Chinese movie triumphs fail to lift studio's spirits

Despite rising box-office takings, Huayi Brothers says the Chinese market is still not big enough to sustain domestic producers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 April, 2013, 3:57am

Chinese filmgoers' appetite for movies drove up box-office takings last year but was unable to lift the optimism of Huayi Brothers, the mainland's leading studio.

Behind the silver screen, the company is seeking to position itself as a big film distributor providing a stage for local films and film stars to shine.

"The mainland's movie market is not as promising as you think. There are just a few movies that can arouse discussion and are able to earn big box office," Huayi chief executive Wang Zhonglei told the South China Morning Post.

Huayi, which produced seven blockbusters last year - including Painted Skin: Resurrection, Back to 1942, CZ12, Love, Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero - posted box-office takings of 2.1 billion yuan (HK$2.6 billion). Only three films earned more than 300 million yuan.

"Every year, there are quite a lot of movies with a box office of just over 1 million yuan," Wang said, arguing the mainland's movie market was unable to sustain domestic filmmakers.

The mainland box office rose 30.2 per cent last year to 17 billion yuan, 48.5 per cent of which was from locally produced movies and the rest from imports, which boasted higher takings than local films for the first time in a decade. Domestic filmmakers produced 893 movies last year.

Behind these figures, Wang said: "Ninety per cent of domestic movie makers run a deficit, and 90 per cent of domestic movies have lost money."

Yet Huayi, which also makes television shows and operates talent agencies and cinemas, posted a profit of 244 million yuan last year, up 20.5 per cent from 2011.

While others are struggling, Wang has in his mind a clear picture of the future development of domestic filmmakers.

"In the coming years, what we need in the industry are a few big companies that are capable of film distribution, of which we are one," he said. "What makes Huayi different is our DNA in film production and creativity."

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the creation of director-writer Stephen Chow Sing-chi, is the first film for which Huayi played the role of distributor without participating in production and investment.

"When I decided to do the distribution for Mr Chow's movie, I hadn't even watched the movie," Wang said.

Chow will not be the only artist to make use of Huayi as a platform to distribute his creations. Wang is looking forward to working with more independent studios and filmmakers.

"Huayi will become a platform to make a normal person become a film star, and a platform to let a star shine brighter," he said.

Journey's mainland box office reached 1.24 billion yuan, the second-highest for a Chinese-language film after Lost in Thailand's 1.26 billion yuan last year, official data showed.

"The 2.1 billion yuan in box office we earned last year was mainly contributed by our own productions. In a few years, when we expect box office of 4 billion yuan or 5 billion yuan, our own productions will be not enough," Wang said.

When Huayi becomes a large film distributor, the contribution from independent production houses would become "food" to sustain the life of the platform, Wang said.

"This is a business model similar to that in Hollywood. Artists, directors and independent studios can do everything but not distribution and pouring in money," he said. "Huayi can be the investor and distributor, something that others don't want to do."

Although Huayi would take the highest risk under this business model, it would be able to earn the most if a film was successful, he said.

Wang, 43, founded Huayi Brothers with his elder brother Wang Zhongjun in 1994 and listed the company on the Nasdaq-style ChiNext board in Shenzhen in 2009.

"I don't like shouting out slogans," he said. "Working realistically is my style."