Chinese filmmakers are losing touch with audiences, is there a turning point ahead?

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/15 19:43:40

Foreigners are baffled by how poor quality Chinese films earn hundreds of millions at the box office. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Jarome Matthew, a 36-year-old Canadian who has been in Beijing for seven years, has been increasingly disappointed at the theaters lately.

As a moviegoer who has watched many Chinese films, he thinks that there have been few good Chinese movies out this year.

The last Chinese film he watched is Book of Love (2016), a romance that starred Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo, which was released on April 29.

"It is a terrible movie. The writer assumes that audience will believe ridiculous things that make no sense," said Matthew, who works as a music producer and also does sound design for films. "Chinese filmmakers are not experienced in this movie genre (romance). Watch Pretty Woman (1990) or The Notebook (2004) and compare it to Book of Love, you might know what I want to say."

China's film industry has seen tremendous growth in box office revenue. Recent years have seen several domestic films breaking box office records. For example, Breakup Buddies (2014) was the highest earner in 2014 with 1.1 billion yuan. Monster Hunt (2015) earned 2.4 billion yuan ($0.36 billion) at the box office, the highest among all the films nationwide in 2015, according to, a popular social media platform in China.

However, according to a China Culture Daily report, starting from April, the growth of the movie market has slowed down with a slip at the box office compared with 2015. July and August are the designated "domestic film protection months" this year. During these months, fewer foreign films are released, so box office growth is usually expected. However, this time around there seems to be a trending decline following the earlier months, which has aroused public concern that China's film market is approaching a turning point.

Foreigners and film practitioners in China interviewed by Metropolitan think that the influx of hot capital in China's film industry has led to a proliferation of subpar movies. According to them, the slowdown might be a sign that audiences have developed more mature tastes, and there is still cause to be optimistic about China's film market.

Western vs Chinese logic

Matthew thinks that many of the Chinese films he has seen make no sense and are very poorly directed.

Sometimes, he would ask his Chinese friends why this is such a common problem. They told him that no matter how bad a Chinese movie is, a lot of people will still watch it.

"I totally cannot understand it. It is ridiculous," he said.

His friends' theory has been proven on many occasions. According to's rating system, Chinese films such as Skiptrace (2016), Forever Young (2015), and Tiny Times 4 (2015) scored poorly among filmgoers and critics, but they still made a considerable amount of money at the box office: 0.8, 0.3, and 0.4 billion yuan respectively.

"Many Chinese [screenwriters], especially those for romantic films, seem to think they can have a very wide creative license, and the audience will believe anything they decide to write," he said.

Matthew also thinks that Chinese fantasy, adventure, science fiction and animated films are really immature and underdeveloped, perhaps partly because they're more difficult to make, and certain topic restrictions in China make creating a good plot difficult, he said.

Last year, he really looked forward to Monster Hunt (2015), a fantasy movie that was directed by Raman Hui and released on July 16. However, although the film got the highest box office that year, after watching it, he was very disappointed.

"Though there was a lot of creativity in this movie, many of the characters were not likable, and the story dragged on instead of having a logical sequence of events. It seemed confused about exactly what story it was trying to tell," said Matthew.

Ker Zheng, a 26-year-old American-born Chinese who has been in China for four years, has also been slightly disappointed with the commercialization of Chinese movies.

"A lot of Chinese movies are commercialized and have poor plot and character development and poor acting, but still generate a lot of money at the box office," said Zheng.

Zheng tends to follow more "serious" films such as those by Jia Zhangke, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.

"They do a good job of laying out society's issues, and their works are a lot deeper. The cinematography and camerawork are also great," he said. "I find that most of my Chinese friends are less interested in these types of films and oftentimes have never watched some of the older classic films by them."

Matthew thinks one reason some poor quality Chinese movies still garner relatively high box office revenue might be that Chinese filmgoers are quite new and not very experienced. This gives the industry a lot of leeway to put out pretty much anything, and people will still watch it and even like it, he said.

Jason Lau, the managing director of Magnum Films, an Australia-based releasing company for Chinese movies, said that even if Chinese critics trashed a film, many people would still flock to the cinemas to see how bad it is or just to follow their favorite stars, which in turn creates a pretty good box office despite the poor quality.

