Ever since Matrix: Revolutions in 2003, select Hollywood blockbusters have been released simultaneously worldwide in an effort to combat the DVD guy on the corner, whose suitcase fills magically on opening night. Star Wars III? Got it. Mr. and Mrs. Smith? Got it. Sure, the frame rate can’t keep up with the action, and the camera man, having sat too close to the screen, has to pan a little to see each side of a conversation. But hey, it’s 8 kuai. (Or 7, depending on where you shop.)
Evidently this doesn’t sit well with Hollywood, as more and more movies are being geared toward the international market. Those of us living overseas, of course, are overjoyed at not having to wait six months for Star Wars, as was the case with Episode I. But Shanghaiist can’t help wondering whether this formula actually stops anyone from buying bootlegs. We attended three separate screenings of Batman Begins, and found only one (Friday night) even moderately full. Yes, Shanghai is definitely feeling the theater crunch, as the city now sports an excessive number of exorbitantly priced seats. While even the staunchest spendthrift decided to throw down the 80 kuai for Return of the King last year, the movies that can pull crowds at 10 times street DVD price are few and far between, it seems (even Revenge of the Sith flopped). And this weekend’s lackluster crowds aren’t due to the film’s quality, as Batman Begins‘ excellent run at US theaters has been backed by solidly upbeat reviews (which Shanghaiist fully endorses, by the way).
What do improving Chinese box office numbers tell us? As usual with statistics about China, little. For the past three years, a Chinese movie has taken the top domestic box office spot, with The House of Flying Daggers (RMB 153 million), Warriors of Heaven and Earth, and Hero (a record RMB 242 million between Dec. 20, 2002 and Feb. 26, 2003) holding the titles. On the surface, then, it would seem that foreign flims have little impact at the box office, but Shanghaiist is aware of two issues with these numbers. First, during national holidays, such as the week long National Day in October, theaters are often restricted to a single movie, the chosen Chinese blockbuster of the year. Second, before these measures and before Crouching Tiger drew scores of imitators, most Chinese movies struggled at the box office. In 1998, the top grossing Chinese movie made barely RMB 10 million. Last year was the first time in 10 years that Chinese films outdrew foreign films at the Chinese box office. (It will be interesting to see if this trend will continue as China sees more and more foreign films thanks to its entry into the WTO.)
So are Hollywood films aiding the Chinese market, instead of harming it? Shanghaiist isn’t sure, but one thing we are certain of, the decision to drop prices, or even create ticket tiers, would be a welcome one. For 25 kuai a pop, we’d still be watching Batman Begins, and we bet we wouldn’t be the only ones.
Mr. and Mrs. Smith opens July 8 in Shanghai. War of the Worlds (pictured) should get here in August.