Running with it

Top director lambasts trend of TV variety shows being made into films

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From small screen to big screen: Angelababy appears in Running Man

The third and final instalment of the Hobbit franchise, The Battle of the Five Armies received mixed reviews. But the Middle Earth film has performed surprisingly well in the Middle Kingdom. So far it has raked in more than Rmb740 million ($120 million) at the box office, surpassing the first two instalments, which took just Rmb315.6 million and Rmb463 million respectively.

Peter Jackson was so pleased that he was filmed in a short clip wishing the Chinese audience “gong xi fa cai” – or good fortune – for the new lunar year (which began yesterday). He also thanked them for supporting the Hobbit series.

Jackson’s film wasn’t without competition in the period. Running Man, a movie version of the hugely popular reality TV series (see WiC259), was a close second at the box office. Released in late January, it took Rmb200 million in its opening weekend and it was watched by more than 7 million people, according to data from the research group Entgroup. Its box office take has since risen to about Rmb400 million – pretty impessive for a film that cost only Rmb20 million and took a mere six days to make (by comparison Jackson’s The Battle of the Five Armies had a $250 million budget and was the culmination of a 13-year project to bring Tolkien’s novels to the big screen).

Running Man features the same cast as the TV show: Wang Baoqiang, Li Chen, Zheng Kai, Wang Zulan and Angelababy. Korean singer and TV personality Kim Jong-kook and Hong Kong model Lynn Xiong also make guest appearances.

To cater to the younger audience, the producers hired Zhang Yibai, a director with a reputation for making films that target the post-90s demographic, and flew in a popular South Korean screenwriter and director to help with production (the original format of Running Man was conceived in South Korea).

Running Man isn’t the first Chinese film to be based on a reality TV series. Last year, Dad, Where Are We Going made Rmb600 million over the Lunar New Year holiday, another impressive haul for a project that took five days to shoot at a cost of just Rmb50 million (Oriental Daily says the film broke even before release, thanks to revenues from sponsorships and product placements).

Hoping for similar success, a follow-up based on the second season of the TV series premiered last night, timed to take advantage of the cinema-going surge that accompanies the holiday period.

But China’s most commercially successful filmmaker Feng Xiaogang is a critic of the new trend involving TV spin-offs. Feng – who was speaking to another TV programme – couldn’t contain his disdain for the film version, saying that the spin-offs are bad for the industry because they hurt genuine filmmaking by drawing investor money away from more serious movies.

Directors and actors are wrong to take part in such films, Feng told Chengdu Evening News, warning that it is a mistake to let them be shown in cinemas.

Feng isn’t the only critic. On Douban.com, a film rating website, Running Man received one of the lowest ratings ever, scoring only 3.2 out of 10.

Taotao Linlin, an avid commentator on Douban, says the film barely deserves a rating because it is not a real movie but more of a variety show being screened at theatres. He also accused the producers of laziness, as the film is not any different from the usual episodes on TV.

“This is not a phenomenon that should happen in a healthy film market,” Taotao says. “There are so many variety TV shows in the US, so why aren’t there any variety TV show movies? It indicates that our market is not healthy at all.”

But the film’s producers have fired back that Running Man has served its key purpose in entertaining its audiences.

“The films that really should be criticised are those that put people to sleep,” Wang Zhengyu, one of the producers, said in Running Man’s defence.

People’s Daily also made its voice heard. Interestingly, the state-run newspaper was in a supportive mood, saying that movies became successes based on “the choice of audiences and the market”.

Filmmakers like Feng Xiaogang should “complain less but make more good films,” it suggested.

A separate editorial posted on the newspaper’s weibo account went further, lashing out at Feng’s criticism as hypocritical.

“Directors of commercial films looking down on variety show films is kind of like a crow accusing a pig of being black,” it scoffed.

Sohu, a news portal, added that the spat should serve as a wake-up call for the industry, because it reflects the sheer number of “crappy domestic films”.

But will it lead to improvements in quality?

Zou Xiaowu, marketing director of the theatre chain Dadi Cinema, thinks that it could: “Films like Running Man are a bitter medicine to prompt traditional filmmakers to make better films.”

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