Chinese comedy eclipses ‘Home Alone’ record, helps country set new, though dubious, holiday box office high

Pang-Chieh Ho gives you the latest news on film and TV in China. See her previous columns here.

Like the Lunar New Year holiday, the weeklong National Day holiday in China has become one of the most important release slots for China’s movie distributors. Over the years, it has displayed amazing box office growth, with ticket revenues spiking a staggering 400 percent from 2012 to 2015, according to China Film Insider. And despite a sluggish performance in 2016, box office growth from this previous National Day holiday fully rebounded, racking up 2.73 billion yuan ($412 million) in ticket sales (not including online ticketing fees), a historic high (link in Chinese) for this time period.

Much like the way Wolf Warriors 2 (战狼二 zhàn láng èr) — now China’s all-time highest-grossing movie as well as China’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2018 Oscars — helped save China’s summer box office, a single movie has emerged as a clear victor and primary contributor to the impressive box office haul over the National Day holiday. Over the nine-day holiday (otherwise known as Golden Week), Never Say Die (羞羞的铁拳 xiū xiū de tiěquán), a body-swapping sports comedy, grossed more than 1.4 billion yuan ($211 million) at the box office. According to Mtime (link in Chinese), this is more than the box office sum of every other movie playing in theaters during the same period.

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Promotional poster for Never Say Die

Produced by Mahua Funage (开心麻花 kāixīn máhuā), a theater troupe and film production company that has delivered surprise hits like 2015’s Golden Week box office champion Goodbye, Mr. Loser (夏洛特烦恼 xià luò tè fánnǎo), Never Say Die has continued to reign strong at China’s box office even after the holiday. The movie’s legginess has made it the third-highest-grossing movie in China (link in Chinese) this year — behind Wolf Warriors 2 and The Fate of the Furious — and, according to Forbes, the biggest single-market comedy worldwide, knocking previous record-holder Home Alone off its perch.

Record ticket sales overshadowed by box office fraud allegations

While the box office receipts were encouraging, the accuracy of those figures has been called into question due to noted irregularities. Sansheng was the first to notice (link in Chinese) that something was amiss with the online bookings of Chasing the Dragon (追龙 zhuī lóng) and the Jackie Chan thriller The Foreigner (英伦对决 yīnglún duìjué). Contrary to pattern, the less desirable seats in those screenings — namely, seats in the first few rows and on the sides — were reserved first, while seats in the middle were left largely available. This odd phenomenon aroused suspicion that many tickets may have been bought by the studios to artificially inflate attendance numbers.

Sansheng also reported (in Chinese) that the fraudulent practice of “ghost screenings” — late-night screenings to empty theaters — was prevalent with Chasing the Dragon. And according to Mtime (link in Chinese), Sky Hunter (空天猎 kōng tiān liè), an aerial warfare film starring Fan Bingbing 范冰冰, may have also inflated its box office numbers. Analysts noted that the daily box office ranking of Sky Hunter often rose to second or third place in the early mornings, only to fall back to fourth and fifth during the evenings, the time when real moviegoers would frequent the theaters. They also noticed that the online ticketing percentage dropped precipitously throughout the holiday, while offline sales remained high. As most Chinese moviegoers prefer purchasing tickets online, the mass purchase of offline movie tickets is usually a sign of box office fraud.

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Promotional photo for Sky Hunter

Box office fraud has, unfortunately, been a long-standing problem dogging China’s movie industry. Last year, the distributor of Ip Man 3 was punished (link in Chinese) by China’s media regulator, the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, for fabricating as much as 32 million yuan ($4.8 million) in ticket receipts. In March, the government amped up its crackdown on box office fraud (link in Chinese), slapping cinemas with steep fines and ordering suspensions of operations for more serious offenders.

Thai youth drama about exam cheating strikes a chord

Never Say Die may have the top spot at the box office, but Thai thriller Bad Genius (天才枪手 tiāncái qiāngshǒu) has also taken China by storm. A film about a straight-A high school student who forms an exam-cheating syndicate, Bad Genius was already the highest-grossing domestic movie in Thailand in 2017 before it debuted in Chinese theaters last week. In its opening weekend, Bad Genius grossed 112 million yuan, five times the box office gross that the movie made in Thailand, and subsequently broke records as the all-time highest-grossing Thai movie in China (link in Chinese).

So what is it about Bad Genius that’s made it such a hit? Part of its success is due to word of mouth — the movie currently has an 8.3 rating on Douban (link in Chinese), one of China’s most popular film review websites — and goodwill from China’s theater owners, who believe that Bad Genius may become as much of a monster hit as Dangal (摔跤吧!爸爸 shuāijiāo ba! bàba) was earlier this year. They have arranged for more screens (link in Chinese) for the movie to be played. Yuledujiaoshou, an outlet tracking innovation in China’s culture industry, has posited (in Chinese) that the short duration between the movie’s initial premiere in Thailand and its China premiere — five months, instead of a year or two, as was the custom with Thai movies in the past — and the fact that nothing had been cut from the film, a rarity among imported movies, helped drum up interest for Bad Genius. Publications like Qdaily have also explained (in Chinese) that the movie’s subject matter, centering on students gaming grueling tests, may have also struck a chord with Chinese audiences all too familiar with a brutal academic exam system and cheating.

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Promotional photo for Bad Genius