False marketing?

Why Bi Gan’s art-house film surged at the box office for a day – then tanked

Tang Wei-w

Tang Wei stars in Long Day

It wasn’t exactly a case of ‘happy new year’ for filmmaker Lu Chuan. On New Year’s Eve he was told that production of his latest movie 749 Bureau, which was scheduled to start filming this week, would not happen because of what the studio termed a “funding gap”.

“This year, our industry has experienced many changes,” the director wrote in an open letter. “Many projects have been suspended; companies have gone bust; filmmakers have lost their jobs; a lot of projects were abandoned half-way through because of the abrupt halt in funding.”

It’s not only Lu’s project that got put on hold. Even productions backed by major studios like Huayi Brothers have been postponed indefinitely because liquidity has dried up – in part thanks to a slowing economy, but also due to the fallout of the Fan Bingbing tax scandal (see WiC427) and the subsequent government probes into studio finances.

While the future of Lu’s new film was far from clear, the makers of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, an art-house film that premiered on the last day of 2018, had a lot more to celebrate. The film raked in almost Rmb160 million ($23.5 million) in presold tickets ahead of its release, which is even higher than the presale figures of recent blockbusters like Avengers: Infinity War and Detective Chinatown 2. By the end of the first day, it had collected over Rmb265 million at the box office.

The strong takings have caught the industry by surprise. Long Day is art-house director Bi Gan’s second feature. His first cinematic debut, a 2015 indie film called Kaili Blues took only Rmb6.5 million at the box office. Even though Long Day boasted a strong cast including Lust Caution actress Tang Wei and actor Huang Jue, few predicted an art-house movie would be a box office winner during the holiday period.

The film tells the story of a man (Huang) who returns to his hometown for the first time in 12 years to search for a woman (Tang) whom he suspects has murdered his good friend. In a Wizard-of-Oz-style innovation the film switches from 2D to 3D midway through its runtime.

A big part of the film’s initial success was its marketing strategy. Studio executives played up its New Year’s Eve release date, referring to the Chinese title, which means “Last Night on Earth,” as the last film of 2018. Couples were encouraged to watch it together, and share a cross-year kiss in the cinema. As one of the posters asked, “If this is really the last night on Earth, what would you do?” implying that the film is about big romantic gestures, surmised Entertainment Unicorn.

But things soon backfired. After watching the film, viewers began to complain that they had been misled, with the marketing leading them to believe an art-house film was much more mainstream. Others complained that Long Day was so slow that half of the audience walked out midway; the only reason the rest stayed was because they had fallen asleep, another critic mocked.

“The worst movie in history! Tricksters, thieves! I’m pissed off. The film is a total bomb, the worst trash of all trash!” an irate moviegoer commented on Maoyan, the (soon-to-IPO) online movie ticketing platform.

The landslide of criticisms was so overwhelming that Long Day’s share of the box office went from 50.7% to just 4.7% – Rmb11 million – on the second day of release. By the third day, ticket sales were hovering around just Rmb1 million. Stock market investors were disappointed too. Huace Film and TV, the studio behind the film, saw its market capitalisation plunge Rmb1.6 billion on the first day the market opened in 2019.

Bi, meanwhile, defends the promotional tactic. “My colleagues who promoted it didn’t steal or rob — they just used their own abilities and knowledge to do their task. I don’t think they have done anything wrong,” the filmmaker told reporters. “I think those who didn’t like the film probably didn’t understand it.”

It wasn’t a first: Huace’s strategy was the same as that which Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang used for his film Terrorisers back in 1986. Promoting it as an action thriller, the art-house film became a surprising box office hit and even went on to become “a true landmark in Taiwan cinema,” one film critic wrote.

Meanwhile, 2019 is also off to a bad start for Ge You, one of China’s most famous actors. His new film, Morning After, a comedy in the mode of Hollywood’s The Hangover, opened to a heap of bad reviews that went viral. Since its debut on December 29, the film has only made Rmb50 million and on Douban, the film and TV review site, it received a rating of just 2.6 out of 10, the lowest in Ge’s long cinematic career.

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