Today, we’re focusing on a story in China’s Time Weekly about the emergence of the horror genre in Chinese cinema.
First, I will paraphrase the article, then add in my own thoughts in italics
- Between the releases of BEGINNING OF GREAT REVIVAL and TRANSFORMERS was a little horror film called MYSTERIOUS ISLAND. How was this film, which cost only five million yuan to make (compared to REVIVAL’s 70 million yuan and WU XIA’s reported 110 million yuan), managed to make an astonishing 90 million yuan at the box office?
In the last two years, the horror genre has been finding success at the Chinese box office. However, the article also points out that horror films tend to gross only around 10-20 million yuan at the box office. Even the most successful example before ISLAND was MIDNIGHT BEATING, which surprised many by grossing 32 million yuan.
Despite these seemingly low grosses, horror films have actually been very profitable for Chinese investors. The articles points out several recent examples: THE DESERTED INN cost three million yuan and grossed 23.6 million yuan, LOST IN PANIC ROOM cost 4.5 million yuan and grossed 24.5 million yuan, and the PARANORMAL ACTIVITY-style horror film NO.32, B DISTRICT cost a total of 4 million yuan (including advertising) for a total gross of 17 million yuan. In fact, insiders put the actual production budget of NO. 32 B, B DISTRICT (which takes place almost entirely in one house and shot on digital cameras) at just around 100,000 yuan.
That’s why ISLAND producer Liu Jing said that he would’ve actually been perfectly satisfied with a 40 million yuan gross. Instead, Liu is now seeing a mega hit on his hands, and his efforts here is definitely something that other producers should learn from. Specifically, what set Liu’s film apart from the other recent Chinese horror films is the amount of calculations in put into the film.
Specifically, he examined Hollywood’s low-cost horror model and the elements that made those films so profitable in the United States, particularly its clear target at the teen audience and their low-risk budgets.
For MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, the production company first looked for a Hong Kong director (”they have more experience with horror than China [directors]”) that wasn’t necessarily a big name, but is experienced in genre (that’s where Rico Chung Kai-Cheong came in). Then, the filmmakers and production met and agreed on using several clear selling point for the film: a mid-summer release date, pretty people, girls in bikinis, and an isolated island.
The horror….the horror…
This is where Mini Yang came in. However, Yang wasn’t to be the sole selling point of the film. After all, television drama PALACE, Yang’s breakout success, had not yet been aired, and she was actually cast early on in the process because she was a talent signed under investor Mei Ah. Instead, Yang was just part of the “girls in bikini” selling point that also include Anya, Maggie Lee, and other hotties.
However, in a stroke of incredible luck and good timing, PALACE was released, and Yang’s Weibo popularity shot from 1.2 million followers when she was cast to 7 million at the time of release. In fact, many of those fans actually successfully organized mass ticket buying campaigns on the internet, which likely helped its opening weekend gross by quite a bit.
Even though the beginning of the new Chinese horror trend can be traced back to 2007 with MIDNIGHT TAXI (a 2 million yuan budget for a 13 million yuan gross), the article also pointed out that horror films actually had hit a period of popularity in 1999 with a series of films by Agan (TWO STUPID EGGS, DON QUIXOTE). However, after a string of horror hits, the director left the genre in 2004 and began making comedies instead.
The article explains that Agan left because of the multiple obstacles facing the horror genre right now: Even though they made money, recent horror hits are often lambasted by both critics and audiences. On Douban, MIDNIGHT TAXI is averaging only 3.5 out of 10, DESERTED INN averages a 4.2, MIDNIGHT BEATING has a 3.3, and NO. 32, B DISTRICT is the stinker of the year with just a 2.4 average. Even MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, with its mobilized Mini Yang fans, could only earn a 3.3 average so far.
While the audiences blame the film’s scripts, the article says that the scriptwriters blame the censorship authority. While there is no official law that films in China cannot feature ghosts, it has become an unwritten law that all filmmakers understand. Even though a producer says that this “rule” isn’t the kiss of death for the genre (”You can still tell a good story while following the law for horror films. The problem with many horror film scriptwriters is that they lack imagination,” says the producer), Agan says, “Chinese horror films are all scams. The censorship rules are obvious, so can you actually make a horror that’s suitable for all audiences?”
