After being pulled off Chinese cinema screens rather abruptly in April, Django Unchained had to wait more than a month to be released a second time. By the time director Quentin Tarantino had finished an emergency edit of his film for the censors, a flood of pirated DVD versions was already circulating. That may help to explain why it grossed just $2.8 million in China, compared with $424 million worldwide.
One message: delays in screening can cost studios hugely in China.
But not always, it seems. This month a film did phenomenally well on release despite being pulled from cinema schedules six times, recut, and held back for almost four years.
No Man’s Land had been battling censors for clearance since the film wrapped in early 2010. But it seems to have been worth the wait, as the movie earned more than Rmb48 million ($7.9 million) on the day it was released, accounting for more than half of all the takings at the Chinese box office that day. It then reached Rmb130 million in ticket sales in its first week, no small feat for a production that cost only Rmb16 million to make.
No Man’s Land tells of the adventures of a lawyer who drives to the deserts of China’s far west and back, encountering a multitude of colourful characters on the way. According to the Global Times, the film was originally blocked because “censors disapproved of its allegedly exaggerated and unrealistic depiction of the dark sides of human nature”. Zhao Baohua, a member of the film review board at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, also thought the film “trashy” and disliked its depiction of “depraved” individuals, says Hollywood Reporter.
Director Ning Hao, known for his dark comedies, reportedly oversaw two major revisions of No Man’s Land before getting the required regulatory approvals. Ning says he softened the tone of the ending to make it “return to mainstream society”.
No Man’s Land’s commercial performance was surprising, not least because it faced stiff competition from Hollywood blockbusters like Gravity and Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire, as well as heavily-promoted domestic offerings like The White Storm and The Four 2 (see WiC218). But analysts reckon that the repeated delays may have turned out to be a blesssing in disguise by creating buzz for the low-budget production.
“The delays have played a role in boosting the film’s publicity,” a marketing executive at the studio told China News Net. “Since the road was so lengthy and difficult, when the film was released it quickly became a hot topic, and that is a marketing wonder.”
On Douban (see next article), the film scored highly too. Reviewers gave it an average rating of 9.2 – with any film rating above 9 considered to be in the ‘must see’ category.
Another positive about the delayed release was that No Man’s Land piggy-backed on the popularity of lead actor Xu Zheng, whose reputation soared after the unexpected success of Lost in Thailand, a huge hit this time last year. Ning probably couldn’t have afforded to pay Xu’s asking price if No Man’s Land had been made more recently.
Despite his surprise hit, Ning says he’s unconcerned with how well No Man’s Land fares in revenue terms, and that he won’t make more commercial films simply to capitalise on the booming domestic market.
“If I wanted to make big money, I could have stayed at home and mined coal with my classmates who are now billionaires,” says the director, who was born in coal-rich Shanxi. He added: “I just want to do something that I like doing.”
But if No Man’s Land looks like becoming one of the year’s biggest box office surprises, Beijing Flickers will take the unwanted crown as one of the worst performers. It debuted in early November and hasn’t made much more than Rmb1 million in ticket sales. Starring actress Li Xinyun, it generated so little interest that cinema operators stopped showing it after just 10 days.
Critics say that Beijing Flickers, a tale of a downtrodden twenty-something which was released around Single’s Day (November 11), didn’t resonate with an audience looking for more light-hearted entertainment.
But just like Ning, the director Zhang Yuan said he doesn’t pay too much attention to sales figures. “I don’t care if the film comes in last. If the audience goes to the cinema and watches the film for five minutes, I’m already very pleased. [Box office] is not a big deal,” he told Shenzhen Business News.
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