Welcome to China Film File, a weekly brief on the business of movies in China. In today’s news: The Monkey King smashes box office records, China’s televised New Year Gala attracts over 814 million viewers, and IMAX faces major complications in China.
This Chinese New Year week saw The Monkey King smash the mainland’s opening day record, pulling in US$41 million at the box office on its first day, and reportedly over $64 million after only four days of release. Furthermore, at $1.8 million in IMAX sales alone, it was also the single biggest recorded IMAX single day in China, dethroning Iron Man 3’s take of $1.5 million. Although The Monkey King has surpassed the $20 million opening day mark set by Journey to the West last Valentine’s Day, reviews of the feature have been less than spectacular. However, this hasn’t stopped plans for an imminent theatrical follow-up.
(Box office results between January 27 and February 2, courtesy of ENT group.)
China’s 814 million Spring Festival Gala viewers make the Super Bowl’s audience of 110 million seem pretty insignificant. With Feng Xiaogang hired as the general director of the ceremony, China’s annual New Year TV extravaganza blasted the U.S. Super Bowl ratings out of the water. While Feng is no stranger to public confrontation with China’s censors and critics, it seems that his presence is still in hot demand by the mainland’s state-run entertainment industry. This isn’t the first time a Chinese film director has been asked by the government to helm a major public event—Zhang Yimou was behind the incredible 2008 Olympics opening ceremony, but judging by his recent one-child policy violation scandal, the famous filmmaker has fallen from public and government favor.
Among a wide range of spectacles, the gala showcased live singing and dancing routines from some of China’s top faces like Tony Leung and Kelly Chan, along with a selection from a Mao-era propaganda ballet called The Red Detachment of Women. Chinese alt-rocker Cui Jian, who recently directed a narrative art film, was invited to perform at the festival, but declined the opportunity without giving further details. The singer is historically known for his presence at the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Also present at the TV festival was French actress Sophie Marceau, who is apparently popular on the mainland because some people believe she looks sort of Chinese.
Director Diao Yinan’s thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice, featuring Taiwanese actress Gwei Lun-mei, has been one of the 20 films nominated for best film at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. While the nomination shows the potential for China’s filmmaking avant-garde to compete in European art circuits, it’s still bittersweet news in light of the severe creative restrictions placed on China’s independent filmmakers.
As IMAX looks to expand into China’s fourth- and fifth-tier cities, it hits a major bump in the road. The company is currently in a legal dispute with former software engineer Gary Tsui, claiming he stole trade secrets during his work at the firm. Coincidentally, China’s colossal theater expansion has already seen the construction of lower-cost, knockoff IMAX screens along with similar 3-D film technology. Now that the U.S.-to-China distributors of the upcoming Robocop reboot have gone straight past the IMAX Corporation and directly to Tsui’s own large-format screen company, IMAX has launched a lawsuit against Tsui to attempt to hold its control over the technology in China. Should the mainland’s own large-format industry take off, it would add yet another difficulty to Hollywood’s ongoing negotiations with the Chinese market, which already include widespread piracy, censorship, major profit cuts, and the manipulation of release dates.
Zhang Yimou has paid his $1.2 million fine for violating China’s one-child policy in one lump sum. Because the kids have been around for years, it’s probable that the director’s fees, totaling $615,000 per kid, indicate some sort falling-out with a Chinese government official—although the story will probably never come to light.
Another record was broken New Year’s week by a film based on hit reality TV show Where Are We Going, Dad? Seizing the record for China’s highest-grossing 2-D opening day with $34 million, Chinese New Year box-office mania has carried over to a film based on a reality show about… parenting. Sending celebrity dads to bond with their children on exotic adventures, the show is so popular that it has prompted many of China’s fathers to reconsider their family role. The show’s educational value has won favor from China’s government and mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily, which has gone as far as to comment that it promotes “a return to family ethics.”