Seen it before

Chinese cinemas are rereleasing old classics to boost ticket sales

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Stars with Chow in A Chinese Odyssey: Athena Chu

Which film has been reissued the most times? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs must be a strong candidate (first made in 1937, it has reappeared in 1944, 1958, 1967, 1975, 1987 and 1993). But Gone With the Wind, which got similar repeat treatment, is probably the most successful rerelease. In just one of its reissue years – 1957 – it sold 58 million tickets, making about $470 million at today’s prices.

Hollywood has figured out it works in China too. In 2012, James Cameron rereleased his epic disaster film Titanic and gave it a 3D overhaul to celebrate the film’s fifteenth anniversary. Titanic 3D was a huge success, raking in $344 million worldwide, with China contributing $80 million.

The success of Titanic 3D quickly inspired the rerelease of Jurassic Park 3D last year too. The Steven Spielberg film was likewise a strong performer in China, earning well over Rmb350 million ($16 million) in the country.

Now a film starring Stephen Chow, Hong Kong’s best known comedian, is also hoping to cash-in with it rerelease. A Chinese Odyssey Part I and II first came out in 1994 but returned to Chinese cinemas this Thursday.

It is based (very loosely) on the literary classic Journey to the West, with Chow playing the reincarnation of the Monkey King. It’s an interesting choice for a second viewing as A Chinese Odyssey performed terribly at the box office 20 years ago, costing $8 million but taking only $6 million in Hong Kong. Of course, back then the Chinese film industry was a fraction of its current size and movie producers made very little from mainland sales. Also, A Chinese Odyssey has become something of a cult favourite over the years, with fans describing it as a tragedy disguised as a comedy (in the film the Monkey King breaks up with the Purple Fairy – played by Chow’s real-life girlfriend of the time, the Hong Kong actress Athena Chu).

Audiences seem to have warmed to the film as they get older. “Many years ago, when I first watched A Chinese Odyssey, I thought it was a comedy: it was nonsensical and funny. But like others, after many heartbreaks and disappointments when I watch it again I find myself in tears,” one netizen wrote.

The Yangcheng Evening News agrees that A Chinese Odyssey evokes a certain nostalgia for people born in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Those going to cinemas to watch it are in their thirties and forties. With their own life experiences and stories they are rewatching a film that once made them laugh and cry so hard,” one critic suggests.

“In many ways, it is a remembrance of a bygone era.”

Many of the other rereleases must be hoping to tap into similar sentiment. It helps too, of course, that they cost almost nothing to re-produce. But the naysayers say that recycling of older films is usually doomed to fail because they don’t attract large enough audiences. “From a commercial standpoint, the profitability is just much higher for films that are new. Old films are not as competitive,” an industry analyst told NetEase, a portal.

National Business Daily concurs. “A Chinese Odyssey is a classic, but moviegoers can watch it on the internet anytime, so the appeal is not very strong. Besides, for cinema operators and distributors, the ticket prices for old films are generally lower than the 3D blockbuster spectacles. The small profit margin is not very enticing,” a source told the newspaper.

Other rereleases tanked at the box office this summer. Films like Swordsmen in Double Flag Town (1991), Postmen in the Mountains (1999) and Red Sorghum (1987) all reappeared to lukewarm interest in June, the People’s Daily reports. Red Sorghum, Zhang Yimou’s directorial debut, performed slightly better than the other two but that’s probably because it came out at the same time as his most recent offering Return.

Ice Age 2, first shown in China eight years ago, has just got a rerun as well, although this time in 3D. Sales were disappointing, with the animation selling just Rmb4.6 million worth of tickets last weekend. Previously three-dimensional rereleases have fared better in China.

China News Net says one reason Ice Age 2 hasn’t done so well is that Twentieth Century Fox has preferred to focus its efforts on the future, with Ice Age 5 set for release in 2016. Nor does Chow seem to have promoted A Chinese Odyssey too vigorously either. Perhaps that’s because he no longer owns the copyright (which fell into the hands of one of the co-producers, the West Movie Group). But he’s also thought to be too busy with his newest production – tentatively named Mermaid – which began shooting in Shenzhen last week.

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