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Local Movies Ruled the Asia Box Office in 2020. How Can Hollywood Catch Up?


While the North American box office pulls in less than $5 million per weekend due to COVID-19, the China and Japan markets are not only open, but also capable of breaking theatrical records. It may feel logical to hurry more U.S. movies into Asian release, but when the real winners across the continent in 2020 have largely been local releases, studios and streamers will need to think long and hard about their strategy going forward.

Certainly, earning even a lowball $10 million from a theatrical release in China appears to be an attractive option at a time when Europe and the North American domestic markets are currently so dysfunctional. This was the route taken by Disney with “Mulan,” which went to premium VOD in Disney Plus territories and grossed a handy $42.2 million (RMB277 million) from Chinese theaters.

Similarly, Universal has seen China cinemas deliver $49.9 million of the $85 million global theatrical cumulative to date on “The Croods: A New Age.” Meanwhile, Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman 1984” earned $18.8 million in three days in China where there is no HBO Max outing to undermine the exclusive theatrical window.

The logic of exploiting properties in Asia or licensing off individual titles applies to streamers as well as traditional studios. After all, none of the global OTT giants have complete networks in the region: Netflix doesn’t operate as a platform in mainland China, and Disney Plus will only roll out in Singapore in February and the world’s number four theatrical market South Korea some time later in 2021.

Elsewhere, Amazon Prime Video is patchier still in Asia — its major markets in the region are Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and India — reflecting the holes in the parent company’s Asian e-commerce network. WarnerMedia is targeting HBO Max rollouts in Latin America and Europe in 2021, but an Asia launch is still further over the horizon.

“The theory sounds simple enough. If you don’t have the D2C [direct-to-consumer] possibility in China, then you might want to license your content or exploit it another way. It recognizes the role of theatrical. But this is not an aggressive strategy [for any of the studios or global streamers] and may be an interim 2021 solution. Our view is that Disney is becoming flexible, not dogmatic, on windows,” says Vivek Couto, executive director at consultancy Media Partners Asia.

“After 2021, all bets that it would continue are off,” he adds.

To some extent, the global groups are prevented from rolling out their platforms any faster, as many of their content slates are currently committed to third-party regional streamers or pay-TV groups. That’s certainly the case for HBO Max in India, where HBO content is licensed to Disney-owned Hotstar, and in Australia, where shows are committed to News Corp-Telstra joint venture Foxtel. Meanwhile, Warners’ other VOD service, HBO Go, is now operational in eight Asian territories.

But another, more enduring problem is the long-term declining impact of Hollywood content as tastes in many Asian markets swing towards local fare — most notably in Korea, Japan and China — and the Hollywood studios’ numerous failed attempts to engineer global content with Asian roots.

The biggest successes at Asian box offices this year are resoundingly local. The top film in China is “The Eight Hundred” (gross $472 million), while “Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train” has amassed $291 million in Japan, just shy of an all-time record. Box office in Taiwan, where cinemas did not close for COVID-19, has this year been dominated by “Demon Slayer” ($20.4 million) and Korean horror “Peninsula.” The top four films in Korea are all local, headed by the $37 million for “The Man Standing Next,” ahead of “Deliver Us From Evil” and “Peninsula.”

With the exception of the $530 million-grossing “The Meg,” Hollywood’s most recent attempts at rooting global fare in Asia haven’t had the broad appeal studios might have been hoping for. “Crazy Rich Asians” was global hit, but a dud in China. Legendary Entertainment’s Matt Damon-starring “The Great Wall” earned less than half of its $334 million total outside China.

China’s Pearl Studio, now free of its joint venture with Dreamworks Animation, hasn’t found the success it sought with its two most recent East-West hybrids. “Abominable” earned just $16 million of its $179 million global total in its home market. “Over The Moon” was seen as too westernized and earned RMB6 million, less than $1 million, before being turned over to Chinese streamers Tencent Video and iQIYI to exploit.

Those disappointments are now forcing the company into a change of tack. “Pearl is undergoing a transition in terms of its content strategy. In addition to animation films in English language aiming global audience, Pearl will also deploy resources to focus on Chinese-language animation movies for which China is the main market,” Catherine Ying, new president of Pearl Studio, president of CMC Pictures, and VP of CMC Inc., tells Variety.

“Pearl will collaborate more with local Chinese talent in the areas of story development and production [and establish] a closer working relationship with CMC Pictures.”

But if local content, rather than Hollywood superheroes and East-West hybrids, is what Asian audiences want, the studios and their soon-to-be expanded streaming offshoots are going to have to stock up on vastly more Asian content than they ever used to. That’s exactly what Disney did when launching Disney Plus Hotstar in Indonesia in September. It licensed some 300 titles and struck content supply deals with seven local studios.

“Disney Plus and Peacock will need local content in Asia,” says Couto. “Hollywood is becoming marginalized theatrically. Online it still works, but everyone has it.”

That points to a need for Asian local originals that work with local audiences and can help define a platform’s brand identity. But it’s not as though the studios haven’t tried.

Hollywood has repeatedly struggled to get local production in Asia right. Many initiatives have withered or been shut down. Columbia TriStar was an early pioneer in China at the beginning of the century. Since 2015, Disney has halted local production in China and pulled out in India, despite buying UTV, the largest local studio. The Disney-owned Fox Star Studios is similarly now a distributor, no longer a producer. Pre-Disney, Fox produced its first movie in Indonesia in 2018, but it stopped there. Warner quietly halted production in Korea this year, though it remains a distributor and financier of local film in Taiwan and Japan.

That retreat from Asian production stands in sharp contrast with the strategy at Netflix, which is going all in on production of drama originals in Korea (more than 50 to date), and anime in Japan, where it has supply contracts with seven local studios. Amazon, too, has a shelf full of comedy originals from Japan.

“We’ve seen this year that a great story can come from anywhere. We don’t believe that audiences are so concerned by original language. It’s about great story, then subbing and dubbing,” a Netflix spokesman in Asia tells Variety.

The company hasn’t produced shows in mainland China, but it has latched on to the country’s emerging sci-fi genre, picking up 2018 smash hit “The Wandering Earth.” In recent weeks, it licensed glossy fantasy “The Yin-Yang Master” ahead of its Dec. 25 local release. “With China, we are selective. We are looking at beloved classics and for elements that are relatable, transferable and universal, in genres that include culture, action, drama and fun,” the spokesman explains.

“Japanese anime is going big this year. That is a pleasant surprise to everybody. And it’s interesting to see that, with anime, a theatrical release doesn’t seem to diminish the value to our members.”





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