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Cultural films fail to take off amid box office slump

By Miao Jiayu and Jacob Hooson (chinadaily.com.cn)

Updated: 2016-12-13

Chinese consumers don’t seem to be happy with the movie selection on offer in cinemas this year.

The country’s box office experienced a summertime slump for the first time in five years as a dearth of blockbuster kept movie goers away from the big screens.

The film sector’s woes deepened in the third-quarter too, with ticket revenues falling 15 percent from a year earlier, according to the Beijing-based movie portal Mtime.

Despite ticket sales expanding nearly 50 percent to 46 billion yuan last year, movie-goers parted ways with a mere 30 billion yuan as of the end of August – a far cry from the 60 billion yuan end-of-year prediction analysts had suggested.

Cultural films fail to take off amid box office slump

China's box office revenue stood at 4.5 billion yuan (around $680 million) in July, down 18 percent year on year, the first decrease in five years. [Photo/Xinhua]

Some have attributed the slump to a slowdown in the economy. Yet historically, the movie industry has been recession-proof, as people tend to flock to the silver screen as a respite from hard times.

According to James Wang, CEO of leading Chinese production company Huayi Brothers, the biggest box office earners in the last 20 years have come out when the economy is bad.

Mobile ticketing apps backed by e-commerce conglomerates have also hurt the market this year. Discounts offered by subsidies provided by the likes of Alibaba and Baidu, which accounted for as much as 10 percent of the total box office in 2015, fell by 70 percent this year, according to Nomura Holdings Inc. analyst Richard Huang.

Yet a major reason for the China’s surprise box office decline may well be a consumer backlash against overpaid actors and overly commercial films. As the novelty of the new cinema environment wears off, Chinese consumers seem to be becoming more discerning in their movie choices.

The government agrees. China’s top political advisors met in August to review a draft law that will call on the film sector to be more “centered on the people, guided by core socialist values,” according to Xinhua. It means that the future of Chinese films may be less guns blazing and more “morality and warmth.”

All this may come as good news for certain segments of the film sector, especially domestic cultural films centered on traditional Chinese elements.

Movies offering well-written scripts, high production values and a dosage of traditional cultural values seem well placed to fill the void of dissatisfaction among Chinese moviegoers and potentially immune to future changes in domestic film policy. But despite the seemingly promising prospects for home-grown cultural films in China, the situation remains somewhat bleak.

One director who knows all too well how difficult it is to succeed in China with folk films is Gao Feng. His latest film, Lao Qiang, failed to poach disaffected movie audiences when it debuted on Dec 2.

The film is named after an ancient form of opera that originated in Xi’an and tells the life story of the protagonist Wang Zhenzhong, an 80-year-old inheritor of laoqiang.

Cultural films fail to take off amid box office slump

A scene in Lao Qiang, or Yellow River Aria. [Photo/xinhuanet.com]

“I was amazed by laoqiang performance when I first saw it. I love Chinese culture, so I decided to make it on the big screen for fear that the public will forget the cultural heritage,” said Gao.

Films inspired by ancient operas might not seem like the best bet for commercial success amid a movie landscape dominated by Hollywood blockbusters, but Gao is under no illusions.

“No matter what type the film is, as long as it runs on commercial platforms, it is a commercial film,” said Gao. “I use the inheritance of the art form to express human love.”

According to Gao, cultural film makers have been working hard to integrate their works with public taste to convey their messages and aesthetic values – which is something that he intends to do with Lao Qiang.

In the film, Gao draws parallels between the old and the new to appeal to a wider audience, such as laoqiang’s unofficial title as China’s oldest form of rock music. (Frontmen – or women - belting out songs at the top of their lungs and wild percussion improvisations are no strangers to laoqiang.)

In essence, Lao Qiang is a love story that uses cultural heritage as a vehicle to tell it and raise awareness of the art form.

Cultural films fail to take off amid box office slump

A scene in Lao Qiang, or Yellow River Aria. [Photo provided to chinadaily.com.cn]

But for a movie that is palatable for Chinese audiences and picked up awards at the Montreal Film Festival and China Image Film Festival in 2014, receiving the cold shoulder is the last thing one would expect.

The problem is not a lack of market interest, argues Gao; cinemas are to blame because they are reluctant to give way to cultural films deemed to be less profitable.

To drive up profits, cinema chains in China tend to give priority to more lucrative films, meaning that low-budget (but often better) cultural movies are being sidelined for dazzling Hollywood blockbusters and shoddy productions featuring Chinese celebrities.

So while many movie-goers may well be crying out for a film like Lao Qiang (as this year’s box office statistics would suggest), there is simply no option to see them.

“[Cinemas] make more room for blockbusters, but the attendance rate is not always high,” said Gao. “As long as the cinema chains improve their management and arrange the slots properly, cultural films will have a good market prospect.”

Even in Xi’an, where laoqiang originated, cinemas have largely shunned Gao’s folk film in favor of star-studded films. Those unlucky enough to live close enough to the few cinemas screening Lao Qiang are forced to rent out an entire screen by making block bookings.

Cultural films fail to take off amid box office slump

Gao Feng, director of the film Lao Qiang. [Photo/xinhuanet.com]

Gao hopes the Chinese film sector can learn from its French counterpart which attaches great importance to the protection of national culture and arts.

“In the Latin Quarter in Paris, the cinemas are showing different kinds of cultural movies,” said Gao. “French cinemas are obliged to adopt a quota-based system and set aside a quarter of screenings for domestic cultural films and documentaries.”

The policy has not only satiated those with maturing cinematic tastes, it has also helped foster a world-famous and well respected cinema brand.

“Cinema chains should have to assign quotas for different kinds of movies,” said Gao. “The market has different needs and cinemas can still make money by responding to various audience groups.”

The lack of such quotas has left many cultural film producers quite literally begging for mercy.

When Song of the Phoenix – a cultural film about the inheritance of the trumpet-like folk instrument suona – debuted in May, its producer, Fang Li, felt so frustrated by the “unfair treatment” received by cinema chains that he publically begged for more session of the film to be shown. News reports of Fang bending the knee soon emerged and went viral, saving the production from rotten tomato status.

The future of cultural films in China remains uncertain, but Gao knows one thing for sure: he will never kneel down for the box office.

 

 

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