Asia 2023 Box Office Round-Up: Local Hits, Superhero Fatigue & Why Taylor Swift Is The New Harry Potter
I know I promised to cover Red Sea Fund in more depth in this edition, but we’ve been overtaken by events in the world of funds, at least in Taiwan, so I’m waiting for a few things to shake out before returning to that subject later this week. In the meantime, I’m doing a quick summary of the 2023 year-end box office stories coming out of Asia, which revealed some interesting nuggets about the current state of the theatrical industry in this part of the world.
To start with, I just want to share a short conversation I had with a young restaurant owner in Hanoi, just before Christmas, who unwittingly summarised a lot about the modern-day theatrical experience in developing markets (in fact in lots of markets). I’m guessing he was born mid to late ‘90s. He said that when he was a kid, he used to go to the state-owned Fafilm and Ngoc Khanh cinemas in Hanoi (now defunct since the Korean majors moved in and built shiny new multiplexes) where he most enjoyed watching the Harry Potter films – an experience he remembers as being “completely magical”.
But these days he doesn’t go to the cinema much because nothing looks that appealing and he doesn’t want to spend hours watching a movie, he’s running a restaurant for one thing, although he also confessed to spending far too much time on TikTok. I asked him what was the last film he went to see in a cinema – and he said Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, which he went to see about six times (!) because he figured buying multiple cinema tickets was cheaper and easier than flying to Singapore to see her in concert.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much all you need to know about the contemporary cinema market. At least it explains why the audience in developing markets is super young, what kind of competition films are up against, and how the magic these days is being supplied by a pop star, not a movie star or even a wizard. I went to see Wonka at a multiplex in HCM City last night – and while it’s a delightful movie, it’s no Harry Potter.
But seriously, Vietnam is one of the few markets where cinema admissions are still increasing, or at least were growing 10-15% annually before the pandemic, because even though the audience is young and glued to their phones, cinemas are still a novelty in lots of towns and cities and a relatively cheap, fun thing to do. Hollywood films, however, are not doing so great in this market – out of the top ten films last year, only two were US studio movies (Fast X and Elemental).
The biggest film in Vietnam last year was a local production, Tran Thanh’s The House Of No Man, and we can see a similar situation in many Asian markets last year – in China all of the films in the top ten were local productions (see links round-up below).
Although Japan has not yet issued year-end figures, local animation The First Slam Dunk would be the highest grossing movie of 2023 if its box office haul from 2022 was included. Abiding by a strict Jan 1-Dec 31, 2023 box office period makes a US studio movie, Universal’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie, the highest-grossing film of the year, but noticeably one based on a Japanese IP. In other markets in the region, Japanese anime, in particular The First Slam Dunk, features prominently in year-end charts.
Despite 2023 being a bad year for Korean films overall, with market share below 50%, it was also a market where a local production, 12.12: The Day, topped the year-end box office. Of course, India always has local films topping the box office and while figures have yet to be released, Jawan, Gadar 2 and Pathaan were the highest grossers among Hindi films, and Salaar: Part 1 - Ceasefire among Telugu.
It's not the same story in every market – although Hong Kong’s top grosser was courtroom drama A Guilty Conscience, it was the only local production in the top ten. Hong Kong remains a market where local productions have a small market share, along with Singapore and sadly the Philippines, which has the potential to achieve much more, perhaps with a bit more support from local exhibitors.
But overall the tide is turning for local films across Asia as production values are increasing and they deal with more relatable subject matter. Meanwhile, the US studios have been holding back theatrical releases, shortening the theatrical window before streaming and struggling with the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes – so film supply has slowed. Companies I spoke to here in Vietnam remarked that the Hollywood films that are being released these days are too repetitive and don’t resonate with young audiences that are always seeking something new. In other markets, Barbie and Oppenheimer proved that the audience is ready for something other than superhero sequels (although Barbie didn’t make it to Vietnam due to that pesky nine dash line).
However, the exhibitors I spoke to here also said that they really need Hollywood movies, and they need them to work. A healthy market is a diverse market that releases everything – Hollywood, local and other countries’ movies. One exhibitor expressed dismay that there are no big US studio releases in the first few months of 2024.
Big countries like China, India, Japan and even Korea can keep the pipeline more or less full with local productions, but that is less of an option for smaller markets in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which have smaller populations, and where the local film industry can only ever grow so big. More than anything, in the TikTok era, audiences are seeking constant novelty, they want something that is original, something that captures the imagination, or is perhaps just a little bit magical.
It begs the question – where is the Harry Potter of the post-pandemic era? Or is our future theatrical experience going to be more of the sequels and watching Taylor Swift and other filmed versions of live events?
BOX OFFICE STORIES IN THE TRADES:
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