Last Saturday, the romance Us and Them (后来的我们 hòulái de wǒmen), a film about the ups and downs of a couple who meet by chance on a train, raked in a handsome $44 million on its debut. Not only did the movie break daily box office gross records for romantic films in China, but its presale ticket revenues also surprised analysts by rivaling Hollywood fare like The Fate of the Furious.
The movie’s illustrious box office sales, however, have now been called into question after local news media reported massive ticket refunds. According to news outlet Mtime, nearly 4,000 theaters had to refund tickets sold online. The amount of total refunds falls between an estimated $2.3 million and $3.1 million.
This immediately sparked suspicion from China’s theater managers. Industry insiders have pointed out that a movie’s refund rate in China averages closer to 0.2 or 0.3 percent. The refund rate of Us and Them, by contrast, was a whopping 6 percent.
Local news media is speculating that many of the movie’s presales was to drum up publicity and create a false impression of high demand. Box office tampering, unfortunately, is still rather common in China. Two years ago, the martial arts film Ip Man 3, starring Donnie Yen, made headlines because its distributor inflated box office figures with “ghost screenings.” While China’s media regulators have vowed to crack down on box office fraud — passing a film industry law that forbids box office data manipulation and penalizing theaters accused of such practices — false reporting on ticket revenues continues.
Maoyan, one of China’s biggest online ticketing platforms and a producer of Us and Them, issued a notice on Sunday morning addressing suspicion that it was behind this latest incident of box office malfeasance. Maoyan stated that it is not responsible for the movie’s inordinately high number of refunds and that it is currently cooperating with authorities to further investigate this matter. The company also said it has never participated in nor does it condone actions that are “disruptive of the market order.” According to Maoyan, 380,000 tickets to Us and Them were purchased via the platform and then refunded on the day of the movie’s premiere.
Later, in a second statement, Maoyan claimed that changes in tickets — for instance, a consumer switching to a different showing of the same movie — accounted for 54 percent of its ticket refunds. The remaining 46 percent, Maoyan believes, may be the doing of ticket scalpers. Entertainment news outlet Yiyuguancha has found both explanations to be wanting and points out that scalping of movie tickets, especially of this scale and with this level of organization, has become increasingly rare in recent years.