Box-office takings wilt in the heat of summer
Updated: 2016-08-05 08:10
By Raymond Zhou(China Daily Europe)
But falling seasonal returns could be blessing in disguise for industry
This time last year, as many as three Chinese films were crossing, or nearing, the 1 billion yuan ($150 million; 134 million euros) mark at the box office. This season, however, not a single competitor is in sight of that landmark.
According to the official figures of China Box Office, a state-run analysis company, the nation's cinemas opened the all-important summer season with a faint glimmer of hope, which promptly faded against all expectations.
Cold War II, star-studded Hong Kong crime thriller, has been one of this season's biggest hits. Liu Junfeng / For China Daily
In the 27th week of this year - July 4 to 10 - box-office receipts rose by 12 percent before falling by 45 percent and 35 percent respectively in the next two weeks. But not every industry insider is singing the blues.
"This could be a blessing in disguise," says La Peikang, chairman of China Film Group, the largest state-owned film business. "China's film market has scored big in recent years. All kinds of capital has been pouring in, and some of it carries with it unsavory elements, which has led to some disturbing behavior. I call it a bubble, and the market is squeezing some air out of it."
La quotes the saying, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked," and adds that what is left will become a healthier and better market environment.
After years of hesitation, China Film Group is finally scheduled for a public listing on the Shanghai Stock Exchange. It plans to sell 467 million shares and raise 4 billion yuan.
Cold War II, the star-studded Hong Kong crime thriller, has been one of this season's biggest hits. But grossing 666 million yuan at the box office since opening on July 8, it has no chance of reaching the 1 billion yuan goal, let alone the 2.4 billion yuan milestone of Monster Hunt set by the same film company, Edko Film, last summer.
You could argue that the two movies come from different genres, but Big Fish and Begonia had Monkey King: Hero Is Back in mind when it debuted on July 8. Both are animated features with visual flair.
Last year, the mischievous monkey almost reached the 1 billion yuan mark, but this year Big Fish and Begonia has made 555 million yuan to date.
"Big Fish has not lived up to my expectations in terms of box-office performance," says Wang Changtian, president of Enlight Pictures, which made the cartoon feature. "But its quality is higher than I expected. Had it been released last year, it would have made the billion-yuan league."
Wang attributes the shortfall to the ending of subsidies, adding, "What's happening this summer is a return to normal, and we should readjust our box-office expectations accordingly."
Rock Dog, another animated feature with similar ambitions, fared even worse - earning just 39.5 million yuan.
China Film Group's Tik Tok raked in only 77 million yuan, a figure that could have been three times higher had it been released last year, according to La, the company chairman. The biggest irony is that the thriller received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but word-of-mouth failed to lift it out of the doldrums, a feat accomplished by last year's Monkey King: Hero Is Back, which had a rags-to-riches rise among strong competition.
La says many parts of the country have been plagued by stormy or rainy weather this summer, which had affected audience numbers. As a popular saying among film exhibitors goes, strong winds drive away half of the house, and a rainstorm empties it all.
However, according to industry insiders, a more deep-rooted cause is the disappearance of subsidies.
La says box-office growth had started to slow as early as March. While the film industry had been subsidized for a while, the release of Ip Man 3 pushed it to breaking point. The third installment of the popular kung fu series opened on March 4 and in three days had taken 470 million yuan, but widespread fraud was suspected.
The industry regulator ordered four ticketing service businesses to turn over documents they had signed with the film's distributor. The media jumped on the story and reports emerged of online merchants' subsidies or phantom attendance.
In June, during a forum discussion at the Shanghai International Film Festival, Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee sprang a surprise. Instead of offering tips on fueling further breakneck growth of China's film industry, he said it should slow down.
La explains, "What he meant by slowing down was to change the current focus on short-term profits, to remove the bubble and to raise the spirit of professionalism in our industry."
Last summer, some movies that were widely panned saw comfortable returns. They included Tiny Times 4.0, which grossed 488 million yuan, and Forever Young, with 379 million yuan. Both were so-called fan films, whose considerable fan base would not object to the movies' low quality.
Like He Jiong, a celebrity who threw his weight behind Forever Young (his directorial debut), actor-turned-director Wen Zhang hoped to pull off a similar feat. However, When Larry Met Mary has grossed only 185 million yuan to date, a dismal result considering Wen's clout and the positive reviews it has received.
Perhaps to forestall a drastic downturn, the film industry regulator has relaxed the limit on imported films for this summer. However, most imports have delivered performances that are considered decent but not highly successful. Apart from Warcraft and the latest installment of the X-Men franchise, which have huge built-in audiences in China, other releases in June and July have not been major hits.
Now You See Me 2 has grossed 638 million yuan; Independence Day: Resurgence, 503 million yuan; Finding Dory, 254 million yuan; and The Legend of Tarzan, 238 million yuan in its first 10 days.
While many observers have accepted the downturn as a "correction" that will prevent a giant market bubble forming, it could just be a temporary blip in an ever-evolving industry.
Skiptrace, Jackie Chan's comedy adventure, has made 680 million yuan in its first 10 days. This performance is not eye-catching in any way because it is in line with Chan's track record, but the fact a well-made piece of entertainment can see a solid return is a reminder of what ultimately matters amid the market turbulence.
This is that the film market is determined by how movies are received, not by how they are used as financial tools to play the market.
(China Daily European Weekly 08/05/2016 page22)