Goodbye icecream, hello I stream

Updated: 2014-09-13 07:19

By Raymond Zhou(China Daily)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

The trend for domestic films in the past few years skews toward low comedy and so-called fan-based fare, i.e. works by new directors who have already built a massive fan base elsewhere. This has worried a lot of experts, such as Professor Yin Hong of Tsinghua University, who argues that box-office success does not exempt a film from criticism. Earlier he sparred with the creative team of The Breakup Guru, a slapstick comedy that raked in 666 million yuan ($109 million) at the box office during the 2014 summer season. Last year, in the capacity of a film critic, I found myself in an even worse standoff with the huge fan base of The Tiny Times franchise. Yin and I were arguing these are not paragons of film art, but their supporters invariably used box-office figures as the yardstick of excellence.

Movies on the festival circuit are exactly the opposite of what most Chinese filmgoers want. Or more precisely, China's cinemas would not want to screen the kind of titles favored by film festivals around the world. Just look at the results of The Artist and The King's Speech and you will understand that festival or award gold does not translate into box-office gold, at least not in China.

Yet, these movies are watched by many people in China. The problem is that they watch them online and from websites unscrupulous about the legitimacy of licensing. China has the world's largest Internet user base, 632 million people, and the largest mobile user base, 537 million people. As of June, most of these people were in the habit of watching streaming video content. For a whole new generation, a movie is something you stream or download, unless you have sufficient reason to trek across town and buy a ticket.

I have always believed that, with a proper licensing and payment structure, the online platform could be ideal for art house titles that have a loyal but geographically dispersed following. Even though cinephiles cherish the theatrical experience, it is a lot to ask in a country like China to gather a crowd of a certain size at a specified time and place. The biggest stumbling blocks, as I see it, lie in the elitist mentality of some filmmakers and the potential threat posed by the shifting quicksand of regulation.

If one has to choose between 2,000 viewers for a release, a respectable number for a couple of festival screenings, and 100 times that number of online viewers, many would choose screenings as it embodies prestige. In China, theatrical distribution also bumps a film to a higher asking-price bracket for television broadcast. Last year, iQiyi crossed a milestone when it achieved the highest ratings ever recorded for a television series when it streamed You Who Came from The Stars, a South Korean soap opera that garnered 2 billion clicks, twice the ratings as the highest rated broadcast series of the same time.