Back in 2009, a TV show called iPartment, or Love Apartment, as its name translates more directly from Chinese – was a big hit. The series followed a group of young people living in adjacent apartments in Shanghai and hanging out in coffee shops. If the premise sounds familiar, that’s because it was almost identical to the classic American sitcom Friends.
Some of the storylines were eerily similar to its US counterpart. In one episode, two characters go to a bridal store to try on dresses for fun. They pretend to throw flower bouquets at one another. Friends fans will remember the very same scene from an episode called ‘The One with All The Wedding Dresses’, that aired in 1998.
However, producers of the chinese show denied that they had borrowed the storyline from the US favourite. “We didn’t copy the American sitcom,” a spokesperson told Southern Metropolis Daily at the time. “Our creation is not plagiarism but more a homage to the American sitcom.”
Still, it did well with Chinese audiences (see WiC164), extending to four seasons before the end of its run in 2014. Hence fans of the show were excited when they heard rumblings in 2017 that the cast, including Chen He and actress Deng Jiajia, had reunited to make a film based on the TV series, which was set for release this summer.
Fast forward to last weekend when anticipation for the film – also called iPartment – was so strong it raked in Rmb100 million ($14.55 million) in advance ticket sales. The movie performed strongly too when it opened, surpassing veteran actor Huang Bo’s The Island and the US-China co-production The Meg, starring Jason Statham and mainland actress Li Bingbing, by taking Rmb300 million at the domestic box office in the first few days.
All the same, audiences were surprised to discover that the film bore little resemblance to the sitcom. Also written by Wang Yuan, the screenwriter of the original TV series, the new movies was instead more of a fantasy-action flick about an intrepid team of tomb-raiders, albeit played by the same six actors from the small screen comedy.
“Even though the film features all our beloved characters from the TV series, the story has almost nothing to do with the TV show at all,” National Business Daily complained.
On Douban, the review site, the movie received a dismal rating of just 2.8 out of 10 (for comparison, the first season of the TV series scored 8.1). “A lot of people don’t want to talk about the issue of plagiarism, but I just want to say the film is terrible. It is clear that the intention is to scam money out of fans that have loved the show,” one netizen fumed.
Other fans agreed they felt cheated or misled. In all the promotional clips, little mention was made of the new storyline. Yuan Hong, an actor who was not in the original series but plays a villain in the film, was also purportedly left out of the promotional material to downplay his role. Similarly, in the strangely vague synopsis and official trailer, which touts “the same cast, after a decade”, spliced-up scenes from the TV series whipped up nostalgia for the original show.
“It’s clear that the producers understood the importance of the intellectual property. In virtually all the promotional materials, they played up the nostalgia and sentiment. Based on the pre-sale ticket figures and attendance rate on the first day, it is clear that the IP is hugely valuable,” Tencent Entertainment claimed. “But if that’s the case, why didn’t they just make a movie based on the TV show?”
Industry commentators think that the reason is a legal row between the filmmakers and the producers of the original series. Just days before the movie premiered on August 10, a Taiwanese company called Lianfan published a post on Weibo claiming that the film had been produced without its permission. And according to the post, the rights to iPartment belong to a Lianfan, not to the Shanghai-based studio Gaoge, which produced the film. The statement added that a lawsuit had been filed against Gaoge and that Lianfan had asked regulators to suspend the movie’s release.
Gaoge quickly posted a rebuttal, arguing that the studio, not Lianfan, owned the rights to the show, and presenting some legal documents as evidence, said Sixth Tone.
“How ironic is it that a series born out of plagiarism is now making a fuss about others infringing its own copyright?” one netizen jibed.
Word of mouth about the row was negative enough that by the third day of screening almost 90% of seats in cinemas showing the film were empty.
iPartment’s problems may have encouraged more cinema-goers to switch to The Meg, a shark movie that has gone on to do well at cinemas in the US too. While the thriller was originally ‘made for’ the Chinese market – in addition to casting Li Bingbing it incorporates a lot of Chinese elements designed to appeal to domestic moviegoers – the film has done surprisingly well with American audiences. In fact, it marks Warner Bros’ biggest opening in North America so far this year, says the South China Morning Post. The Chinese co-production (Gravity Pictures was involved) took $44.5 million in its opening weekend and a total of $141.3 million globally.
“The Meg has started to take a giant bite out of the box office while the controversy surrounding iPartment continues,” one critic wrote. “It could very well end up dominating the box office and become the biggest winner over the summer holiday.”
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