Steven Spielberg has become known for crowd-pleasing commercial blockbusters like Indiana Jones and E.T. as well as weighty dramas such as Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln. In fact, the prolific director could do both simultaneously (Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List were both released in 1993).
Chinese cinema does not have an exact Spielberg equivalent yet but veteran director Feng Xiaogang comes close in terms of his grit-to-guffaw versatility. His latest film Youth has proven both an absorbing historical drama and a blockbuster at the box office.
The film raked in more than Rmb1 billion ($160 million) at Chinese cinemas since its premiere in mid-December, which rendered it the top grossing film of Feng’s long career.
The nostalgic drama was slated to be shown during October’s weeklong National Day holidays, an even busier moviegoing season, before censors yanked it (see WiC382) because of the movie’s sensitive historical contents.
Youth is at root a coming of age story – but it is also a bold attempt to weld together many controversial topics including the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 and the massive disarmament of the People’s Liberation Army in the 1980s (one million soldiers were discharged).
The movie’s delayed debut did mean less competition. Youth beat out other blockbuster films that were released around the same time, including Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat and A Thousand Faces of Dunjia by martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping.
One reason for its success is that it has managed to lure older audiences back to the cinema given much of the recent cinema fare has targeted a younger demographic.
“As Feng himself had predicted, whether Youth will succeed at the box office depends on the audiences between 45 and 75 years-old and whether he could fan the enthusiasm of these older audiences,” opined Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog.
Even though younger consumers still go to the movies more than anyone else, the strong box office takings of Youth suggest that mature audiences will still flock to the big screen under the right circumstances. According to Entertainment Capital, an entertainment blog, over 35% of the bums-on-seats at Youth screenings were people over 45. In some areas, they even accounted for 50% of the ticket sales.
These audiences also responded to the strong word of mouth and stellar reviews online. On Douban, the TV and film review site, the period drama received 7.9 stars out of 10, with many reviewers saying that the film reminded them of their younger days. Others say it was the perfect film to watch with their parents.
“The 1970s propaganda music in the soundtrack reminds me of my youth and of what our families went through,” Li Jincai, a 53 year-old security guard, told China Film Insider. “It made me feel nostalgic.”
“Thank you director Feng Xiaogang for letting my parents relive their youth. In an early sequence that shows the arts troupe rehearsing a dance number, my mother whispered to me, saying that she used to be one of those dancers. I watched as she looked on the big screen with tears in her eyes, reliving her days as a teenager again. It made me understand her so much more,” one netizen recalled.
Meanwhile, rival films that targeted millennial audiences – like The Thousand Faces of Dunjia which featured starlets Ni Ni and Zhou Dongyu – did not fare quite as well. The blockbuster featured a group of ancient Chinese fighters fending off aliens from outer space and (possibly not surprisingly) has been heavily panned.
Critics complained that the script – written by Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark – was “shockingly bad”. The dazzling special effects have also made the storytelling even more “confusing” and they are so over-the-top that it “felt like a big spectacle for the sake of making it a big spectacle,” noted NetEase.
So far, the film has received a rating of just 4.8 out of 10 stars on Douban. Industry observers were sceptical that the film would break even, taking only Rmb300 million in the box office on a budget of Rmb250 million (before marketing and promotional expenses).
Cinemas have long courted the younger market in part because older moviegoers tend to skip the concession counter, where theatres make a lot of their money.
The imbalance between young and old grew more pronounced over the past decade as China’s film industry (and Hollywood) gravitated towards big CGI spectacles too that require 3D glasses.
The surprise success of Youth might encourage more studios to take on stories that target the greying demographic. More recently, Indian drama Dangal was also a surprise hit in China because the uplifting storyline appealed to older audiences (see WiC366).
There is a view that a demographic shift could help cinema operators if they can move some of the screenings of these types of film to the quieter afternoons instead of the overcrowded peak hours.
“Cultivating older audiences is beneficial for cinema chains, film producers and also satisfies the need of the audiences. This is a triple win,” says Entertainment Capital. Another cinema operator concurs: “Our business relies too much on holidays and weekends. On the other hand, sales on the weekdays are very low,” a cinema manager told Entertainment Capital. “The biggest consumers of the film industry are in the 15-to-35 age group. Middle-aged and older audiences are virtually nonexistent. In some developed markets like the US, senior audiences account for about 28% of ticket sales. If you think about it, they are richer and they have more free time so they should be an important consumer. So in this regard, the Chinese film industry has failed to nurture these audiences.”
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