Before the high-speed train transformed China’s transport system, getting home to celebrate the Lunar New Year was no small feat for millions of the country’s migrant workers. A few travelled by plane, but the train was the most affordable option for most people. However, securing a ticket proved such a hassle it became a major social issue. Booking a ticket could be a traumatic experience. Some slept at stations overnight to secure them (now they can book their tickets online), others paid premiums to touts, creating an illicit Rmb1.8 billion industry (see WiC49).
This year, instead of the scramble for train tickets, millions of people went on the hunt for tickets for the cinema, after a sudden surge in interest in seeing a film.
“I was hoping to catch Detective Chinatown 2 on the second day of the Lunar New Year but the tickets in the cinemas near our house were all sold out. I finally managed to get a hold of two tickets for the fourth day of the New Year. Movie tickets are so much harder to buy than train tickets,” one cinemagoer in Shandong complained to Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment blog.
Cinemas in China had reported a softening in sector growth in 2016, although revenues then grew by about 15% last year. Analysts had earlier blamed a lack of genuine hits, the rise of a more discerning audience and a slowdown in new cinema construction.
But over the holiday season cinema bosses said they had never been busier: “From 9am to 11pm, the whole cinema was sold out. Those who wanted a ticket had to wait for shows near midnight,” said one theatre manager.
The period also set new box office records. Although like-for-like comparisons aren’t always straightforward (because of changes in how service charges are beginning to be included in the figures) takings jumped 68% from last year’s Spring Festival to Rmb5.7 billion ($850 million) over the seven-day period. More than 140 million people – another record – crammed into the cinemas.
Analysts said that filmmakers have been fine-honing their “new year movie” offerings, which tend to feature all-star casts and are targeted at family viewers.
But not everyone was in a celebratory mood. Take Monkey King 3, the latest adaptation of the Chinese classic Journey to the West. The holiday blockbuster, which earned a lacklustre rating of 4.7 out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese film and TV series review site, has so far grossed Rmb600 million in ticket sales against a production cost of Rmb550 million.
That makes it the worst-performing adaptation of the book in recent years. Even though the studio tried to lure younger audiences by marketing the film as a romance between the monk Xuanzang and a young queen, played by actress Zhao Liying, the tale failed to supercharge sales.
The poor performance also prompted some to question whether moviegoers are tired of Monkey King remakes. “When an adaptation of a classic intellectual property like Journey to the West is not done well, it becomes a piece of bone that is impossible to swallow. Last year alone, there were two Journey to the West adaptations: The Demons Strike Back and Buddies in India that premiered during the Lunar New Year. So even a new take on the story is not enough to get audiences excited,” reckoned Entertainment Unicorn, an industry blog.
Similarly, another CGI spectacle Monster Hunt 2 was a disappointment commercially. The film, which opened very strongly on its first day, was soon derailed as the box office leader by negative word of mouth. Losing momentum, it then suffered from screen shrinkage as cinemas switched to other offerings.
Paradoxically some blame the film’s reception on excessive promotional activity. “I see its commercials and posters everywhere. By the time I read the negative reviews after the film was released, I had lost all interest in watching it,” one moviegoer wrote on WeChat.
Other industry observers came to a similar conclusion. “Producers should watch out for over-promotion, which could set the audiences’ expectations too high. So when they finish watching the film they feel massively disappointed,” Li Ning from New Classics Media told Yiyu Guancha.
Interestingly, the film that spent the least on advertising – Operation Red Sea – turned out to be the highest grossing movie over the holiday, raking in Rmb4.1 billion at the box office over the seven days.
Compared to its rivals, Operation Red Sea, produced by Bona Film, spent little on promotion, relying more on word of mouth marketing. It is hardly family fare – with violence and high-octane sequences – but audiences classed it as well produced and hugely entertaining.
“All the scenes are so real; the story line is so fast-paced, there was just no dull moment… For a domestic film, its attention to detail is unrivalled,” one fan gushed on Douban.
“The film is a million times better than Wolf Warrior 2 [the highest grossing film ever in China, see WiC376]. The storytelling and how it is filmed is so well done. It deserves to make Rmb5 billion at the box office,” another raved.
The Spring Festival period may have proved that Chinese audiences are changing. “After years of screaming that ‘word-of-mouth is key,’ this holiday period has finally proven that films with the best reviews will win. So no matter how much money you spend on promotion and marketing, ultimately the quality of the film will speak for itself,” observed Yiyu Guancha, a movie blog.
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