ZOETROPE

视听空间

The World of Chinese - - Contents - BY LIU JUE (刘珏)

Wolf War­rior 2 may have sin­gle-hand­edly saved the sum­mer film mar­ket, but its sleeper suc­cess be­lies a gen­eral down­turn in for­tunes for Chi­nese cinema.

The high­est-gross­ing Chi­nese film ever, War­rior 2 has net­ted over 773.6 mil­lion USD at the box of­fice; it now ranks just be­low the orig­i­nal 1977 Star Wars, and above 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, in Box Of­fice Mojo’s list of 100 all-time big­gest earn­ers.

Be­fore the movie’s late July re­lease, how­ever, re­ceipts were de­clin­ing in an al­ready-plateau­ing film mar­ket. Even Hol­ly­wood movies, long seen as mar­ket sav­iors, seemed to have lost their charm. When “Do­mes­tic Film Pro­tec­tion Month” was put on hia­tus last sum­mer, the num­ber of im­ports reached an his­toric high of 102, an al­most 48-per­cent in­crease from

Why the sud­den down­turn in China’s film in­dus­try may help save it当电影遇见资本

2015 (the pro­tec­tion­ist pe­riod re­turned this year, sig­nif­i­cantly help­ing War­rior 2). Yet sales in 2016 gained a mere 11.83 per­cent in­crease, against a three­year pre­vi­ous av­er­age of 30 per­cent. Medi­ocre movies like Find­ing Dory, The Se­cret Life of Pets, In­de­pen­dence Day: Resur­gence, Storks, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, The Hunts­man: Win­ter’s War, and Moana all met with even less en­thu­si­asm in China than the US mar­ket.

The ma­jor­ity of do­mes­tic films still strug­gle to see the light of the day. The mar­ket has been par­tic­u­larly harsh on the genre of low-bud­get films known as “can­non fod­der” ( p3ohu~, 炮灰), a name ap­plied to the in­stantly for­get­table, cookie-cut­ter flicks that fill screens be­tween ma­jor re­leases, be­fore van­ish­ing into ob­scu­rity.

Low-bud­get “can­non fod­der” pro­duc­tions need to make a min­i­mum of 30 mil­lion RMB at the do­mes­tic box of­fice to break even, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est in­dus­try re­port by the China Film As­so­ci­a­tion and the Film Art Cen­ter of China Fed­er­a­tion of Lit­er­ary and Art Cir­cles. But 69 per­cent of Chi­nese films last year made less than 10 mil­lion RMB apiece; as many as 80 per­cent of the 237 do­mes­tic films re­leased so far in 2017 are es­ti­mated not to have made any profit at all from ticket sales, ac­cord­ing to Juzi En­ter­tain­ment. The can­non fod­der are seem­ingly be­ing slaugh­tered at the box of­fice.

In­dus­try ex­perts at­tribute the down­turn to the vast in­jec­tion of ven­ture cap­i­tal in re­cent years, which has cre­ated a dis­as­trous en­vi­ron­ment for over­all film qual­ity. An in­flux of eq­uity in­vestors, at­tracted by the 49-per­cent growth in the in­dus­try over 2015, has had bit­ter­sweet con­se­quences. “The film in­dus­try is sim­ply too pop­u­lar,” Wanda Cinema’s CEO Zeng Mao­jun ob­served at the 2016 Shang­hai In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, warn­ing, “Things be­come their op­po­sites when they reach an ex­treme.”

In Zeng’s view, Chi­nese films need cap­i­tal to com­pete glob­ally, but “the other char­ac­ter­is­tic of cap­i­tal is pur­su­ing fast re­turns. Such at­ti­tudes from in­vestors dis­tract peo­ple from car­ing about con­tent…when con­sumers can’t get good con­tent, they will grow weary of go­ing to the theater and the in­dus­try will fail.”

The cur­rent slump seems to echo Zeng’s fears. Across the board, so-called win­ning for­mu­las have been los­ing money hand over fist. Tra­di­tional block­busters, boast­ing lav­ish FX, celebrity casts, and large mar­ket­ing cam­paigns, have flopped; Leg­end of Rav­aging Dy­nas­ties (pro­duc­tion bud­get 300 mil­lion RMB; box of­fice 381 mil­lion) and League of Gods (bud­get 500 mil­lion; box of­fice 283 mil­lion), both star­ring top ac­tress Fan Bing­bing, fiz­zled at the box of­fice. Nei­ther the “lit­tle fresh meat”—the de­risory name given to ac­tors with lit­tle to of­fer be­yond youth and looks—nor so-called “IPS,” pop­u­lar adap­tions of fic­tion or comics with a built-in fan base, seem to in­ter­est au­di­ences. There were three times as many IP films in 2016 (86 in to­tal), but they only made as third as much as the pre­vi­ous year.

Rapidly ma­tur­ing au­di­ence tastes are also likely to in­ter­fere with the ram­pant fraud that plagues the in­dus­try, re­spon­si­ble not only for many “can­non fod­der” films, but also taint­ing ma­jor re­leases. There are many out­landish the­o­ries con­cern­ing the baf­fling rise of Jing Tian, wooden star of up­com­ing Pa­cific Rim 2 and Skull Is­land, but one Wechat pub­lic ac­count sug­gests sim­ply “fol­low the money.” When Chi­nese stars are over­paid in for­eign cur­rency to star in co-pro­duc­tions, the the­ory goes, their salary is used to off­shore money re­stricted by Bei­jing’s cap­i­tal con­trols. In­deed, one of Jing’s co-stars, Sun Hon­glei, has spo­ken out against in­vestors “who fi­nance pro­duc­tions solely for the pur­poses of court­ing ac­tresses and money laun­der­ing,” to the detri­ment of film qual­ity.

One of the big­gest in­dus­try scan­dals of 2016 con­cerned the fak­ing of 32 mil­lion RMB’S worth of ticket sales by dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany Max Screen; an­other 56 mil­lion RMB of tick­ets turned out to be bought by the dis­trib­u­tor it­self.

Un­der in­vestor Shang­hai Kuailu, Ip Man 3 was pack­aged into a com­plex series of fi­nan­cial eq­ui­ties, of­fer­ing eight­per­cent nom­i­nal an­nu­al­ized re­turns, or up to 11 per­cent should the film ex­ceed 1 bil­lion RMB at the box of­fice. Hav­ing guar­an­teed a bil­lion-yuan bo­nanza, two of Kuailu’s in­vest­ment com­pa­nies dis­trib­uted the rights among var­i­ous com­pa­nies also con­nected to Kuailu; the seem­ingly se­cure deals boosted the stock prices of all in­volved. When early re­ports sug­gested the film would be a rel­a­tive fail­ure, how­ever, Max Screen, an­other sub­sidiary of Kuailu, at­tempted to stymie the dam­age by goos­ing sales.

Byzan­tine in­vest­ment schemes are com­mon in the in­dus­try, as are sim­i­larly elab­o­rate scams. For qual­ity to be af­forded the same re­spect as cap­i­tal, there will have to be a sea change at the box of­fice. Some see the in­dus­try’s slow­ing growth as pre­cisely the pos­i­tive turn re­quired. “As pop­u­lar ac­claim be­comes in­creas­ingly im­por­tant, trash films are no longer able to make easy money,” Guan­cha.com film critic Liang Pengfei crowed. “I think it’s a great, great thing.”

MA­TUR­ING AU­DI­ENCE TASTES ARE ALSO LIKELY TO IN­TER­FERE WITH THE RAM­PANT FRAUD THAT PLAGUES THE IN­DUS­TRY

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