Asked to name the key monetary element of China’s Lunar New Year period most would cite the red envelopes known as hongbao (or lai see in Hong Kong).
Literally billions of these packets circulate during the holiday as ‘good fortune’ cash is passed from older to younger family members or gifted by employers to staff and others who have given good service throughout the year.
However, for China’s movie industry, there’s another lucrative custom during the holiday season: the launch of a blockbuster film based on Journey to the West, the hugely popular classic novel.
Chinese audiences flock to cinemas to watch the Monkey King, the mythical warrior, that stars in the tale. Since comedian Stephen Chow set box office records in 2013 with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, the fable has dominated the country’s busiest cinema season.
In 2014, there was action star Donnie Yen’s The Monkey King, which took Rmb1 billion. Two years later actor Aaron Kwok took on the eponymous role in The Monkey King 2, which went on to make Rmb1.2 billion in ticket sales.
And even the negative reviews couldn’t stop Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back from doing well in 2017. Last February it was the second biggest box office winner – behind Jackie Chan’s Kung Fu Yoga.
Needless to say, the adventure tale will make its return to the big screen this holiday season, which begins on February 16. The Monkey King 3, which again stars Kwok as the lead, also features actress-singer Gigi Leung (who performed with him in the 2014 Monkey King flick too) and the starlet Zhao Liying.
The Lunar New Year period (also known as the Spring Festival) is a boon for the local film industry. Hollywood films tend to get shut out so as to give a boost to domestic flicks, but that doesn’t lessen the competition. The Monkey King 3 will compete with four local blockbusters when it’s released on the first day of a massive week for the box office (China set the world record back in 2016 when it took $548 million in ticket sales over seven days. North America’s best week was between December 26 and January 1, 2016 – when Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released – and takings hit $529.6 million.)
This time round, it will be a commercial battle between franchises and sequels. There is Monster Hunt 2, the highly anticipated sequel to Monster Hunt, which grossed Rmb2.4 billion ($379 million) in 2015, a record at the time. And then there is Operation Red Sea, a follow-up to the smash hit Operation Mekong, which was the surprise winner in 2016 (it took Rmb1.2 billion).
Action comedy Detective Chinatown 2 features again, a return for lead performers Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran (the first film took Rmb823 million in 2015).
Boonie Bears: The Big Shrink, the fifth film in China’s most successful homegrown animation franchise, will also appeal to the kids market during the holidays.
How many studios will break even on their costly productions, however? Beijing Youth Daily reckons that the five films mentioned above cost a combined Rmb3.3 billion to make. Add in the promotional costs and they will probably have to surpass Rmb6.3 billion in ticket sales to make a profit. That could be a stretch: last year the top seven films raked in Rmb5.7 billion during the holiday.
The flood of new releases turns the holiday into a dangerous moment for producers. “Since the Spring Festival has become the heaviest moviegoing season, virtually every studio wants to show a film during the period. Last year, over a dozen films were scheduled to release during the holiday but before long, only a handful were left because those who could run, ran fast. Ask anyone who has had skin in the game and they will tell you that this is still a competition where a winner takes all,” commented Chaoqi Net, a TMT blog.
But for the biggest film companies, having a film released during the holiday season is a crucial opportunity to impress. “The Spring Festival period is usually so competitive that only the biggest players in the film industry can afford to compete head-to-head. More often than not, smaller firms are shut out. As a result, having a film released in the period has become more or less a status symbol,” an industry insider told Entertainment Capital, a news portal for the industry.
With just a week to go before the Lunar New Year, all of the studios have been doing their best to entice moviegoers. A cinema operator told D-Entertainment, another movie sector blog, that Detective Chinatown 2 has offered enormous subsidies to cinema operators to dedicate at least a third of their screens to the film. Bona Film, the backer of Operation Red Sea, is also said to have budgeted Rmb10 million for ticket subsidies.
How about the traditional favourite for the festive break? According to commentary on the D-Entertainment blog, “the quality of The Monkey King 3 is so bad no matter how much money the studio gives to cinema operators, no one wants to have anything to do with it” (nonetheless, for a Monkey King film to flop at this time of year would be pretty unprecedented).
None of the major studios are counting on the box office as their only means of profit, mind you.
Take Detective Chinatown 2. Wanda Pictures, the studio behind the franchise, has signed licencing arrangements with over a thousand businesses. In the food and beverage area alone, there are cross-promotional arrangements with Pizza Hut, Wahaha, Hey Tea and Three Squirrels (an online nut vendor), and other marketing deals have been inked with smartphone maker Xiaomi, budget hotel chain 7 Days Inn and China Merchants Bank.
Similarly, Edko Films, the studio behind the Monster Hunt franchise, has signed up toymakers, apparel firms and a theme park to boost its bottom line. Meanwhile The Monkey King 3 has even launched a game for smartphones to coincide with its release.
Sure, the film studios still want you to go to the cinema. But they have plenty of other ways of reaching into your wallet too…
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