Gross miscalculation

Should we believe China’s box office figures?

Gross miscalculation

Less popular than he thought

In a country with a reputation for unreliable economic data it should come as little surprise that Chinese filmmakers have been accused of fiddling the box office figures.

Take animated film Astro Boy. According to its producer Enlight Media, Astro Boy raked in Rmb40 million ($5.84 million) during the first weekend of its release in October. That made for a “remarkable achievement,” thought Enlight, rather immodestly.

But there seems to have been a malfunction with the Enlight calculator. The State Film Bureau (SFB), China’s film regulator, says Astro Boy made a lot less on ticket sales – closer to Rmb17 million in fact.

After the discrepancy was revealed in China Film, a weekly newspaper published by the SFB, Enlight president Zhang Zhao was quick to offer apologies for his firm’s own more inflated figure.

Such news doesn’t surprise industry observers, says Beijing Daily. “It’s not really a secret. At present, almost 80% of the box office results are made up,” an anonymous insider told the newspaper.

“It is very common for private film companies to make false claims because it is a great marketing strategy,” says Yuan Xin, manager of China Film Stellar Theatre. “Particularly for big-budget movies, distributors are under a lot of pressure and will often exaggerate box office results.”

The supposedly record-breaking performance of The Founding of a Republic had already led others to conclude that the domestic industry finds over-reporting on ticket sales a difficult habit to break.

The film, which was released in September to celebrate the 60th anniversary of China’s Communist revolution, was said to have surpassed Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen as the highest grossing film in China.

Its distributor, China Film Group, celebrated an estimated Rmb419 million box office take, squeezing past Transformers Rmb400 million haul.

Critics believe the country needs to set up an independent box office tracker, similar to the set-up in other countries.

Currently ticket sales are relayed to the media by the film companies themselves. So there is plenty of opportunity for mischief.

“Companies that inflate box office figures mislead the public. This is a very shortsighted way of marketing,” warns Mao Yu, vice president of SFB. “In the long run, it will damage not only the companies’ reputation, but also the entire industry.”

But don’t expect the dirty dealing to stop anytime soon, especially as we will shortly be entering peak season for movie releases.

Some 40 domestic and foreign movies will make their debuts in the pre-Lunar New Year period, Xinhua reports. December to early February is the busiest period for the mainland’s box office with takings last year of Rmb1.5 billion (a third of the annual total).

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