Jun 02, 2016

    Box office success a mixed bag in China

    IT IS the golden age for China's movie business - but success depends on a slew of ever-changing parameters.

    "If China keeps adding 6,000 new screens each year, in five to eight years, China's film industry will reach 150 billion yuan (S$31.3 billion) to 200 billion yuan in box-office revenue," said Yu Dong, founder and president of Bona Pictures, one of the country's major film studios.

    Mr Yu made the forecast at this year's Beijing International Film Festival.

    Even though it grabbed headlines, it did not create exciting ripples of discussion.

    Similar predictions from film moguls have been a staple in recent years.

    And they are dwarfed by the constant shattering of box-office records - those for a single release, a single day, a season or a year.

    The takeoff of China's film industry, spectacular as it is, is by no means out of the blue. The engines have been revving for more than a decade.

    Roughly speaking, everything started when Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a surprise global hit, instilled a ray of hope in Chinese filmmakers, engendering a string of lavish costume epics that incorporated a heavy dose of martial arts.

    For about 15 years in the last century, filmgoing as a collective experience almost died out in China.

    The old cinemas, with their multiple functions as meeting halls and performing arts venues, lost out decidedly to the rise of television, which came to China three decades later than to most developed countries. If you approach people, say, above 50 years old, many would say they have not been inside a cinema for more than 30 years. And they wouldn't understand why one has to pay 50 yuan or more for a ticket. In their times, a ticket cost a few cents.

    The buildup of modern multiplexes, mostly in conveniently located shopping malls, is at the heart of the current boom.

    For years, theatrical releases could attract only the young. It wasn't until last year, when runaway hits like Monster Hunt successfully brought in an audience of a wider age spectrum.

    The audience's characteristics determines the kind of imports that have better chances at scoring in the China market.

    While the Western press keeps its eyes on measures such as the quota system, the rules of the game are shifting faster than the pace of any scholarly study.

    The failure of the latest Star Wars instalment to break into the 1-billion-yuan (convert) league, despite massive advertising, is testament to the unique taste of China's moviegoers, with the self-derogatory "small-town youth" as the mainstay.

    This constituency does not come with historical baggage, or historical enrichment, for that matter. As many as half of the one-billion-yuan-plus hits are directorial debuts, while veteran filmmakers including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige are playing catch up in box-office figures. This wave of Internet-informed and Internet-facilitated filmgoing is coming on strong and brutal.

    As it stands, Chinese moviegoers have very different expectations from imports and domestic fare. For imports, especially those from Hollywood, they want big spectacles with state-of-the-art special effects.

    Home-grown hits have to be deeply rooted in the cultural soil of the day - comedic elements are de rigueur; any Chinese-language hit cannot do away with this.

    That has created a dichotomy of high-flying known quantities from Hollywood and modestly budgeted sleeper hits from unknown Chinese directors sharing the stratosphere of record-breaking superhits.


    Foreign participation in Chinese products may take many forms, but the track record for co-productions has been sporadic at best.

    Hollywood franchises with Chinese cameos are not co-productions, either technically or culturally.

    But Bona's Mr Yu predicts that the trend will be reversed when China's market size grows further, and on-screen or off-screen talents flock to the country for opportunities.

    In the past decade, Hollywood studios have made occasional forays into purely Chinese productions that target only the Chinese market, but the success rate is not encouraging.

    Now, Chinese companies are looking westward for similar investments, in projects and also in corporate entities.

    Unknown to most outsiders, more Hollywood heroes and superheroes would be vaulted into public sight with the help of Chinese money.

    Chinese conglomerate Wanda's acquisition of United States film studio Legendary Entertainment early this year has been the most visible case, but by no means the last.

    There will come a time - perhaps much sooner than expected - when mutual investments in each other's film projects will be so extensive that the cultural imprint of a story will have little to do with the nationality of those who bankroll it.