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The year 2017 has been a shaky one for Chinese movies. Before the arrival of Wolf Warriors 2 (战狼二 zhàn láng èr), an action film sequel that has become the highest-grossing movie in China’s cinematic history, Hollywood imports were trouncing local films at the box office. In the first half of 2017, domestic movies accounted for merely 38 percent of total box office revenues, a sharp drop from the average 55 percent in the past decade. And even with the game-changing achievements of Wolf Warriors 2, which, alone, is responsible for a fifth of the box office revenues of domestic films, media outlets are predicting that Chinese films will still end up contributing only 52 percent to box office receipts this year, a hair above the take of foreign films.
The unsteady performance of Chinese movies this year may have been what spurred China’s film bureau to announce a new incentive scheme that rewards local theaters for showing more domestic movies. According to the bureau’s latest policy, which comes into effect next year, theaters that derive more than 55 percent of box office receipts from local films will be allowed to keep half of the 5 percent tax imposed on their ticket sales. The rebates are higher for theaters that score higher percentages.
Whether or not the new tax break will actually help Chinese films is to be seen. Variety has pointed out that the policy might inadvertently provide more incentive for theaters to engage in box office fraud, a practice that is still very common in China despite government crackdowns. And according to entertainment outlet Yiyuguancha, theater managers have confided that they will continue to arrange screenings primarily according to market demand, rather than according to the will of the government. The managers also said they believe the best way to support China’s movie industry is not by limiting showings of foreign imports, but by improving production quality and making better pictures that Chinese audiences actually want to watch.
Feng Xiaogang’s Youth delights young and old alike
A few months ago, the fate of Feng Xiaogang’s 冯小刚 latest film, Youth (芳华 fānghuá), seemed uncertain. While the movie was initially slated for release during the National Day holiday weekend, a highly coveted release date for Chinese movies, Youth’s premiere was mysteriously postponed at the last minute. Many speculated that even though Youth had passed China’s censors, its subject matter, which involves members of a military dance troupe being embroiled in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, was still too sensitive for the administration.
The director went on Weibo to reassure fans that no scenes have been excised from the movie to appease the country’s censors. The delayed release doesn’t seem to have affected attendance numbers, either. After opening on December 15, Youth has stayed on top of the box office, and has become Feng Xiaogang’s highest-grossing movie in China.
Youth has also become one of those rare movies that has resonated with both younger and older people in China, which the marketing team has shrewdly seized upon, advertising, “Young people should take their parents and grandparents to see [this film].”
The movie’s nostalgic portrayal of China in the late 1970s has struck a chord with people who lived through that period. And Youth’s universal theme about the evanescence of youth has also made it a movie that is relatable to a younger moviegoing demographic that might otherwise be less knowledgeable of the larger historical contexts presented in the movie.
Coco has made more money in China than all previous Pixar movies combined
Coco, an animated film about a Mexican boy whose aspirations to become a musician leads him to the lands of the dead, isn’t the type of movie that censors like. With its portrayal of ghosts, it easily could have run afoul of China’s rule against movies with supernatural elements or that “promote cults or superstition.” Its chances of box office success also seemed slim, considering Pixar’s poor track record in China — Finding Dory, the studio’s biggest hit, grossed only $39 million.
Pixar’s parent company, Disney, has had more success, with Zootopia holding the record as China’s highest-grossing animated movie, at $230 million. But Coco might be catching up. It has raked in $170 million in ticket sales in China so far, more than the $169 million it has made in North America. Not only has Coco soared past Finding Dory in profitability, but its box office haul is more than the sum of all previous Pixar movies that have been imported to China combined.
What is it about Coco that has made it so appealing to Chinese audiences? The popular consensus seems to be that the movie’s theme about the importance of family and remembering one’s ancestors mirrors many aspects of Chinese culture. And compared with previous Pixar forays like Inside Out, there is less of a cultural barrier for Chinese audiences when watching Coco due to the aforementioned similarities between Chinese and Mexican culture. Also, much like Youth, Coco’s box office success may derive from the fact that it is a family movie with crossover appeal for different generations, and doesn’t just target a narrow demographic.