The Chinese Box Office was the subject of much discussion and scrutiny by Hollywood industry observers this past week, only for all their speculations and prognostications to prove premature. The incident in question revolved around the release of Rian Johnson's time-travel thriller, Looper, which hit theatres in China day-and-date with the US, the UK, and a number of other markets on Friday 28 September. This was helped in part by the film being co-funded by mainland media giant DMG Entertainment (the same company helping to bankroll Marvel's Iron Man 3). As early as Saturday evening, Nikki Finke over at Deadline was reporting that her sources indicated Looper was enjoying a huge opening weekend in China, with box office estimates of somewhere between US$23-25 million. Not only would these figures gift the film the number 1 spot over Stephen Fung's locally produced Tai Chi Zero, but it would mark the first time that a Hollywood film's international debut had beaten its US opening.
On home turf, Rian Johnson's film, which stars Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon Levitt as different incarnations of the same futuristic assassin, scored a respectable, if somewhat disappointing US$20.8 million opening weekend, placing it second at the box office behind Adam Sandler's animated Hotel Transylvania. Industry analysts were falling over each other to champion Looper as the first film ever to open stronger overseas, all this while actual numbers had yet to materialise. This past week, China has been celebrating its annual National Day holidays, meaning official box office figures were slower than usual to materialise. Truth be told, even at the time of writing this article, there is still no 100% official confirmation of how films performed in the mainland over the break.
Then on 3 October, Finke put her hand up and acknowledged that there had been an error. As it turned out, the problem had been straightforward enough - somebody at DMG's end had forgotten to convert Chinese Yuan (RMB) into US Dollars (USD), meaning that Looper's actual takings were far lower than had been initially reported. The following day, Stephen Cremin of Filmbiz Asia confirmed that, rather than Looper accumulating a possible US$25 million at the Chinese box office, "it likely made RMB23-25 million (under US$4 million) instead." Not only is this figure way off beating the film's domestic takings, it also meant that the film failed to place first at the box office, coming some way behind actual pack leader Tai Chi Zero, with a figure of just over RMB$60 million (less than US$10 million). As if to add insult to injury, Cremin went on to state that "although official numbers won't be available until next week, statements...indicate disappointing box office takings during the National Day holidays". So it wasn't a record-breaking weekend for the Sony/Tristar/FilmDistrict/Endgame/DMG co-production, it was in fact an under performing weekend all round.
While it may never become clear exactly how this happened, it is interesting to note that the industry, or at least its observers, seem primed and ready for it to happen, and for many, Looper seemed a more-than-plausible candidate. Not only was the film funded in part by Chinese money, but segments of the film were shot and set in Shanghai. The script originally had Gordon-Levitt's character fleeing to France, but one of the conditions of DMG's involvement was that the change be made to make the film more relevant to Chinese interests. It's worth noting that the film's script actually seems to incorporate these changes into an exchange between Joe (Gordon-Levitt) and his boss, Abe, played by Jeff Daniels. At the film's opening, Joe is seen learning French and expresses his desire to one day retire there. It is Abe, however, who insists Joe chooses China - the world's leading superpower - instead. And he should know, he's from the future.
So the changes were made and actress Summer Qing Xu was written in as Joe's wife during his time in China. While in the international version of the film, the "China sequence" only consists of a few minutes of screen time, mostly a time-lapse montage, the China cut expands this segment to give local audiences more of Qing and their homeland. Perhaps this idea, that the film was being tailored specifically for a Chinese crowd, had journalists like Finke geared up to see it perform better than other previous films of its kind. Its 28 September release date had been locked months ago, assuring not only that it would open day-and-date with the US, but also that it would hit one of the supposed busiest weeks at the Chinese box office. That was, however, until just a few weeks ago when it was suddenly announced that Looper would be postponed until 11 October, as its co-production status was suddenly thrown into doubt. As a co-production, Looper would be exempt from China's strict quota system that only allows around 25 foreign films to be released each year. Why this was suddenly called into question remains unclear - but could possibly have been over a dispute with other investors over profit-sharing - but the film did ultimately open on time.
Regardless of the reasons why Looper was caught in this seemingly ridiculous melee, it seems inevitable that at some point in the not-too-distant future a Hollywood film will open larger overseas than in the US, and China is almost certainly going to be where that happens - if only because they are best equipped with a large enough cinema-going population to do so. The next possible candidate to do this is probably Iron Man 3, also co-produced by DMG Entertainment, along with Marvel and Walt Disney China. If only those rumblings of Andy Lau being cast in the film had bore fruit this could be a very credible proposition. As is, there is still significant doubt that a film as big as Iron Man 3 - which will almost certainly be a huge success in the US - can open bigger anywhere else. In the meantime, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see this particular criteria become a hot-button talking point for all big budget co-productions in the future.