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Talking Pictures

Leading a record-breaking box office summer, Chinese films addressing social issues outshined Hollywood blockbusters thanks to social media buzz, which experts say could dictate the themes of future films

By Yi Ziyi , Li Jing Updated Dec.1

Moviegoers attend the premiere of Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, Shanghai, July 18, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

One more viewer, one less fraud victim.”  

The poster tagline for crime film No More Bets caught the eye of a nearly 70-year-old woman as she passed Shenying International Cinema on Xueyuan South Road in Beijing. She touched her husband’s arm and said, “Dear, we have to see this.”  

Their interaction impressed Li Huyu, the cinema’s marketing manager. Films released during the summer season, which lasts from June 1 to August 30, usually target students and young adults. But those in this summer attracted audiences of all ages, Li told NewsChina.  

This year’s summer domestic box office took in 20.6 billion yuan (US$2.8b), smashing the previous record, set prior to the pandemic, in 2019 of 17.8 billion (US$2.5b). According to statistics from data provider Beacon Professional, numbers of screenings and moviegoers this summer season reached all-time highs.  

Four domestic productions each raked in more than 2 billion yuan (US$277m), while animated feature Chang An earned 1.83 billion yuan (US$254m). These five movies account for two-thirds of the summer’s total box office revenues.  

Despite different genres, social issues such as cyber scams, marriage fraud, women’s rights, hyper-competitive schooling and aging society play leading roles in their stories. Chinese media coined the term “topical films” to describe movies that spark heated discussions on social media. 

China’s National Day holiday (September 29-October 6) saw similar turnout. According to film ticketing platform Maoyan, movie theaters took in 2.7 billion yuan (US$380m) at the holiday box office, 83 percent more than in 2022, and attracted over 65 million viewers, an increase of 80 percent over the same period.  

Ranging in genre from true crime to romance and fantasy, topical movies were a large part of the draw. In contrast with these domestic productions, which are driving the film industry’s post-Covid recovery, tried-and-true Hollywood franchises seem to be losing their grip on the China market.  

Back in Theaters
“It was a miracle that none of us ever imagined,” Li Huyu said. “The majority of those in the industry, including me, had been quite conservative about the market’s recovery. Eighty percent of the summer box office in 2019 would have already been a big success. But now it’s highly probable this year’s total box office may surpass 60 billion yuan (US$8.2b), and even break the all-time record,” Li told NewsChina. So far, 2019 marks the most successful year for China’s film industry with box office revenue of 64.2 billion (US$8.8b).  

This summer, a succession of diverse domestic films became major hits, such as suspense thriller Lost in Stars, crime action film No More Bets, martial arts blockbuster Never Say Never, fantasy epic Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms, animated feature Chang An, romantic drama Love Never Ends and dance-fueled coming-of-age story One and Only.  

“If movie offerings are homogenous, audiences will likely choose the most popular one and skip the rest. But if they are diverse in genre, audiences of different ages, tastes and inclinations can pick their favorites. Such diversity would also attract people who don’t go to movies regularly,” Li told NewsChina.  

Wang Zheng, chairman of the Beijing Central Spring Theater Management Company, told NewsChina another factor behind the recent box office success are films that “emotionally strike a chord with Chinese audiences.”  

Films with a focus on social issues, such as Lost in the Stars and No More Bets, gained traction on short-video sharing platforms like Douyin (China’s TikTok).  

Pulling in 3.5 billion yuan (US$479m), mystery crime film Lost in the Stars is based on a true crime story about a husband who pushed his pregnant wife off a cliff in Thailand in 2019 as part of a life insurance scam. Released on June 22, the film resonated with younger Chinese audiences, who are increasingly skeptical toward traditional relationships and marriage.  

On social media, viewers discussed the film’s topics such as marriage fraud, domestic abuse and the potential risks of a mismatched relationship. Some called it “a film to correct a hopeless romantic.”  

Released on August 8, No More Bets tackles the prevalence of cyber scams. Based on real cases, the film revolves around two youths lured overseas by lucrative job offers, only to be held hostage and forced to engage in criminal activities.  

Told from the perspectives of criminals, victims and police, No More Bets explores the inner workings of fraud organizations that target Chinese citizens from overseas. Police stations and banks organized free screenings to raise awareness about types of online fraud, from romance scams to investment schemes. People posted to social media about buying tickets for their parents or grandparents to raise their awareness.  

Despite their modest budgets and production values, No More Bets and Lost in the Stars quickly became the most-discussed films on social media and topped the summer box office season.  

