For some 2,000 years, Chinese people have marked the Duanwu Festival by eating sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves – called zongzi – and racing dragon boats to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a politician and poet in the Warring States period (about 500-200 BC) who drowned himself.
Over the years the Duanwu Festival, which fell on June 8 this year (it occurs on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar), has also become a lucrative holiday for the film industry, with millions of people flocking to the cinema. Last year, Chinese theatres took Rmb900 million ($130.1 million) at the box office in three days.
But this year the holiday has failed to deliver. The long weekend saw ticket sales down 14% at Rmb780 million. That was also a faster rate of decline than for China’s box office as a whole so far this year – an 8.5% decrease from a year ago in the first five months of 2019.
Interestingly, a low-budget high school romance became the apparent bright spot last weekend. My Best Summer, starring heartthrob Chen Feiyu and starlet He Landou, has proved the box office surprise since its release last Thursday. So far, the film has raked in over Rmb183 million.
The movie is based on the popular online novel The Best of Us and plays with the predictable plot line of two high school students that go from hating each other to falling in love. It is also the follow-up to the 2016 TV series adaptation With You, which was also a big hit, earning a score of 8.9 out of 10 on TV series and film review site Douban. However, word of mouth for My Best Summer has been lukewarm. Again using Douban, the movie rated just 5.9 out of 10, with many describing it as “forgettable” and “boring”.
That’s why some critics were surprised when My Best Summer proved so popular. At least 944 screenings in different parts of China were completely sold out last weekend. That said, a closer look suggests something suspicious. For instance, in a cinema in Guiyang all three screenings at around 3am were 100% full (a scheduling phenomenon even Avengers: Endgame couldn’t match, says Entertainment Industry). Similarly, 8am shows also registered as full houses in Foshan in Guangdong. On the other hand, primetime slots between 8pm to 9pm were virtually empty.
The manager of a major cinema chain explained to Yiyu Guancha, an entertainment portal, that a Guiyang staffer had mistakenly scheduled three viewings around 3am. However, he had no explanation for how all the tickets sold out.
Small wonder then, some suspected that the studio had bought tickets to artificially boost box office takings. The rationale for such a strategy: if publicly available figures show that a film is doing well, cinema managers tend to allocate more screens to it. The media buzz also motivates moviegoers to shell out to watch the ‘hit’ film.
Indeed, on the second day of its release, My Best Summer took just Rmb54 million, trailing in fourth place behind X-Men: Dark Phoenix, Chasing the Dragon II and Godzilla: King of Monsters. By the third day, the film edged into third place with the number of screens dedicated to My Best Summer rising from just 8.2% on the first day to over 20% by the end of the weekend.
“In the opening days, faking the box office could help the film quickly earn better takings. The higher the ranking, the more moviegoers want to see the film. In addition, the phantom viewings will also increase the number of screens dedicated to a film,” film critic Wang Fang explained of the ruse.
An executive at the studio behind Chasing the Dragon II complained: “The market has primarily relied [this year] on Hollywood blockbusters, but to use such despicable tactics to drive out competition is just setting up a bad precedent for the industry.”
“Not over my dead body will I believe this box office figure,” another studio insider thundered. “The industry is already so depressed, relying on a few Hollywood films to help the cinemas keep their lights on. These unscrupulous distributors would resort to dirty tricks for their own short-term gains while destroying the whole industry.”
Box office manipulation is nothing new in China’s movie market. Ip Man 3 was first caught inflating ticket sales with “ghost screenings” in 2016. Last year, Us and Them was also accused of box office fraud (see WiC408).
The mood has turned dark in China’s film industry with critics bemoaning a drop-off in quality.
“What’s worse than having the bad money driving out the good is that there is no good money at all. Looking back at all the domestic features in the first half of the year, there is nothing that’s worth mentioning,” wrote Entertainment Industry. “But the market enters a vicious cycle: once the box office stops growing, output slows down and the number of moviegoers go down. People will no longer want to pay to go to the cinema. And besides, they have plenty of options elsewhere: there is online TV streaming, short video and online games that will suck up their free time. The last year was a cold winter for the TV and film industry and what’s worse is that audiences become disheartened, which shrinks the market even further.”
Meanwhile, the film industry is now pinning its hopes on war epic The Eight Hundred, which has been hailed as China’s answer to 300 or Dunkirk. The film is about the Sino-Japanese war and is set to open on July 5, kicking off the summer blockbuster season.
It is based on the true story of how hundreds of Chinese soldiers and civilians defended a warehouse in 1937 against waves of Japanese troops over four days and nights during the Battle of Shanghai – a suicidally brave stand that enabled other military divisions and civilians to safely retreat.
Later, the fighters were known as the “Eight Hundred Heroes,” a number which, like some box office figures in China, was inflated to feign strength.
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