerful Chinese companies like Dalian Wanda, Fosun International and Le Vision Pictures will again be looking for global inroads as they gather here on Wednesday for the annual U.S.-China Film Summit, concurrently with the American Film Market opening.

American films face a particularly serious challenge in Russia, which ranked seventh among national markets last year and is rapidly growing: As new political tensions rise, some Russian officials and others have discussed quotas or even a ban on American films.

A spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Association of America, a policy group for the major studios, declined to discuss the Russian situation because the potential for changes there remains uncertain.

For major producers like QED International, which financed “Fury” for Sony Pictures, or Red Granite Pictures, whose “Dumb and Dumber To” will be released Nov. 14 in the United States, the loss of Russian sales would knock a hole in a financial model that has tapped foreign buyers for the funds to make some major American films.

“The studios seem to be in a de-risking strategy,” said Riza Aziz, co-owner of Red Granite. He spoke of increasing reluctance by American studios to use their own capital, relying instead on money raised by others, often through foreign sales.

Christopher J. McFarland, Mr. Aziz’s partner in Red Granite, said his prime concern was that a global downturn, as in 2008, would quickly impair international film finance. “You’re always worried about the world economy,” he said.

Sometimes, film executives have more specific concerns.

Victor Loewy, a producer who previously headed Canada’s Alliance Films, said foreign markets, while robust, have had to contend with a rush of American movies targeted at a relatively narrow audience. One example was “Heaven Is for Real,” a faith-based film that posted $90.4 million in sales in the United States, but only about $9.8 million abroad, when Sony released it this year.

“Those films don’t travel well,” Mr. Loewy said.

Another sore spot is a move by the American distributors of smaller films toward tiny theatrical releases, with an almost immediate turnover to video-on-demand. That kind of domestic release pattern builds little momentum for foreign distributors, who may find themselves holding rights to a movie that makes no impression abroad, because it was never a hit in the United States.

That situation and other concerns, said Rena Ronson, who handles film finance and other issues for Hollywood’s United Talent Agency, has contributed to a world market that remains vibrant but increasingly demands that almost everything — genre, star, story, American distribution plan — be perfectly aligned.

“You have to tick all the boxes,” Ms. Ronson said.

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