Also based on a true story, Never Say Never tells of story of underprivileged teens who change their fates through boxing. Romantic drama Love Never Dies deals with issues surrounding China’s rapidly aging society through the stories of two elderly couples. The realistic drama The Woman in the Storm focuses on domestic violence and women’s rights, while Papa explores how tiger parenting fuels China’s highly competitive attitudes toward education.  

“To some extent, these films have become a kind of mouthpiece for audiences to express their feelings and opinions,” Wang Zheng told NewsChina. “They evoke an acute sense of empathy, and such feelings might drive them to recommend the film to friends.”  

Such recommendations may have further boosted box office numbers. According to statistics from Beacon Professional, 52.7 percent of this summer’s moviegoers had visited theaters for the first time this year.  

Movie posters for Lost in Stars, No More Bets, and Barbie

Hollywood Gets Cold
In contrast, Hollywood offerings saw lukewarm receptions. Titles approved for release in China such as Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, Shazam! and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever underperformed during the Chinese New Year holiday season in February.  

The industry held high hopes in June for three Hollywood blockbusters – Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, all of which fell short of expectations.  

The Transformers series once meant surefire success in the Chinese market. In 2009 and 2014, it twice broke records in China as the highest-grossing film of all time. Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), earned 1.97 billion yuan (US$270m), exceeding US revenues. Latest installment Rise of the Beasts made only 655 million yuan (US$90m), roughly one-third of its Chinese mainland box office total in 2014.  

Even Tom Cruise failed to charm Chinese audiences. Despite its extended screening schedule from July 14 to September 14, Dead Reckoning Part One brought in 349 million yuan (US$48m), a paltry sum compared to the previous Mission Impossible installment, Fallout (2018), which made 1.24 billion yuan (US$170m) in China. In comparison, teen hip-hop dance movie One and Only grossed 911 million (US$125m) in the two months since its release on July 28. In another example, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny grossed $382 million worldwide, to which the Chinese market only contributed $3.3 million.  

“Many have noticed the dwindling impact of Hollywood in China. The tendency is not merely due to the unsatisfying quality of certain films, but more because of the overall declining influence, appeal and even reputation of Hollywood among younger generations in China. People no longer believe that… Hollywood productions are automatically better than domestic movies,” film critic Mu Yi told our reporter.  

Netizens attribute the change to the repetitive narratives and tropes in Hollywood franchises, a decline in quality and lack of content that resonates culturally.  

Li Huyu said mainstream Chinese audiences are less loyal to franchises or celebrities than before. “People have become more rational, particularly after what they have been through over the past three years during the pandemic. They consider word of mouth,” Li told NewsChina.  

But China has not dismissed Hollywood altogether. Among its releases this summer, the Greta Gerwig-directed film Barbie and Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer won critical and audience acclaim.  

Though Barbie dolls were never very popular in China, Barbie penetrated the country’s public discourse unlike other Hollywood movies. Addressing feminism and gender issues – both among the most-discussed topics on Chinese social media, Barbie grossed only 252 million yuan (US$34.5m), partly due to its limited screenings. However, the film garnered acclaim from younger Chinese moviegoers, earning a rating of 8.1/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review website.  

Praised for its complex characters, storytelling and editing, eponymous biopic Oppenheimer grossed 439 million yuan (US$60m) in China and ratings of 8.9 on Douban. Articles about the theoretical physicist’s life and his work on the atomic bomb circulated on Chinese social media to provide more context about the film.  

People wait for a screening of Chang An to begin at a theater, Shanghai, July 13, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Buzz Builders 
In an interview with the Shanghai Observer, Tang Weijie, deputy president of the Shanghai Film Critics Association, said changes in media consumption habits over the last decade – particularly social media – are driving the success of topical movies in China and decreased interest in Hollywood films.  

“Many in film production are young people with an acute sense of the latest youth trends,” Tang said. “During pre-production, from subject selection to screenwriting and casting, the film already has great potential to be discussed in new media. Some producers even rely on big data to determine the film’s subject,” he said.  

Many speculate that more studios will produce mid-budget films about high-profile social issues that create buzz on social platforms – a trend that has caused some concern among some in the industry.  

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a film insider told NewsChina: “A film should be the thing that sparks discussions on social issues. But if producers and screenwriters adopt a topic-oriented way of filmmaking that depends on which social issue they believe will attract the largest audiences, then that’s putting the cart before the horse.”  

However, Tang Weijie said the jury is still out. “The market needs more diverse movies. We still have film festivals as a way to adjust the film market. All these years, platforms such as the Shanghai International Film Festival have discovered and nurtured young independent filmmakers, enriched the market with films of various genres and styles, and improved audiences’ aesthetic tastes. I don’t think topical movies will dominate the future market,” Tang said.