"Over the past few years, any film that is okay, decent or has some big names in it will sell like hotcakes in China," he said.

Quantity over quality

Film practitioners interviewed by Metropolitan attribute the lack of good quality Chinese movies to the fact that driven by too much capital, the market strives for quantity over quality.

John Dietz, a Beijing-based American producer and visual effects supervisor moved to China eight years ago to capitalize on the demand for professional visual effects technology in the Chinese market. Over the years, Dietz, who has a Hollywood background, worked on Chinese films including League of Gods (2016) and Lost in Hong Kong (2015). He started his own company, BangBang, in 2015.

"Everyone knows that China's film market is booming. Even Hollywood eyes it. This has not only caused budgets to get higher but also a race to make more movies at a quicker pace. Therefore, you have a lot of great filmmakers producing bigger films with a huge added technical complexity in shorter timeframes, or you have inexperienced people filling the need for so much new content," said Dietz. "Too much of the market is driven by the current influx of money. Many filmmaking decisions are more business based than quality based."

According to a Guangzhou Daily report in August, so far there are around 30 investment funds focused on the film and TV industry in China, with a cumulative budget of tens of billions of yuan.

Lau agrees.

Any industry would have up and down moment; it is natural for every business cycle. Over the past few years, Chinese films have been doing very well at their local box office, and it has attracted many new investors into the market, he said.

Lau added that with record-breaking results, new cinemas and screens keep opening almost daily in China. He said Chinese filmgoers now have more choices and have become "more discerning about Chinese films."

A less desirable result of the boom, Lau said, is box office manipulation. He said some investment companies, who have no filmmaking background but heavily invest in films, now may even manipulate the domestic box office.

"They could simply buy into their own box office to make the numbers look good on their financial report, which has encouraged a box office bubble," said Lau. "This will harm China's film market a lot because it will give investors false information, which might result in bad investment and decision-making, making the bubble bigger and bigger. Until one day, it would burst if box office fraud is not stopped." 

In March, the distributor of IP Man 3 (2016), Beijing Max Screen, admitted to buying tickets in bulk to inflate its box office, Xinhua reported in March. Never Gone (2016), which was released in July, was also under public scrutiny, suspected of buying tickets to boost its box office, the Beijing Youth Daily reported in July.

Box office fraud can harm the credibility of the whole film industry, and even erode the confidence of filmgoers, which is part of the reason for the current box office slump, Lau said.

More authentic plots wanted

Despite the proliferation of poor quality Chinese movies, foreigners still enjoy quite a few Chinese films. Foreign moviegoers interviewed by Metropolitan think that Chinese filmmakers should focus on making good films with Chinese features to reflect contemporary life in China.

Matthew's favorite Chinese movie is Lost in Thailand (2012). Recalling the antics of the lead characters, Matthew said the film shows the true spirit of Chinese people.

"I cannot understand some of the Chinese humor well, but the humor of a crazy Chinese guy in an exotic foreign country is funny. That's why the movie was so successful," he said. The movie made 1.2 billion yuan at the box office.

Similarly, Zheng finds a few domestic films such as Monster Hunt (2015) and Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015) noteworthy because they are quite original and not something you would see in the US.

"They both have uniquely Chinese humor and storylines. Goodbye Mr. Loser is a bit of a critique on Chinese society and its growing obsession with money, among other things, and it's quite funny," said Zheng.

Terry Visser, a Netherlander who has been in Beijing for over five years, is fond of Mr. Six (2015). For him, the film shows the changing times through symbolism and storytelling. "It is a very deep and touching movie in many aspects," said Visser.

He prefers films that relate to real-life situations and emotions.

"I would look forward to a movie that's innovative and related to the life of the everyday Chinese, how China has become influenced, how China has changed, and how Chinese people really think and feel," said Visser, adding, "I don't think Hollywood always produces good movies either. [They are sometimes] too predictable and have too much unreal action. I think both countries could use more real-life stories that people can learn from or be motivated by."

Despite everything, Matthew is still looking forward to watching Time Raiders (2016) which was released on August 5. By August 12, the film had made over 0.7 billion yuan at the box office.

"Stories based on China's ancient mythology are very interesting. I hope that filmmakers try to find their own, creative way to do things for the local audience," he said.

Newspaper headline: Box office busts

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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