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Movie adaptation frenzy for online fiction

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2015-11-23 08:19

Movie adaptation frenzy for online fiction


It is not every day that an English acronym coined in a non-English-speaking country catches on-at least in that territory.

I'm talking about "IP", which originally stands for "intellectual property" but has a very different connotation in China's booming showbiz. Hollywood insiders who have participated in China-related events must have been puzzled by the frequency these two letters have popped up in conversations with their Chinese peers.

For clarification, "IP" as used in the past year refers to not just any copyrighted material, but also to those hot "properties" that everyone is chasing in an attempt to turn into blockbuster movies, TV series and online games. Specifically, it refers to online fiction that has garnered a significant readership and is sold for adaptation rights-at increasingly eye-popping rates.

In the past two or three years, the adaptation prices for "big IP", as it's often called in Chinese, have shot up tenfold. You Are My Sunshine was sold for six digits a few years ago, and last year it was listed on the market for 10 times that figure.

Yu Zheng, a famous producer-writer who was convicted of plagiarism, revealed at a television forum early this year that the market price for a regular work of online fiction starts from 300,000 yuan ($47,600), and it goes up to half a million for one with some fame. If the writer has more reputation, the starting rate is 1 million for movie rights and another million for television rights. For "truly successful" scribes, it is 3-5 million for each of the adaptation rights.

Guo Jingming is reported to ask for 25 million yuan for some of his less-known works. He keeps the best, such as the Tiny Times franchise, for himself, according to press reports.

Hot titles

By the end of 2014, as many as 114 online novels have been sold for adaptation rights, 90 of which will be turned into television series and 24 into feature films. The slate of 24 new productions announced by China Film Group, the largest State-owned film company, includes 19 adaptations of online fiction. Enlight Media, a private company, reserves half of its new lineup for these tested-and-true works.

Qidian, an online platform for fiction, has seen its top 20 works sold for eight-digit figures, which include all rights. Seventy percent of these earnings come from games while the rest are from movies and television rights.

What fuels this craze is the handful of titles that performed spectacularly in the market. So Young started the so-called "youth genre" with 719 million yuan. The four-part Tiny Times films accumulated 1.8 billion yuan at the box office. You Are My Sunshine, following closely on the heels of a TV version of the same name, still racked up 356 million yuan. My Old Classmate, based on an old pop song, registered 457 million yuan when it hit the big screen. This fluke has enabled the trend to broaden to titles other than online fiction.

When it was announced that Xinhua Dictionary will be made into a movie, some felt we could be inside a tulip-bulb-like bubble. Can you imagine Hollywood making a movie titled The Webster's Dictionary? Not because the lexicographers makes a great story, but simply because the title is known to all Americans.

Most of China's "big IP" movies have been panned by critics and much of the moviegoing public. But there lies the irony: Even if public reaction is strongly negative, it may still attract tens of millions of eyeballs.

The Lost Tomb became a laughing stock when it premiered on the Web, but the first episode amassed 100 million viewers in the first 24 hours anyway. In that sense, "big IP" titles are criticism-proof.

But that's only half the story. For every Tiny Times, there is The Queens, which was nicknamed the middle-aged version of Tiny Times as it also flaunts beautiful men and women in beautiful costumes, but turned out to be a major financial flop.

Catchy pop tunes have been used for movie titles before, such as Kangding Love Song, and it is doubtful whether a memorable title alone or association with hit music would produce consistency in adaptation.

If you look at Hollywood for reference, it is quite normal to find about half of all films adapted from other sources.

Major properties like the Harry Potter series fetched high prices because they had built a sizable fan base before Warner Bros paid for the rights.

Still, the gold-rush fever in Chinese showbiz is different: It shows an alarming lack of discrimination among investors. The hot money from the high-tech sector has changed the rules of the game: It wants to use science, facilitated by big data, where gut feelings have traditionally ruled.

Fast-food entertainment

This sounds good on paper. In reality, the IP mania has all the trappings of a bubble. The overwhelmingly low quality of online fiction-with each writer coerced to produce 10,000 words a day-implies that much of what's posted online is trash and, given the average level of appreciation, even those that stand out are fast-food entertainment at best. Even in the realm of commercial cinema, they are below mediocre.

Worse, they have the potential to squeeze out better fare. As Yu Fei, a known scriptwriter, laments that the budget for a script is often fixed. Previously, a producer would pay 15 percent of the budget for the adaptation right and the rest to the scriptwriters. Now that ratio is reversed.

Also, with a large section of the limited pool of writing talent wanting to be associated with these hot titles, that leaves fewer people willing to toil away for a work of originality. Some celebrity actors have gone so far so to declare they would not take on a project unless its popularity is pre-tested online by its original novel.

Chinese films may have shortened the cycle from boom to doom to just a few years. The glitter of the business means no shortage of blind followers no matter how hard the current crop of IP chasers fall-but with the stumble will come maturity, and the day when picking a good story is no longer based on the size of the online crowd alone.


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