[Viewpoint] How a blockbuster succeeds in China

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[Viewpoint] How a blockbuster succeeds in China

In Hollywood, few things are less certain than whether a summer movie will become a blockbuster and earn back its investment.

But in China, where the summer movie season has become a fixture for the country’s small number of paying moviegoers, the spirit of central economic planning has brought a bit of predictability to the new Chinese film, “Beginning of a Great Revival” (also sometimes translated as “The Founding of a Party”).

The film is a star-studded epic that recounts the origins of the Chinese Communist Party and is part of a nationwide campaign to celebrate the party’s 90th anniversary.

It is also the second installment in the ruling party’s epic franchise about itself - episode one was “The Founding of a Republic,” which was shown in 2009.

Box office expectations in China, at least for this kind of film, aren’t a matter of prophecy - they’re predetermined. The head of China’s State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has demanded that Great Revival earn “no less than one billion yuan ($154.4 million),” a Chinese box office record.

How can its producers meet this goal? With a little help.

Journalist Wang Xing, of the independent Southern Metropolis Daily in Guangzhou, southeastern China, reports on the Sina Weibo microblog:

“In Pi County of Chengdu, the ticket price for ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’ is 15 or 25 yuan, but the price of ‘Beginning of a Great Revival’ is at least 30 yuan, and the Bureau of Education requires 80 percent of the party members to watch the movie. The Bureau of Education in Kai County of Chongqing explicitly listed students in primary and middle school as the target audience ... Now you should believe that it will earn one billion [yuan] at the box office.”

Meanwhile, according to local and international news reports, state-owned corporations and local party units have bought up tickets for screenings across China for their employees and members, who are required to attend.

To reduce competition for Great Revival, foreign films - such as the wildly popular Kung Fu Panda 2, an American film that one influential Chinese commentator recently called “the greatest and noblest [cultural] invader in history” - have been pulled from Chinese screens.

If the push to ensure that Great Revival is an unrivaled success sounds a bit anachronistic for a country that embraced - and still embraces, according to Shanghai’s pirate DVD salesmen - Kung Fu Panda, well, it kind of is.

The celebrations surrounding the 90th anniversary of the party are undeniably retro in many respects.

Besides Great Revival, they include a slew of television programs, news reports and speechifying, collectively designed to revive “red values” - something in which most Chinese under the age of 40 have a limited interest, at best. However, compared to some 90th anniversary machinations, the actual film is positively 21st century.

There are, according to Xinhua News Agency, 178 actors in Great Revival, including a who’s who list of Chinese cinema stars (like director John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, also known to American audiences), all of whom agreed to do the film for a pittance.

The mavens behind Great Revival have more media savvy than other Chinese opinion-makers. Take, for example, Zhang Hongyu from the party mouthpiece People’s Daily. In his editorial, “Why Red Books Sell,” he writes:

“Books about the [Chinese Communist Party] are not necessarily dull and uninteresting. People can ... improve their own personality and broaden their knowledge by reading ‘Li Lanqing’s Seal Carving Art’ ... Furthermore, the comic strips about the battles against foreign invaders in the last century can remind people of their childhood.”

But who wants to explore the charms of “Li Lanqing’s Seal Carving Art” and comic strips about yesteryear’s wars when they can watch a star-studded cast in IMAX 3-D?

That noted, initial reaction to Great Revival has been mixed. For example, tweeting on the Sina Weibo microblog, Hu Chenchen calls the film “corny,” suggests that its reception will be poor and - even more damning - notes “some parts of the story misread history and disrespect the Revolutionary Period.”

Other microbloggers, like Cai Jingxue, chairman of a real estate brokerage, use the film as an opportunity to contrast what they perceive as the party’s contemporary failings with its heroic revolutionary beginnings.

Cai tweets: “In the evil old [pre-Communist Party] society, land is private, grains and vegetable are nontoxic and harmless ... [At] that time, neighbors knew each other, children could have innocent playmates, and a man could marry a firsthand wife and their wedding night would be real ... My thoughts after I watch ‘Birth of a Great Revival.’ ”

And author Tan Biaoxi arrives at what the party must believe is precisely the unequivocally, totally wrong message to take away from Great Revival:

“It tells us that even though some things are illegal and adventurous at a certain time, so long as we persist, they will become great deeds. So it is more of an inspirational film than a documentary.”

Great Revival has its prominent defenders. One of them is Hu Xijin, the hyper-nationalist editor-in-chief of the Global Times. In a single tweet, he addresses the film’s critics:

“Although there is some discontent on the Web, the active and enthusiastic participation of the stars is real, and epitomizes the attitude of society toward the ruling party.

“This not only reflects the power of the Communist Party of China, but also reflects a general positive evaluation from Chinese society to the historical status of the Communist Party.”

Perhaps in response to Hu’s tweet, freelancer Fu Guoyang tweets about what might have been the true motivation for so many stars agreeing to appear in the film: “Now, perhaps someone is tasting the sweetness of power ... power can make directors like Woo John, and actors like Chow Yun-fat bow their heads.”

The fervid microblogged rhetoric generated by Great Revival is nothing special in China these days, though it may seem so to foreigners.

All day long, China’s netizens are busy tweeting similarly inflamed language on plenty of issues more consequential than a bloated epic film.

Still, the unsettling question remains: just how much of this will the Chinese authorities tolerate?

*The writer is Bloomberg’s Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog.

By Adam Minter
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