China embraces pirate films

Pirates of the Caribbean adds to Disney’s fruitful year in China


Scodelario stars alongside Depp

The first of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies permitted to screen in China was the third instalment At World’s End, which made Rmb125 million ($18.1 million) in 2007. Even though audiences had never been properly introduced to the iconic Jack Sparrow and all the (convoluted) back stories, they returned in much bigger numbers to watch the fourth instalment Stranger Tides four years later. It grossed Rmb476 million.

Six years on – and after a period in which the country’s box office has grown more than threefold – hopes for the latest instalment have been high. To drum up interest for the fifth film, Dead Men Tell No Tales, Disney released the film in China on the same day as the US (on May 26). It had also earlier sent the cast including Johnny Depp to a special screening at Shanghai Disneyland.

The resort has become something of a mandatory stop for stars of Disney films in recent times. Back in February, the cast of Beauty and the Beast including Emma Watson and Dan Stevens stopped at the park ahead of that film’s release in March.

This time round, Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow as he is chased down by a group of deadly ghost pirates, alongside new sidekicks like British starlet Kaya Scodelario.

International critics have been scathing in their reviews of the latest release. Vox calls it “pointlessly busy and exhausting”, while this magazine’s favourite British film reviewer Deborah Ross lamented in The Spectator: “Oh, Pirates of the Caribbean, I have given you every chance down the years. Every chance. I am always hopeful. This may be the one that has a proper story I can follow, I have told myself. This may be the one in which Johnny Depp even bothers to act… When will I ever learn? When?”

The New York Times was equally brutal: “This review will be short and dismissive”, it began, before acidly adding that the Depp blockbuster is so punishing “it almost becomes the perfect opposite of entertainment”.

The welter of derisory Western assessments did little to dampen the enthusiasm of Chinese audiences, mind you. The film took first place at the local box office in its opening weekend, collecting Rmb500 million in the first four days, says Beijing Morning Post. The figure has already exceeded the prior film’s entire take in China.

That’s put Disney firmly on course for a very rewarding year in China. Its previous releases including Beauty and the Beast have had strong box office performances too. And just weeks before the debut of Pirates 5, the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland – opened last June (see WiC329) – said it had already welcomed more than 10 million visitors.

On Douban, the film and TV series review site, Pirates 5 received a rating of 7.5 out of 10, with many describing the film as “entertaining” and its CGI effects as “dazzling”. Some local critics did agree with their counterparts overseas. “I thought the fourth film was the worst in the franchise. But as it turns out the latest one is even worse. Nostalgia aside, there is nothing about the film that works. The story makes absolutely no sense,” one wrote.

Still, with Pirates 5 now dominating the Chinese box office, smaller domestic films released around the same time have received little attention. One of the unfortunate casualties was Edge of Innocence. The film, which stars heartthrob Huang Zitao, was allocated only 5.5% of total cinema screens last Saturday, the day of its debut, while Pirates 5 took 50.9% and 18.8% went on the same day to Indian film Dangal (for more on this surprise smash see WiC366), says box-office monitoring site Mtime.

An Xiaofan, producer of Edge of Innocence, took to her weibo to plead for more screen time: “With this huge gap, domestic films are doomed. Even if you reduce Pirates 5’s screen time a little it wouldn’t affect its overall box office one bit. But freeing up more screen time will give local films a chance to survive,” the producer wrote in a post. “Please, please, give local films a little more space. Don’t let local films die at the starting line.”

Begging for more slots may not be a viable strategy. In June, an onslaught of Hollywood summer blockbusters is set to storm the box office: Wonder Woman, Transformers: Lost City of Z (a movie franchise seemingly kept alive by its popularity in China) and Tom Cruise’s reboot of The Mummy series, just to name a few.

There has been speculation too that Hollywood films have been given a freer rein than usual this year as Chinese authorities are loathe to see the year’s total box office take decline on 2016’s and have concluded that only the US imports are pulling in the required audiences in the absence of compelling local megahits.

Many analysts expect the annual quota of foreign films allowed into Chinese cinemas to be expanded this year (currently it is capped at 34). Just this week, it was reported that a US government delegation will travel to Beijing in August to convince officials to allow more foreign films (namely, Hollywood blockbusters) to be shown using new revenue-sharing terms. As a means to appease the unpredictable Donald Trump, the Chinese side may be open to these negotiators sealing a better financial deal for US studios.

Again, this is likely to be bad news for their Chinese rivals which have struggled this year to match the passion and drama of a film like Dangal or trump the world class special effects of ‘spectacle’ movies from Hollywood.

“Clearly, filmmakers can’t beg for mercy over and over again. Self-help is the only way to survive,” says Entertainment Unicorn, an industry blog. “But in the short term, low quality domestic films most likely can’t make it.”

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