Heading into the traditionally lucrative summer period, China’s censors are in overdrive as two local films with big potential have been yanked from schedules at the 11th hour, while the fate of at least one other hangs in the balance. This is particularly notable given the upcoming frame would typically kick off the Middle Kingdom’s (unofficial) July blackout on Hollywood movies. But winds are now blowing in the opposite direction — and despite the fears of some that Donald Trump’s trade war with China would impact the studios. Instead, and as we’ve previously noted, the big troubles in China are coming from the inside.
Just today, it was confirmed that war epic The Eight Hundred has stepped off of its July 5 date, after being pulled as the opening night showcase of the Shanghai Film Festival earlier this month. The July 5 change was expected, and there is currently no word on what the $80M Huayi Brothers pic’s future will be. Apart from putting Huayi in a potentially dangerous position after it took a $100M loan from Alibaba earlier this year, it also means that the home market will not get a boost from what was built to be a blockbuster.
Even with a box office downturn in China this year, and despite the market’s goal to overtake North America at the biggest in the world as soon as 2020, there is a perceived desire on the part of the government to maintain a positive image at home before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1. This, coupled with the Fan Bingbing tax scandal of last year, which led to a production slowdown and caution on the part of Chinese companies and investors, is seen as the main culprit.
There’s potential upside for Hollywood in the machinations of the Middle Kingdom powers-that-be as the Central Propaganda Department has rubber stamped studio movies at an unprecedented level for the month of July, de facto kiboshing the annual blackout and freeing up screens.
Perhaps benefiting from the politics of it all are such films as Spider-Man: Far From Home which no longer has Better Days in its path (see below), as well as The Secret Life Of Pets 2 which won’t have The Eight Hundred to contend with. Further, Disney’s The Lion King is going a week early in China, on July 12. And, it’s possible other Hollywood movies continue to be welcomed throughout the summer. As I’ve previously written, the most likely scenario is that September will be closed to outside titles as precedence is given to such movies as The Climbers starring Wu Jing and Jackie Chan.
China is still believed to be very focused on being the biggest global market as soon as possible, and despite earlier concerns about market share is, reluctantly perhaps, ok to forfeit that. Recall that China keeps 75% of turnstiles and gets the downstream revenue as well. Studios, on the other hand, are said to be pleased with day-and-date (or earlier) releases as they soften risks of piracy (although an early China date can throw a wrench into record global opening proclamations).
Typically, China doesn’t say why it strikes release plans, though the usual response is “technical reasons.” That was the case when The Eight Hundred was pulled from Shanghai. Today’s announcement provided no reasoning for the cancelling of the release date. It is thought, however, that the film was sending a political message that was not acceptable to key members of the Chinese military regarding revolutionary history. Says USC professor Stanley Rosen, “Current and future generations would come away from this film with the wrong understanding of the roles of the (Communist Party of China) CCP and the (military arm of Kuomintang) KMT in fighting the Japanese.”
Also this week, another highly-anticipated film, Better Days, was taken off its June 28 debut. I hear that among the vast number of ministries required to approve its release, there was reticence from the education authorities because the movie is too realistic in its depiction of sexual assault and bullying.
Industry people I’ve spoken with wonder why and how films get made if they are ultimately too risky for the government to approve in the final stages. I’m told that even if OKs are given when a production begins, it takes only one high-ranking official to stop plans in their tracks. Says Rosen, “Even when a script is approved and the film is completed, that is not the end of the process. As we’ve seen on numerous occasions, all it takes is for one senior official to derail the process, even when the costs are high.”
In the case of The Eight Hundred, Rosen adds, “China is trying to do many things at the same time with its film industry, but they are often contradictory, particularly when politics enters the picture. Major goals, a number of which would have been met by this film, can be sacrificed quite arbitrarily in a country ruled by individuals, not by law.”
He sounds an optimistic note, of sorts, “Ironically, as a result of this fiasco, it’s at least possible that there will be enough pushback for censorship in other film genres to ease a bit, to restore some morale in the industry since they still have goals to meet.”
That includes having local releases get at least 50%+ share each year and to surpass North America as the world’s biggest market by 2020 or 2021.
Still on deck for China this summer in terms of local films are two titles that could also benefit from a lack of other homegrown fare. Looking Up screened to positive reaction at the Shanghai Film Festival. It releases July 26. But even The Last Wish, another anticipated offering, today went through a local name change. It’s still The Last Wish in English, but its Chinese title went from the equivalent of The Great Wish to The Little Wish. I’m told that’s because the designation “great” can only be used to describe the Communist Party, the nation’s leader or the nation itself. It may or may not release on July 18.
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