Opinion leaders like critics may have the final say in the appraisal of a film, but it is the young in provincial cities that increasingly determine the box-office results in the Chinese market.
|Pang Li / China Daily
The boom in China's film market has been quietly shifting from the metropolises to slightly smaller cities — smaller by Chinese standards — with a growing impact on both domestic and imported films and their financial performances.
As late as 2009, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen accounted for 34.3 percent of the Chinese mainland's box-office revenue. But their share has been slipping year by year, dipping to 25.8 percent last year, says EntGroup, an industry research firm. The market in first-tier cities, which also include Chengdu, Wuhan and Chongqing, has been saturated, and new movie theaters are sprouting up in second- and third-tier cities.
The seven first-tier cities still account for nearly 48 percent of all box-office grosses, but the trend is clear: The days when they commanded more than half the market are gone forever.
China is expected to have 18,000 screens by the end of this year, and of the 3,832 screens added last year, about 60 percent were outside first-tier cities. In 2002, China had 1,800 screens, which was about 5 percent of the number in the US. (By screens we mean those in modern, air-conditioned multiplexes, not the old-style multi-purpose auditoriums.) Now, we have climbed over the halfway point in catching up with the US, and the forecast for 2015 is 30,000 screens.
The Chinese media have given a special name to the audience in second- and third-tier cities: "small-town youth". It is a mild put-down, but then even the majority of those who now work in metropolises hail from smaller hometowns. So, the term is somewhat self-deprecating.
This demographic has just been discovered. Their exposure to movies was through pirated disks and online streaming. The experience of sitting in a dark room with state-of-the-art sound and projection technologies and paying for it has been foreign to them. Some new theaters have to resort to deep discounts to entice them. But once they get a taste of this experience, they seem to love it, to the point that they are filling theaters faster than real estate developers and exhibitors can build them.
Small-town youth is a force to be reckoned with, not only in pure numbers, but also in the choice of movies. Frankly, they are not known for being sophisticated. Movies such as Les Miserables or Anna Karenina may not have much attraction, because the fact that they are adapted from literary classics can be a turnoff. In January, when The Grandmaster was drawing big crowds and setting off fireworks of debate in places like Beijing, Wong Kar-wai's martial arts extravaganza was losing to a little comedy called Bring Happiness Home in provincial cities. The latter was not even a good comedy, but it features a cast of popular television hosts.
By the middle of the year it was proven beyond doubt that critical acclaim had little impact on small-town youth. Both Switch and Tiny Times were lambasted in big cites, but were heartily embraced in smaller ones where the audience saw the lavish sets and lifestyles depicted in these movies as sources of aspiration rather than kitschy fantasies.
Other than event movies that create massive ripples throughout the population, low comedy and action movies with known quantities are probably going to be an easy sell to this crowd. Not only will art-house films, like those by Jia Zhangke, be spurned, but regular drama that deals with serious issues are often neglected. When Feng Xiaogang released Back to 1942 last November, a movie that brought to light a sad chapter in Chinese history, a famine that killed 3 million in one province, people just yawned. At an average age of 21, Chinese filmgoers spelled it out in unequivocal terms that they did not want to be bothered by stuff with depth or gravitas. They want to be entertained. And they don't mind if it's cheap or even shoddy.
Hollywood imports could also be a victim of this market shift. Small-town youth do not have much patience for subtitled or dubbed films. And they know only a handful of foreign stars by name. There is a joke about Zhao Wei posing with Leonardo DiCaprio when the latter visited China in September. For those with intimate knowledge of the world entertainment industry, it is clear Zhao got up and asked for the chance. But small-town youth blurted out: "Who's that guy who came to China so he could pose with our sweetheart?"
That is probably why Hollywood is cultivating the habit of casting Chinese stars in cameo roles for their franchise projects. If you have never come across an American comic strip or seen an earlier version of the superhero movie, Fan Bingbing or Li Bingbing looking gorgeous in a few scenes is the only bait that might open your purse strings.
But that token gesture of ingratiation may not be enough for Hollywood to keep trumping its Chinese competitors. So far this year, only Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim are bona fide blockbusters in China, a small minority compared with the half dozen domestic releases that pulled off the feat with a fraction of the typical Hollywood budget.
Hollywood stars are appearing more often in China to plug their movies. But they are perceived as rigid because they stick to the talking points about the movie and refuse to mix their personal life into a cauldron of gossip material. On the other hand, some Chinese stars will do anything to draw public attention, including making up scandals. For small-town youth, the tabloid coverage is clearly weighted in favor of home-made celebrities, who, according to inside sources, are much more difficult and expensive to manage on the promotion circuit.
As the market skews toward the provinces, local stars are making more stops in provincial capital cities where their presence can guarantee headlines. That would not be feasible for Hollywood luminaries, and even when they try they may not replicate the success because they rarely have fan bases on that level. Besides, their wit and humor could be lost in translation and their cultural references would be meaningless to those who cannot tell Katharine Hepburn from Audrey Hepburn.
But all is not doom and gloom for Hollywood. Stars long over the hill in their homeland can find a second life across the Pacific Ocean. Escape Plan, the new jail-breaking thriller starring Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is making a splash in China, where it got an 81-percent positive rating on Mtime, a Chinese movie site, in contrast to 49 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, an American site that aggregates reviews. The reason for the discrepancy is that there is a time warp for small-town youth in China, who may have seen Rambo and the Terminator movies only in recent years. The action stars may be old, but they are fresh in the memory of this demographic. In the US many stars segue into retirement through stints in Las Vegas. In that sense, China is turning into an oversized Vegas where Hollywood has-beens can kick an extra ass and bring in extra dough.
"Small town" China is more and more like Middle America, the holy grail for the film industry, domestic and Hollywood.