Huayi Brothers’ Rock Dog, the most expensive 100% Chinese-financed animated production of all-time, is set to open July 8 in Chinese theaters. Whether Chinese filmgoers will have the opportunity to see the $60 million movie is a big question mark.
According to reports on China.org.cn and China Film Insider, Wanda Cinema Line, the largest movie theater chain in China (and also the owner of the AMC chain in the United States), is allegedly sabotaging the release of Rock Dog by limiting screenings of the film. The reports suggest that Wanda has arranged only seven showings of the film, amounting to 0.3 percent of all its screens, and those screenings are scheduled for non-prime hours.
Wanda's attempts to kill the film is alleged payback to Rock Dog’s production company Huayi Bros., which poached Wanda executive Jerry Ye a few months back and made him CEO of its movie division. A deeper—and more problematic—issue is that both Wanda and Huayi own movie theaters in addition to producing movies. For example, Wanda screened Warcraft on over 65% of its screens because it owns Legendary Pictures, the American company that produced the film. The treatment of both Rock Dog and Warcraft are situations that are generally avoided in the United States thanks to the landmark 1948 Supreme Court antitrust case that ruled movie studios cannot own the theaters in which their films are screened.
Chinese rockstar Zheng Jun who wrote and illustrated the graphic novel on which Rock Dog is based, has played down the situation, telling the media, “I heard the story, and I have seen some statistics. I don’t really believe it, and there is too much being said out there.”
Huayi Brothers has also tried to shield its star American director Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2, Surf’s Up) from the pissing match with its competitor. During the film’s Beijing premiere on Monday, a translator was prevented from translating a question about the situation so that Brannon wouldn’t “wonder why Chinese people are doing things like this.”
We’ve been covering the film on Cartoon Brew since last year because it’s a trailblazing effort for a Chinese-American co-production. In one of the first examples of reverse-outsourcing in feature animation, the funding comes from China, but the production took place entirely in the United States at Dallas-based Reel FX, the company that made Free Birds and The Book of Life. To increase its odds for success in the global marketplace, Rock Dog was produced English-first with an American cast that includes J.K. Simmons, Luke Wilson, Eddie Izzard, and Lewis Black.
Creator Zheng Jun has talked about the challenges of trying to create an international film while staying true to its Chinese roots. “I had to fire several of Hollywood’s best screenwriters because they insisted on their ideas,” he recently told the Wall Street Journal. “If we had followed those ideas, this film will be a pure Hollywood film which doesn’t have much to do with us.”
Rock Dog is scheduled to receive a U.S. release later this year, but no American distribution plans have been revealed yet.