Xinhua Insight: New rise in Chinese film market vicissitudes
by Xinhua writers Liang Saiyu, Li Jianping and Zhou Yan
BEIJING, July 20 (Xinhua) -- China's film industry received a handsome report card in the first half of this year, when domestically-made movies took up a whopping 62 percent of the country's total box office revenue.
While the fortunes of China's box offices and film producers have ebbed and flowed throughout the industry's history of over 100 years, developing audience demand, regulatory and market conditions have seen both crest once again.
Nationwide, cinemas grossed a total of 11 billion yuan (1.79 billion U.S. dollars) in ticket sales from January to June, of which more than 6.8 billion yuan came from domestic films, according to figures released on Wednesday by the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.
Domestic blockbusters such as action-adventure "Switch," "American dreams in China," "So Young" and coming-of-age drama "Tiny Times" have dominated the summer screen.
Though feedback from audiences and film critics have varied, the debates these films have prompted seem to have simply stimulated more moviegoers to open their wallets.
"Tiny Times" alone has pocketed more than 460 million yuan in box office revenue since its premiere on June 27.
The feature film set in contemporary Shanghai made headlines after it beat Hollywood blockbuster "Man of Steel" in terms of opening-day box office records.
The movie, which tells of four college girls' romances and budding careers, stirred controversies for its plot, which some critics said "stressed young people's lust for luxury."
Even U.S. magazine The Atlantic published an article rebuking the film as "a great leap backward for women," saying "its vulgar and utter lack of self-awareness is astonishing."
Its author-turned director Guo Jingming appeared unperturbed by the bombardment. "The audience is changing, but films are not," he said. "It's the elephant in the room that you pretend not to see."
URBANIZATION SWEEPS CINEMAS
Some critics attribute the recent success of domestic films to pulling in a wider audience from the nation's small and medium- sized cities, where going to the cinema has become a way of life quite recently.
Another reason behind the hit, they say, is that films nowadays are "beginning to show the real lives of ordinary people."
"The group of what is called the new urbanites have become regular moviegoers as the urbanization drive sweeps across China," said Liu Haibo, an associate professor from the Film School of Shanghai University.
"New urbanites" refers to young people born in the late 1980s who live in second- and third-tier cities and demand a richer cultural life as their formerly under-developed home cities become more modern, according to Liu.
Ye Xindai was one such new urbanite. Born in a small village in Yongchun Township of Fuzhou City, in east China's Fujian Province, he is now a film critic based in Beijing.
"Cinemas in my hometown are closely following the footsteps of big cities nowadays, and a growing number of young people spend weekends and holidays seeing movies," said Ye, 22.
In the early 1990s, when he was still a teenager, cinemas in his remote hometown were mostly on the verge of closing down, as young people back then would rather kill time in video rooms or at home watching pirated DVDs.
Ye himself only entered a cinema for the first time in 2002, when he was attending Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, capital of the rich eastern province of Zhejiang.
The ticket cost him 30 yuan, which could otherwise have bought about 30 bowls of noodles then, Ye remembered.
Today, however, many young urbanites do not hesitate to fork out 80 yuan for a seat in a multiplex.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, China's urban population increased by 20.96 million annually from 2002 to 2011, with about 51.3 percent of Chinese living in cities by the end of 2011.
As 10 new screens are being installed each day and cinemas are gaining popularity in small and medium-sized cities, the nation of 15,000 screens has become the world's second-largest film market after the United State.
Statistics from a survey by Entgroup Consulting in 2012 suggested that China's 284 third- and fourth-tier cities accounted for 34 percent of the country's total ticket sales, while the first-tier cites accounted for 37 percent.
The survey suggested the market share of smaller cities would rise to 42 percent by the end of 2015, as markets in bigger cities had mostly saturated.
Domestic movies were particularly welcomed in the third- and fourth-tier cities, the survey report said.
Young people in these emerging cities are mostly optimistic about -- and interested in -- domestic films, and this promises a rosy market outlook, according to Shi Chuan, vice president of the Shanghai Film Association and a professor at Shanghai University.
Peter Chan, the Hong Kong film director who shot drama "American Dreams in China," said he felt the majority of Chinese, who were more likely to choose cost-efficient blockbusters in the past decade, had changed and were more thirsty to see their lives and dreams represented on screen.
"The Chinese are nowadays more confident to see dramas based on their own lives," Chan said.
FILM INDUSTRY REFORM
The Chinese began dreaming of their own films and cinemas in 1905, when three reels of film were produced from a shoot in a Beijing photography shop's courtyard of a Peking Opera star performing "Dingjun Mountain."
For over a century, the domestic film industry has rode the waves of differing fortunes.
The industry reached a climax in 1977, in the wake of the the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when attendance of movie screenings across the nation reached a record 29.3 billion.
But the market was on a downward spiral until the nation began transforming its cinemas from state-owned enterprises into private operations in 2002 amid a broader shift in the country from a planned economy to a market economy.
In 2002, following China's accession to the World Trade Organization, authorities allowed greater cross-border trade and gave private capital more play. Restructuring of the state-owned film corporations and establishment of private studios also brought the domestic film industry into a rapid path of commercialization.
That year, "Hero," directed by internationally prestigious director Zhang Yimou, became a hit both home and abroad with box offices, raking in a record high of 117 million yuan worldwide.
The star-studded, big-budget movie, featuring Jet Li, Maggie Cheung and Zhang Ziyi, was seen as a turning point at which the nation's film industry stepped into the big time.
Since "Hero," the domestic film industry has witnessed what industry insiders have dubbed "the third phase of big-budget movies" featuring special effects and expensive 3D or IMAX formats, according to Ye.
But a sudden slump in 2012 as well as the success of low-cost comedy "Lost in Thailand" signaled yet another turnaround.
By July 2012, the box office for domestic films had hit a five- year low of 2.8 billion yuan. Only 5 percent of 141 China-made movies screened in the first half managed to break even, and all the others were losing money, suggested official statistics.
The drop came months after China amended rules in February 2012 to up the annual quota of foreign films allowed to be screened in the country's cinemas from 20 to 34.
"The situation was partially because of tepid demand for ancient costume movies, which are more likely to get through censorship," added Huang Qunfei, chief manager of the Beijing-based New Film Association.
In the meantime, "Lost in Thailand," a drama helmed by an actor- turned-director that gained 1.2 billion yuan in box office receipts, topped the screening charts over "Titanic 3D" and was the second- most lucrative domestic Chinese film ever.
Shi Chuan attributed the success of "Lost in Thailand" to the consuming power from second- and third-tier cities.
Despite the high ticket revenue of the movie, it was also widely criticized for being vulgar and of little artistic value.
Shi worried capitalization might one day prevail over a film's artistic value when investors tend to choose genres that are more "emotionally appealing" to their taste.
As Ye Xindai put it, rapid economic development and young people's desire for material abundance might eventually churn out "funny but shallow stuff."
"As I see it, it is the artistic value of the film that matters most, not the rocketing ticket sales," said the young critic.
The latest change in the nation's domestic film industry may be a positive signal, both for home and abroad.
A circular issued on Wednesday by the State Council, or China's cabinet, stated that the administration has canceled reviews and approvals for general film screenplays. Instead, summaries for such productions will still be subject to public notification.
This joins the cancellation of 20 other items on radio plays, publications and movies that used to require government approval, according to Wednesday's circular.
Rao Shuguang, deputy director of the Beijing-based China Film Art Research Center, said the elimination is positive as it showed "China's review and approval system is transforming from rule of man to rule of law."
(Xu Xiaoqing and Zhu Qing also contributed to the story)
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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