Mature markets, dedicated filmgoers boost sales
Asia contains some of the world's biggest developing nations (India, China) as well as some of the globe's most dedicated moviegoers (Singapore, South Korea). So it should come as little surprise that box office in the region is generally up.
Of all the countries in the world, China has the potential to see the biggest growth in its theatrical territory -- even though its market is still one of the most underscreened and most politicized.
Already, Chinese exhibitors are talking of a monthlong moratorium in December, allowing for only one film in release: part two of the John Woo historic actioner "Red Cliff."
Given that the last 31 days of the calendar year is peak season for filmgoing, the month can make all the difference between a good and a bad year for the whole industry. The only credible challenger at that time would be Chen Kaige's "Mei Lan Fang," his biopic of a Peking opera star, which, if it is allowed to be released then, would be a neat piece of all-Chinese counterprogramming.
In 2007, December allowed a great deal of catch-up for Chinese-language movies, which in the first half had taken a terrible beating as Hollywood picture after Hollywood picture caught fire.
This matters greatly in a territory where production numbers and the ability to square up to American power (preferably by manipulating releases and carefully deciding which films get through the 20-movie import quota in order to achieve a majority share of the box office for local pics) are matters of policy.
Restricted as they are, Hollywood and other foreign films are enjoying double-digit growth in China as more multiplexes open, with the twin effects of expanding spectator numbers and pushing up average ticket prices. The biggest films of the year put up the kind of numbers that would be respectable in any territory -- "Transformers" ran away with some $35 million last year; this year, "Forbidden Kingdom" has nabbed $26 million -- but rental splits are still meager even for official "revenue share" titles.
According to state media, B.O. in 2007 hit RMB3.3 billion ($455 million), up 26% from the 2006 total of $361 million.
To the surprise of many, theatrical revenue grew last year, by 9% to some $133 million, thanks to mainstream hits.
But distributors seem perennially in the dumps over pics that fail to catch on and cumulative totals that are only as good as opening weekends in the good old days.
Reasons for the gloom include limited opportunity for theatrical circuit expansion in one of the most densely populated territories in the world, and the failure of several genres to hold folks' attention.
Hong Kong's own Cantonese productions have largely fallen into the specialty category as producers have instead switched to Mandarin-language movies with mainland coin and mainland auds in mind. South Korean films also proved to be a passing fad and are being bought and released in much smaller numbers than only a couple of years back. Chinese specialty titles barely raise an eyebrow in Hong Kong.
The good news came in the form of mainstream pics that are, increasingly, working across the Greater China region, such as "Kung Fu Dunk," "Warlords" and "Lust, Caution."
After a decade of growth, it was inevitable that the South Korean theatrical juggernaut had to stall -- and it did in 2007.
Takings dropped 5.5% from 2006's record levels but still came in at the second-highest figure ever. Admissions totaled 158 million, giving a gross of more than $1 billion. That makes South Korea a market roughly the same size as the much more populous India and more than twice the size of China.
The B.O. retreat coincided with a slowdown in the multiplex building boom and a reversal of the fortunes of the local industry, which had driven growth in earlier years.
The market share for South Korean films tumbled from 65% to 51%, and admissions for local films d