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Box office demands out of the box

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2016-06-19 14:07

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 to 200 billion yuan in box-office revenue," says Yu Dong, founder and president of Bona Pictures, one of China's major film studios.

Yu made the forecast at this year's Beijing International Film Festival. Even though it grabbed headlines for a day, 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 at the beginning of the new century 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 a decade and a half in the 20th 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 query a certain demographic, say those above the age of 50, you can easily find many who have not been inside a cinema for more than 30 years. And they wouldn't understand why you'd have to pay 50 yuan ($7.60; 6.70 euros) 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. Filmgoing for a typical Chinese, about the age of 21, is very different from his father's experience of yore. For several years, theatrical releases could attract only the young. It wasn't until last year when such runaway hits as Monster Hunt successfully brought in an audience of a wider age spectrum. It also spells doom for stories that deal with mature content.

The audience makeup also determines what kind of imports have better chances at winning in the ever, important China market. While the Western media 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 new Star Wars instalment to break the 1 billion yuan mark, despite massive advertising and free publicity, 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 much as half of the 1 billion yuan-plus hits are directorial debuts, whereas veteran filmmakers including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen and Feng Xiaogang are playing catchup 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 different expectations from imports and domestic fare. For imports, especially those from Hollywood, they want big spectacles with state of the arts special effects. Franchises minted in the new century come with a built-in audience, but other than that branding of stars or genres has to be built from the ground up.

Homegrown hits have to be deeply rooted in the cultural soil of the day. Comedic elements are de rigueur as any Chinese-language film with a box-office result of 1 billion yuan or above cannot do away with them. 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 productions may take many forms, but the track record for co-productions has been sporadic at best. There has not been a single case of such an effort conquering all four quadrants that use markets across the Pacific and commercial and critical acclaim as yardsticks. The cultural divide seems too wide to bridge. What's touted as the solution is nothing but token appearances of marquee names in each other's products.

Hollywood franchises with Chinese cameos are not co-productions, technically or culturally. But Bona's Yu predicts that the trend will be reversed when China's market size grows several times what it is now and on-screen or off-screen talents flock to the Middle Kingdom for opportunities. "If the co-production is in the Chinese language, it will have China as the predominant market. If it's in English, the market will be global. We're already faced with such choices," says Yu.

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 and more Hollywood heroes and superheroes would be vaulted into public sight with the help of Chinese money.

Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group's acquisition of US film studio Legendary Entertainment this year has been the most visible case, but by no means the last. There will come a time, 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.

So far, we're talking only about the theatrical market, or films as shown in movie theaters. Using a wider perspective, you'd find that the constellation surrounding this brightest star is undergoing rapid changes as well. China does not have a developed ancillary market for theatrical releases. Yet feature films customized for the online platform are projected to reach 2,200 in number and 1 billion yuan in revenue this year.

The change is happening now. There are more movies and more ways to watch them, including virtual-reality movies that are yet to go commercial. The terms "film" and "picture" will sound quaint when you think of their origins.

Box office demands out of the box

World of Warcraft, which grossed a mere $24.4 million in the US on its opening weekend, surprised analysts by taking $156 million at the Chinese box office in its first five days. Provided to China Daily

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