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Box Office Report

China Shocker: Indie ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ Scores Massive Launch, Expensive ‘Rock Dog’ Flops

Chinese filmgoers powered Big Fish & Begonia, an indie hand-drawn/CG-hybrid animated feature, to an unbelievable US$34.2 million opening weekend.

Directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, Big Fish & Begonia was a labor of love project that took twelve years to complete. The film, which takes its inspiration from Chinese mythology (Zhuangzi, Classic of Mountains and Seas, In Search of the Supernatural), has built up a significant grassroots following in China over the years. In 2013, the filmmakers conducted what was at the time the most successful crowdfunding effort for a single project in China, raising $260,000.

Their success inspired Enlight Media, a major private film company in China, to step in and provide funding to complete the film. Korean animation shop Studio Mir (Voltron: Legendary Defender, The Legend of Korra) also joined the production in 2014 to help finish animation. It is the first release of Enlight’s new animation arm Coloroom Pictures, which recently announced an ambitious plan to release 22 animated features.

Big Fish, which was produced by China’s B&T Studio, was budgeted at 30 million yuan (approx. US$4.5 million). To give some perspective on its $34m opening weekend, Pixar’s Finding Dory has grossed only $37.8m after four weeks of release in China. The opening also tops the $23.6m launch of Zootopia, which has gone on to become the highest-grossing animation release in Chinese history (it should be noted that Zootopia grossed $59.4m in its second weekend in China).

No American distribution plans have been announced for Big Fish & Begonia at this time. Here is the film’s official music video released a few months ago:

On the other end of the spectrum, Rock Dog also opened this weekend in China with US$3.9m. The high-profile Chinese-American co-production, directed by Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) and produced by Reel FX (Free Birds, The Book of Life), is positioning itself as one of the first Chinese animated features designed to compete in the international marketplace.

As we reported a few days ago, an alleged business rivalry between Rock Dog’s production company and a competitior may have negatively impacted the film’s performance in Chinese theaters. While it’s difficult to quantify what effect that had on the film, we do know that Rock Dog had less than one-quarter the showtimes of Big Fish.

The opposite launches of Big Fish & Begonia and Rock Dog are both fascinating and difficult to understand. Big Fish wasn’t a critical darling, and many Chinese reviewers called its story unfocused and its cast of 100+ characters confusing. Working in its favor, the film aimed for Miyazaki-style fantasy, a rarity in China’s domestic animation market, and the filmmakers had years of built-in awareness for the project.

Rock Dog, on the other hand, could end up being a costly misstep for China’s burgeoning animation industry. The film cost $60 million to produce, making it the most expensive Chinese animated feature on record. Planned as a mix of Chinese story values and American graphic slickness that would play equally well in China and abroad, the film shows that there’s no easy formula for creating successful animated films. Rock Dog does have a star English-language voice cast, including J.K. Simmons, Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, and Lewis Black, and the film will attempt to win over U.S. audiences later this year.

  • Inkan1969

    How is anyone able to make an independent movie in China, with the government so controlling of freedom of expression?

    • They allow quite a lot of private businesses these days, and I’m sure they encourage more domestic productions such as Big Fish to be made given the circumstances in needed to produce/showcase more local films versus international blockbusters from the West.

    • Its really dependent on what you are expressing. There’s a really vibrant art culture there. Also many artists express themselves in hidden meaning and in ways that can be masked to fit in with communist ideology.

      You also have to ask yourself what is an indy film, is it something thats made with smaller budget or isn’t something artistically expressive. Personally I feel an indie film is one thats made without the help of a major media player and one that needs to sign its distribution deal after its finished.

      • xingfenzhen

        If that’s criteria then almost all films in China can be considered indie, since even studio many backed project started as project from independent productio that got enough material to make 20 minute trailers and use that to entice funding and backing.

  • Spacemonkey

    Lawd jesus it’s a fire.

  • Cameron Ward

    I find it shocking that a petty business dispute would make that one guy want to make sure this highly expensive (at least for Chinese animation) film would flop. It doesn’t make him look good, and comes off as a child.

    I feel bad since the film doesn’t look all that bad. I mean, if this is all the case that this guy was just being a punk and crying over the whole thing of spilt milk, i don’t see how this will make investors over here in the states want the film unless it gets picked up by the likes of Netflix or something.

    • That’s the best we could hope for, or even a sleeper DVD release that quickly gets throw into a bargain bin.

      • Cameron Ward

        i want both to be brought over since I want to judge them for myself and review them for my website.

        • I’m sure you do. I’m sure they’ll get here eventually.

  • The Heroes of Hope

    I’m disappointed to hear that Big Fish and Begonia didn’t do well critically. I do not know what happened but all I can say is don’t focus on animation alone work on trying to make a cohesive and compelling plot that is the backbone of any story, it’s the very core of stories. And personally I did not find it a good idea to copy Hayao Miyazaki’s style and it would have been better to for the animators to put themselves on the film instead. I still have some hope that China will one day overtake Japan in the animation industry because I am bored to death with Japan and its overused tropes and many soulless animations and comics.

    • Semo

      Yeah, Japan certainly has a glut of those kinds of anime and manga. But then again, I think because the animation industry there encapsulates practically every genre (instead of sticking with the the tight PG and G restrictions in America), there is a good amount of interesting, quality stuff that comes out as well. Personally, I wish that the French animations would become more widely distributed, as they have such a variety of stories and mediums (but those independent films are not doing so well in their own country!).

      (But I’d check out Masaaki Yuasa’s stuff- “Ping Pong” and “Kaiba” are especially interesting and don’t abide by many tropes. The former’s available on Funimation’s youtube channel and both are pretty short. If you’ve already seen them, then never mind!)

      • ea

        As “meh” as I find most anime, I give Japan credit for using the animation medium for basically anything. I’m still waiting for America to make the animated equivalent of The Godfather, Saving Private Ryan, Aliens, Psycho, The Graduate, etc.

      • The Heroes of Hope

        Thank you I will check them out. And let’s just all hope that the animations we want to see will do well.

    • Master50007887

      Eh – while there’s plenty of crap anime – there’s also still plenty of very talented & passionate creators & works being made. Sturgeon’s Law is true of all media & anime is no exception – there is more anime being made than before but the amount of good relative to bad hasn’t changed all that much. There are still many great directors – animators – storyboarders – character designers – etc out there & of course there are all the old classics. I’m a pretty big anime fan – so sorry if this comes off as confrontational.

      As for Big Fish – I think it looks absolutely gorgeous & I’m going to reserve judgment until I watch it – I won’t leave my thoughts on the film up to vague reportings on foreign critics.

    • Cameron Ward

      where is it not getting good reviews? I haven’t seen one review of it.

      • The Heroes of Hope

        China my friend.

  • otterhead

    Not sure why it’s a “shocker” that a film prevented from being widely shown in theaters didn’t make a whole lot of money.

    • Some people needed to write about something big happening here. Of course this being an international story, it could impact how they might release Rock Dog internationally if such plans are severed or changes were made in the end result.

  • Michel Van

    odd… looking the two trailers
    i enjoy Big Fish & Begonia more, than Rock Dog…

    • Certainly a lot more care went into Big Fish & Begonia’s preview, just enough to get you interested without detailing every plot point the way Rock Dog appears to go.