October no longer so golden

Updated: 2016-10-13 07:00

By Xu Fan(China Daily)

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Mediocre 'blockbusters' drag down ticket sales, though experts say a slowdown in the Chinese movie market was predictable, Xu Fan reports.

For years a Golden Week was a time to celebrate a box-office bonanza, but the National Day holiday is seeing its gilt edge fade.

This year's just-concluded holiday, from Oct 1 to 7, raked in a disappointing 1.58 billion yuan ($237 million), down nearly 15 percent compared to the same period last year, according to the live tracker China Box Office.

It marks the first such slump in eight years, since the holiday became a lucrative period for ticket sales in 2008.

The holidays in the past three years - which saw revenues come in at 617 million yuan in 2013, 1.09 billion yuan in 2014 and 1.85 billion yuan in 2015 - once pushed the year-on-year growth average up to around 70 percent.

Despite 15 movies premiering close to or during the holiday, only four domestic films became blockbusters, accounting for 92.3 percent of the box-office tally.

October no longer so golden

Operation Mekong, based on the true events that saw 13 Chinese sailors brutally killed by a Myanmar drug ring in 2011, topped the charts by bringing in 530 million yuan.

Earning 466 million yuan for a No 2 finish was the romance drama I Belonged to You, adapted from best-selling author Zhang Jiajia's namesake short-story collection.

Author-turned-director Guo Jingming's fantasy epic L.O.R.D Legend of Ravaging Dynasties came in third at 274 million yuan, followed by the action comedy Mission Milano starring Andy Lau at 188 million yuan.

Scores on review sites suggest a lack of quality plagued the collective holiday offerings.

Operation Mekong was the only title to win acclaim among the top four, with a high score of 8.2 points of 10 on China's top fan-rating site, Douban.

Director Dante Lam, a crime-thriller master in Hong Kong, smartly interweaves police protagonists' humanity struggles into fast car chases, gun fights and bomb explosions.

Most reviews clearly felt Operation Mekong can rival big Hollywood films in storytelling and action scenarios.

But there was no such applause for the other three: All failed to reach the threshold score of 6 points.

I Belonged to You was criticized most for its unrealistic, exaggerated depiction of true love, receiving only 5.6 points.

Meanwhile, L.O.R.D highlights its all-CGI (computer generated imagery)-made characters and sets in nationwide promotions as a first in Chinese film history. All the stars wore digital equipment to transform their facial expressions and activities on screen.

However, many moviegoers complained that the scenes look like an outdated web game, and the characters are not like real humans with their too-perfect physiques. Even driven by a huge fan base, the hit novel-adapted L.O.R.D just scored 4.1 points.

The score for Mission Milano is the lowest of the four top-grossing holiday films. With a cumulative 3.6 rating to date, Hong Kong veteran Wong Jing's latest directorial work again shows his weakness in storytelling, plus the film has stereotyped twists and puns, concur a number of online reviews.

An interesting fact: Operation Mekong was in third place early in the week, but climbed to the top on the fourth day, thanks to a surge of praise in cyberspace.

"Chinese audiences are becoming more picky about movie quality," says Jin Zhichao, research director with Entgroup, an entertainment-research company.

"They are not blinded by stars," he explains, noting that online reaction is overtaking the marketing influence to shape box-office results.

The diversity of movie-watching platforms - including television and streaming sites, as well as shortened theater releases are also affecting box-office performance, according to Jin.

"Most viewers clearly know what kind of movies they must watch in a theater for the big-screen effect, but the comparatively low-budget dramas they would opt to watch on TV," Jin says.

"In the past, it took three months to see a new movie become available on TV. But now the interval is cut to a few weeks."

Television boxes and streaming sites mostly charge 5 yuan for one new film, much less than a theater ticket, he adds.

Although the holiday slide may be disappointing for the box office, it's not a surprise.

After growing at about 30 percent for several years and seeing a rise of 48 percent in the first half of this year, a turning point has come.

The summer season, usually lasting from June to August, saw a 7 percent revenue fall compared to last year. Latest figures show ticket sales continuing to languish: The third quarter saw a year-on-year slump of 14.9 percent.

Not every filmmaker is singing the blues.

"The rise and fall are common in every movie market. We've experienced similar ups and downs in Hong Kong," says Cheng Pou-soi, an established Hong Kong-based director known for The Monkey King franchise.

"No matter how the figures change, the most significant value of film will never change. It's about telling a good story," he says.

A joint report by China Film Art Research Center and Entgroup shows that this National Day holiday week, movies won the highest level of satisfaction compared to other holidays since last year's Spring Festival.

The report, which was released on Tuesday after polls of 1,500 moviegoers and 100 movie critics in 11 cities, concluded that the holiday's movies scored up to 82.7 points out of 100.

Li Zhen, the center's researcher, says domestic features have seen an improvement and will generate more genre-driven films such as Mekong Operation.

Ding Yaping, a researcher with China National Academy of Arts, predicts the downturn will act as a double-edge sword, making low-budget films more attractive to investors regardless of their quality.

"It may hurt some new filmmakers who have good ideas, making it more difficult for them to find investors, but in the long run the market will become more healthy and rational."

Contact the writer at xufan@chinadaily.com.cn

 October no longer so golden

Operation Mekong, starring Eddie Peng Yuyan (left) and Zhang Hanyu, tops the box-office charts during the National Day holiday week. Photos Provided To China Daily

 October no longer so golden

Wu Yifan stars in Guo Jingming's fantasy epic L.O.R.D Legend of Ravaging Dynasties.

 October no longer so golden

Romance drama I Belonged to You featuring actor Deng Chao and Zhang Tian'ai emerges the No 2 box-office winner during the recent holiday week.

(China Daily 10/13/2016 page19)