By Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline.com
Earlier this month, Alcon Entertainment/DMG Entertainment/Warner Bros’ Point Break tried out a new experiment by releasing in China three weeks ahead of domestic. The decision was strategic — in part to be the final Western film in the PROC ahead of the December blackout and also to give the film a boost going into the rest of its worldwide rollout. The U.S. premiere of the film is tonight in Hollywood, and executives have a reason to smile on the red carpet: The experiment has been surfing a wave of strong box office and holds in a market that’s become trickier to navigate during the past few months.
Total Middle Kingdom takings as of today are $34M after 12 days in release. Point Break entered a market that’s said to have had little mainstream familiarity with Kathryn Bigelow’s seminal 1991 surfers & robbers crime thriller (outside the notorious piracy) and no major stars. So this particular spot on the calendar was a boon, backed up by a strong push from Beijing-based DMG Yinji, which engineered a splashy premiere and capitalized on word-of-mouth.
Point Break essentially had two weeks to find an audience before the big kahuna of Chinese movies, Mojin – The Lost Legend (aka The Ghouls) surfs in on December 18, and it has made use of the window — taking the No. 1 spot on its debut weekend of December 4-6. It’s currently still No. 1, ahead of local movies that have begun flooding the market as the blackout ramps up.
But nothing is ever cut-and-dried in China, and this past weekend, a surprise was launched by a film that initially was due in previews on Saturday and Sunday. Surprise, a fantasy comedy, which was expected to have about 5% of the PROC screens, ultimately was granted 40%, pushing all others down a notch. It’s now out of theaters until its official opening on Friday, and both Point Break and red-hot The Martian are back at the top of the charts. That’s a vagary of the Chinese market where films are not booked into exhibitors for a full week, they’re booked for a screen, I’m told, and can be knocked out at the flick of a switch.
Getting back to Point Break’s strategy, I understand the idea was the get traction with what the producers felt was a strong action movie for the China market. It was also key to go ahead of the U.S. because the film would have otherwise had to wait out the blackout period, then potentially get clobbered by Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Kung Fu Panda 3 at either end of January.
The initial run began on about 15% of Chinese screens and increased over the first weekend based on word-of-mouth. That was key for PROC exhibitors.
This could have gone the other way, though. A worst-case scenario in which Point Break opened lower and then dropped precipitously could have had a knock-on effect of other markets second-guessing, and bad press was a real risk. The folks at Alcon, DMG and Warners believed they had a good movie and rolled the dice.
This certainly could be a model that others will follow, I hear. Especially because it in a way reverse-engineers the piracy issue. If that’s a concern, an exec opines, why not release first in the country that is the most notorious?
And, as China increasingly encroaches on the U.S. as the biggest global film market, an important element might be the U.S./China collaboration status that Point Break has. That’s different from the quite elusive co-production status, which ups the door take from 25% to 40%. Collaboration status gives producers the opportunity to “pick” their release date in advance. Gatekeeper China Film Group has the last word, of course, but by showing particular Chinese involvement, CFG will lean in.
DMG has bases in both Beijing and L.A., but its Chinese studio, DMG Yinji, allows it a jump — though a film must meet the five disciplines: development, production, financing, distribution and marketing. That designation also allows a hold on theaters and gives the company an earlier lead on marketing and promotional opportunities, whereas studio quota films are often not informed of their dates until about 30 days out, thereby shortening the window.
It’s not only DMG that can carry out this model. It’s speculated that companies such as Fosun (partnered in Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8) or Huayi (in STX) could have similar muscle.
Alcon put up most of the financing on the $105M Point Break, and the company’s Andrew Kosove tells me he is very happy with the outcome thus far. “The cumulative box office result is going to be quite handsome,” he said. “The playability is unprecedented in terms of drops week-to-week. That confirms what test audiences in the U.S. have said. They dig the stunts that have never before been done on film. To see that confirmed in Asia in encouraging and portends for the rest of releases.”
Regarding this new-style release pattern, Kosove said: “We’d rather be at the forefront of the change. Studios can play follow-the-leader, but we have to be out in front of a changing world.”
He also credits Warner Bros brass for encouraging a great opportunity “to see what happens on someone else’s nickel.” One has to be opportunistic, Kosove said: “As opposed to looking at North America, now we’re looking at Asia.”
Whether this will be a sort of model going forward remains to be seen, but if China has a role in a film — be it co-pro or collaboration status, or just plot elements — it might be one to follow.
At the end of the day, Point Break is going to open elsewhere a week after Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and that’s an uncertain time. But for now, it’s smartly latched on to a buoy in uncharted waters.