SHANGHAI — China’s biggest film of the summer didn’t star CGI dinosaurs or Tom Cruise. Rather, it was a doughy, green-haired monster named Huba, who is born to a human man (yes, that’s right) and is heir to the monster throne in a world where monsters and humans are in constant conflict.
As of Sept. 12, Monster Hunt had grossed a whopping RMB 2.428 billion (US$380.95 million) since its July 13 release, according to government statistics, breaking all sorts of records even amid an economic slowdown and turbulent summer for the Chinese stock market.
It’s not only the highest-grossing domestic movie in Chinese history, it also passed Furious 7 (RMB 2.426 billion, or US$380.84 million) last weekend to take the overall box office crown, with just a few days left in theaters.
Reviews have been mixed — film critic Mu Wei Er groused on douban.com that the singing and dancing were boring and a “smell of awfulness” hovered over the entire movie, while Hollywood Reporter called it “a sentimental dollop of easily digestible moral story-telling.” Ouch.
But what helped propel the film to the box office stratosphere was that the creative genius behind the film was Hong Kong director and animator Raman Hui — best known as the character designer for Shrek. Plus, the film literally had no serious competition during China’s summer “black-out” period when foreign films are banned from mainland theaters.
Monster Hunt also had another important thing going for it — the financial backing and marketing power of one of China’s biggest Internet companies, Tencent.
Right off the BAT
Already kings of their own online domains, China’s biggest tech companies — Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (known collectively in the Chinese media as “BAT”) — are now taking their rivalry to the big screen, sparking what could be a dramatic shift in the film industry in China, with ripple effects sure to be felt in Hollywood.
All three companies made big splashes with the launch of film production arms last year, with Baidu-backed iQiYi Motion Pictures, Alibaba Pictures Group and Tencent Movie Plus.
“(Filmmaking) is a very highly visible business in China,” says Rob Cain, head of Pacific Group Pictures, a consultancy focused on the Chinese entertainment industry, and founder of the ChinaFilmBiz blog. “The marketing value, the way it helps increase the profile and the attention for a company, I think that’s really what they’re after.”
Indeed, this is certainly what Alibaba founder Jack Ma wants. Since launching Alibaba Pictures Group, he’s taken meetings with just about everyone in Hollywood, from Sony and Disney to Universal, and so on. Earlier this summer, he announced the company was making its first Hollywood investment by co-financing Paramount’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
The film was released in China this week with Alibaba handling online ticket sales, releasing online games and helping Paramount partner with online vendors to sell merchandise.
What Ma is really excited about, though, is making his own films. And thanks to his deep pockets, he’s reportedly lined up the best in the business in China to do just that. Filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and actor Tony Leung, who have collaborated on a number of movies, including the 2000 hit In the Mood for Love, have signed on to produce Alibaba Pictures’ first film called Bai Du Ren, or The Ferryman, based on a short story by the novelist Zhang Jiajia.
Not to be outdone, rival Tencent has announced that its first independent film project will be based on a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Mo Yan, called The Treasure Map.
iQiYi scored a major partnership deal worth with Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi worth US$300 million, as well as a further US$300 million in funding from Baidu, to fund its budding film group. It claims to have already completed seven domestic films and one unnamed Hollywood co-production.
Making connections in Hollywood
These tech companies obviously bring massive financial resources, extensive distribution and marketing capabilities, and a large audience base from their various online platforms, but the question remains: Can they make quality films?
Rance Pow, the founder of Artisan Gateway, an Asian film industry consulting company based in Shanghai and Hong Kong, believes they can likely succeed initially from a technical standpoint and produce “very good-looking films on par with the world’s best production companies in very short order.”
But it’s the other part, the ability to tell a good story, where there’s a steep learning curve. Due to their varied online networks, the Chinese tech companies already have a wealth of content to work with from non-traditional sources, such as online video, game and book series created by young, non-professional screenwriters.
Alibaba’s Bai Du Ren, for example, will be developed from a story published on Zhang Jiajia’s Weibo page, while Tencent has made a series of animated films called Roco Kingdom based on its popular online game of the same name.
But it will take time to develop a steady supply of reliably decent films this way. “In terms of story development or selection, what gets green-lit to make it to production,” Pow says, “that’s probably the area where Chinese tech companies and traditional film studios have the greatest room to grow.”
And despite their vast wealth, will Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu stick with it if they suffer a string of bombs? Most films in China lose money, Cain notes. “This is a completely different business and just because you’ve got market clout and you can help promote a product, that doesn’t mean you can make it,” he says. “It’s extremely competitive.”
This may be where Hollywood can help. The big players in the Chinese film world, from the traditional movie studios to the tech newcomers, realize this and are actively seeking partners and investment opportunities in Los Angeles. “A lot of relationships are being made as we speak,” Pow says. “For the Chinese tech companies, this is a seat at the table in the global film industry.”
It’s a win-win situation. Chinese film companies want to expand beyond the domestic market and learn how to produce films that become global blockbusters — Monster Hunt, as Cain points out, is probably not going to translate well to a non-Chinese audience.
And Hollywood studios are jockeying for position in the world’s second-largest film market, trying to secure more advantageous release dates for their films in Chinese cinemas and the ability to make movies on the ground in China.
The pressure is certainly on for BAT, given how much they’ve trumpeted their arrival on the red carpet. Alibaba Pictures Group alone has seen its stock value reach nearly US$10 billion on the Hong Kong stock exchange before it’s even released its first film. “To justify that (valuation),” says Cain, “you’ve got to do more than an occasional movie with Wong Kar-wai.”
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.