Making a major splash

Steven Chow comedy film is the big holiday period hit

Lin Yuan w

Lin Yun: got her sea-legs

A great TV series isn’t always hit-movie material. The recent reboot of The X-Files (now airing on TV for a 10th season), may have stoked excitement among fans from the video-tape era. Nevertheless both feature films of the iconic franchise, in 1998 and 2008, proved forgettable.

Even fewer get it right adapting a TV documentary for the big screen. It came as little surprise then, that a documentary movie produced by China’s state broadcaster CCTV has ended up as a box office bomb.

The film in question is A Bite of China: Celebrating the New Year. After receiving rave reviews for both seasons one and two of the food documentary A Bite of China (see WiC235), CCTV’s production team thought they could whet the appetite of paying moviegoers’ too.

At first glance the producers made all the right moves. CCTV had successfully published a book on the same theme. And TV audiences are also expecting a third season – now being shot in countries such as Peru – which looks at China’s food culture from a global perspective.

Traditionally the Chinese New Year is also the richest culinary season. And Celebrating the New Year features more than 60 special dishes from 35 parts of the country. The director even told reporters some of the shooting techniques were inspired by the simmering love scenes of starlet Tang Wei in Lust, Caution. That prompted China Youth Daily to expect the 85-minute film would be “the most delicious movie ever”. CCTV also promised: “This movie makes you hungry, and feel like going back to your hometown at once.”

But according to Jiemian, a news portal, the docu-film earned just Rmb1.6 million ($250,000) in its first week. “Moviegoers will pay to watch celebrities. Are they willing to pay to watch a TV documentary?” Jiemian commented.

Other TV formats have flopped at the box office. The Voice of China, a popular singing show made by Hunan Satellite TV, took only Rmb3 million in big screen receipts.

The country’s cinema bosses may be more in touch with moviegoers’ preferences. Huxiu.com, another news portal, says Celebrating the New Year only got 0.44% of the period’s potential screenings. In comparison, Kung Fu Panda 3 was given a 46.58% share at one point.

So which movies have been a hit during the Chinese New Year holiday?

As regular WiC readers will know, the Monkey King, who originally featured in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, has long been a source of inspiration for Chinese producers. In 2013 Hong Kong superstar Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons was the highest grossing film during the festive window. A year later it was The Monkey King dominating the Chinese New Year box office.

Given this is the Year of the Monkey, it was a no-brainer that another megabuck monkey flick would be produced. This time it is a sequel: The Monkey King 2. Making a comeback is 50 year-old actress Gong Li who adds stardust to the fantasy adventure as the chief villain, White Bone Demoness (her goal: to eat the Monkey King’s Buddhist master for dinner).

Chinese audiences evidently cannot get enough of the superhero chimp. The Monkey King 2 grossed more than Rmb100 million in less than nine hours. As of Wednesday, it had taken nearly Rmb380 million.

Yet even that film is being overshadowed by The Mermaid, the latest comedy from Stephen Chow, whom some Chinese media have described as “the king of the Chinese box office”.

Instead of relying on proven stars such as Gong, Chow has opted for 19 year-old newcomer Lin Yun, who plays a mermaid used in a honey trap against a business tycoon. Chow’s hit-making formula still works: The Mermaid earned Rmb275 million in its opening day, setting a new single-day record for a local production. (Only Furious 7, the highest grossing ever movie in China, has scored a higher opening.) As of Wednesday, The Mermaid had grossed more than Rmb730 million.

Before the Year of the Monkey began on Monday, critics were predicting a two-horse race between Chow and the Monkey King. Now it looks increasingly likely that The Mermaid will shatter all records.

According to Beijing Daily, distributors have already paid out Rmb2 billion to the film’s investors. And if it grosses more than Rmb2 billion, the extra box office will go entirely to the distributors.

“Such ‘box office guarantees’ are becoming increasingly common in the movie industry,” the Beijing Daily explains.

Is Rmb2 billion a demanding target, then? Only two films have made more than that: Furious 7 and domestic animation flick Monster Hunt. Both were released last year. But as the box office continues to climb in China – the take is predicted to exceed that of the US next year (see WiC306) – records look set to fall. And maybe Chow is the man to break yet another one…

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