A still photo of the movie 'The Flowers of War' [Photo: chinesefilms.cn]Going to the cinema in China will become more expensive in December after exhibitors agreed to raise the minimum ticket price of ZHANG Yimou's war epic 'The Flowers of War' to RMB40 ($6.29) in major cities. Previously, the highest minimum price for a local film was RMB35 ($5.50).
December is set to be a crucial month at the Chinese box office after the disappointing National Day Holiday takings two months ago. As budgets soar, Chinese producers are putting increasing pressure on cinemas to return higher box office income to cover their investment risks.
Flowers is one of the year's most-anticipated films in China. It has an official budget of RMB600 million ($94.4 million), the largest in Chinese film history, and stars Christian BALE as a foreigner who saves Chinese lives in wartime Nanjing in December 1937.
In an interview with web portal sina.com in October, producer ZHANG Weipin stated, "In the past, we had to beg the theaters to play our films. But this is a different time now. I will let them beg me to screen the movie because I can guarantee that their screening rooms will be crowded."
But local exhibitors balked at Zhang's demands that they set the minimum ticket price to RMB40 and reduce their after-tax share from 57% to 55%. It was claimed by a media commentator on Weibo, China's Twitter-like microblog, that the top eight cinema chains had threatened to boycott the film in response to the demands.
After the film was screened to exhibitors last Wednesday, they agreed to the RMB40 minimum ticket price in major cities but maintained their 57% share after tax. It is estimated that tickets to Flowers will cost as much as RMB100 ($15.71), in what is already one of the world's most expensive cinema-going countries.
Earlier last week, Zhang told sina.com, "First of all, we only raised the minimum ticket price by RMB5, so where is the RMB100 price coming from? Second, in terms of revenue sharing, the distributor is taking 45% and the cinemas are taking 55% after taxes. They're taking the majority, yet the risk lies with me."
Zhang argued that audiences should support the ambitions of the local industry with higher ticket prices: "The Flowers of War is the most expensive film in Chinese history. It's 145 minutes long, 40-50 minutes longer than a typical local film. That means this is an enhanced product, which naturally means a higher ticket price."
Producers of TSUI Hark's 3-D action fantasy Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, who have moved its release two days forward to open head-to-head with Flowers, have themselves asked cinemas in China to return a minimum of RMB35 ($5.50) per admission, a precedent set by local blockbuster Aftershock.
Also opening next month is XU Jinglei's thriller Dear Enemy, currently scheduled on 23 Dec. Xu starred in Eternal Moment, the third highest-grossing local film of the year. Her most recent film as a director, romantic comedy Go! Lala Go!, made RMB124.5 million ($19.6 million).
There has been a series of surprises at the Chinese box office in 2011 that has increased producer uncertainty. The number one film at the box office last week is comedy Love is Not Blind. It has taken US$45 million in 13 days, outperforming Real Steel and The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.
Other unexpected hits at the box office this year include drama Buddha Mountain and horror Mysterious Island, starring FAN Bingbing and Mini YANG respectively, that made RMB69.3 million ($10.9 million) and RMB90.0 million ($14.2 million) on release in March and July.
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