China’s government this week waded into a feud between the film industry and review websites that have panned some of the country’s biggest budget movies, censuring critiques and saying the sites are “malicious and irresponsible”.
Topping off a year of lacklustre films and slow ticket sales, the intervention was meant to bolster confidence in China’s ability to generate blockbusters. China’s goal is to catch up to the US box office, which topped $11bn in 2016, according to the site boxofficemojo.com.
Most industry insiders attributed the slowdown in sales to poor content in 2016 — others to China’s economic slowdown.
“There have been no appealing movies this year,” said Jennifer Dong, chairwoman and founder of Beijing-based Meridian Entertainment.
While some had hoped for an end-of-year blockbuster to turn 2016 around, this has failed to materialise. The Great Wall, a fantasy epic starring Matt Damon and an all-star Chinese cast, See You Tomorrow produced by Jack Ma’s start-up film studio Alibaba Pictures Group, and Railroad Tigers, a Jackie Chan action comedy, have been criticised on social media and by mainstream reviewers. The three movies had received scores of 4.9, 4.4 and 5.8 out of 10, respectively, as of Thursday on the movie review site, Douban.
But with China’s film industry a matter of national prestige, China’s Communist Party has tried to rescue the reputations of its big budget film makers, dismissing critics and in many cases censoring articles that slate Chinese films. On Wednesday the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, targeted Chinese film review sites like Douban and Yanmao for “grossly inaccurate” reviews.
“Although these films do have defects in terms of their artistic quality, what cannot be ignored is that certain verified users, public figures, and bloggers, in order to attract fans, draw public attention, and increase online traffic, have posted malicious and irresponsible remarks,” the People’s Daily said, adding that they were damaging the “ecology” of China’s film industry.
[Chinese theatre goers] don’t want escapism. They are looking to cut costs and a visit to the theatre is still relatively expensive here.
On Wednesday, an article defending Douban’s rankings by movie critic He Yan on two social media accounts, was taken down by censors.
Douban’s chief executive, Yang Bo, stood his ground, responding to the People’s Daily onslaught in a statement saying the site had been reviewing films for 10 years and “we will continue to protect the public’s trust for Douban’s scoring system with great sincerity”.
By Thursday, Yanmao had disabled part of its website that makes professional critics’ reviews available and amalgamates their scores. Yanmao declined to respond to questions from the FT.
Reviewers have reserved special ire for The Great Wall, a joint production by China’s property and entertainment conglomerate, Dalian Wanda, and its newly purchased US film studio, Legendary Entertainment (Now Legendary East). It stars Mr Damon as an English mercenary in medieval China battling mythological monsters.
While the film has generated Rmb886m since opening in mid-December, critics have been unkind. “No innovation, almost everything is cliché,” said Cai Xiaoma, a critic on the question and answer site, Zhihu. The film has also been criticised for, among other things, casting a white actor (Damon) as the lead in a Chinese film.
Zhang Yimou, The Great Wall’s director, whose other films include the 2004 House of the Flying Daggers, told an interviewer that Chinese reviewers had double standards for domestic versus foreign films. “As the Chinese proverb goes, ‘foreign monks give better sermons’. This is what I feel particularly,” he said.
Another reason for China’s underwhelming 2016 box office is the slowing economy. While ticket sales in the US have historically risen at times of economic hardship — the 1930s Great Depression was the golden age of Hollywood, for example — Chinese theatre goers are more practical.
“They don’t want escapism,” said Ms Dong. “They are looking to cut costs and a visit to the theatre is still relatively expensive here.”