‘Avatar’ Swamps ‘Confucius’ at China Box Office

A film about the Chinese philosopher Confucius was overwhelmed at the box office by News Corp.’s “Avatar,” grossing 97 million yuan ($14 million) in 2½ weeks on the mainland and failing to break even, its producer said.

Ticket sales for the historical drama were less than expected because of the rivalry, said Wu Xinxin, Beijing-based international business manager at Dadi Entertainment Ltd., which shot the film. Wu didn’t say what the sales target was.

Canadian director James Cameron’s 3-D science-fiction epic probably exceeded 1 billion yuan in mainland ticket sales since opening in early January, Wu said.

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The success of “Avatar” in China illustrates the earnings potential of the Chinese film market. The state-run People’s Daily said box-office earnings in the country increased 44 percent to 6.2 billion yuan last year, compared with the U.S. and Canada’s 8 percent gain cited in Nielsen Co.

“Confucius” became one of the most-screened productions on the mainland when it opened in cinemas nationwide on Jan. 22, Wu said. It was backed by China Film Group, the nation’s top movie distributors and monopoly reel importer.

“Had our film not played at the same time as ‘Avatar,’ it would have done much better at the box office,” Wu said. “We have a good film and we have China Film’s support from start to end, but it’s a different genre and not as commercial as ‘Avatar.’ We had expected ‘Confucius’ to do well.”

Chris Petrikin, spokesman for News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment on “Avatar” ticket sales in China. China Film’s Beijing-based spokesman Weng Li didn’t answer calls seeking comment.

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Singapore, Korea

The Oscar-nominated U.S. film will be playing in Chinese cinemas through March and may reach 1.5 billion yuan in sales, beating “Titanic” as China’s biggest-grossing film, according to Li Han, editor of Chinafilm.com, a Web site controlled by China Film. Its performance on the mainland shows Chinese moviegoers have an appetite for science-fiction films, Li said.

“Confucius” stars Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat and cost 150 million yuan to make, Wu said. The authoritarian political and social theory advocated by the philosopher, who lived about 2,500 years ago, is the basis for much of East Asia’s philosophical beliefs. Dadi expects the film to “do well” in South Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries, Wu said.

In China, imported movies may only be distributed by two state-controlled companies, a unit of China Film Group and Huaxia Film Distribution Co. China Film also holds most of the 20 import licenses that grant foreign movies a slice of their box-office take, usually about 13 percent.

Monopoly Importer

In August, the World Trade Organization said China Film’s status as monopoly importer of foreign movies violated free- trade agreements. China had said it was appealing the ruling, which it lost in December. The decision didn’t address the nation’s import quota of 20 films a year, the major gripe among Hollywood studios, state-run China Daily said.

“The Chinese movie market is in its infancy,” Li said.

Foreign companies underestimate China’s zeal for a good movie, he said, citing “Avatar” as an example of one that was watched by many in the six formats released in China, including 3-D, 2-D and dubbed editions. On the day “Confucius” debuted, China pulled the 2-D version of “Avatar” from some cinemas.

Film is often used by governments as a propaganda tool. Last year, China Film made “The Founding of a Republic,” depicting the Communist Party’s rise to power, to commemorate the party’s 60th year of rule. Such local movies accounted for about 57 percent of China’s box-office receipts last year, according to People’s Daily.

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