The article ends with several points about the dangers of the genre. While a producer points out that there are actually cases of financial failures in horror, the genre has become the least risky risk for new film investors that want to dabble in filmmaking. Agan gets the last word in the article, saying “In a time when big films are bad in various spectacular ways, the sudden rise of Chinese horror films is not all that surprising, nor is it much of a miracle.”
And now, my own thoughts:
Like Liu Jing said, the success of MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is from producers having a very clear idea about who its target audience is. With selling points that are clearly aimed at attracting the young audience (especially the summer vacation release date), it got exactly the people it wanted to show up. Meanwhile, other horror films like DEVIL INSIDE ME and LOST IN PANIC ROOM simply used stars with names and no box office appeal (Kelly Lin, Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Simon Yam) or advertising campaigns that tried to sell things that audiences who know China’s censorship rules realize they will never see.
Despite the actual quality of these films, this new genre does help bring more variety into the Chinese film industry. Tentpoles will always stay roughly the same (period epics, period epics, and martial arts period epics), but audiences will quickly abandon Chinese films for better-produced Hollywood counterparts if they’re not offered any variety. Not only do producers get to turn a profit with a low-risk investment, Chinese audiences get a bit of trashy thrills in their local language when Hollywood horror films are not allowed in. This will help the industry to mature, and hence protecting itself from becoming that bursting bubble.
However, the issue with consistent low quality will hurt the genre in the long run. Soon, audiences will finally learn to avoid these products (especially when those MYSTERIOUS ISLAND copycats start popping up), and the horror bubble will quickly burst. The only ways this situation will improve is either 1) find better scriptwriters (though they’re not safe from bad producers and investors), 2) Have China loosen their ideological censorship standards AND create a rating system that allows edgier films. But of course, neither of these will happen, so as of right now, we should only chalk MYSTERIOUS ISLAND up as a miracle rather than the beginning of anything.
- YING XIONG DUE XUE (No English title), about the Huang Hua Gang Uprising, is the latest “mainstream” film (nationalistic) from China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution. The film, directed by Derek Chiu (THE ROAD LESS TRAVELED), stars Eric Tsang as the villain. However, after joining the cast, Tsang decided to sign on a producer because he wants to help make it a commercial “mainstream” film. Yes, Eric Tsang - now in the Chinese propaganda business.
- Mtime presents a collection of the best Chinese movie posters of the new millennium. Check them out and see what you think.
- Toei, one of the three major film companies in Japan (Toho and Shochiku are the other two), is returning to the business of foreign film acquisition for the first time in 30 years. This is especially important news in light of the trouble among smaller independent distributors in recent years. The first film to open under this revival is THE MAN FROM NOWHERE from Korea.
- Toei’s next acquisition will be Jackie Chan’s 1911, the action star’s 100th film. It has been announced that it will also join THE THREE MUSKETEERS as the other opening film in the 2011 Tokyo International Film Festival. These are not particularly odd choices, as TIFF has always premiered high-profile commercial films to attract attention. Attending the Asian premiere of KUNG FU HUSTLE in its 2004 edition (with Stephen Chow in attendance) is likely one of my fondest experiences as a film buff.
A side “I read Weibo so you don’t have to” note: Weibo industry insider says that 1911 has been shred to pieces in the editing room (may or may not be related to the authority’s reported ideological censorship). Jackie Chan’s role has now been relegated to 2nd lead, and the director is furious. Considering the film is a month and a half away from release, not much footage has made its way anywhere (except for the Japanese teaser). What’s going on here?
EDIT: My bad. The Chinese teaser for 1911 is now up. It’s different from the new Japanese trailer, with more footage, and a completely different structure. It also looks real purty.
- MURDERER director Roy Chow is currently shooting NIGHTFALL, starring Nick Cheung and Simon Yam, and the film now features a cameo by Chinese Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang (BLUE KITE). For those who’s wondering what Tian is doing in the film, both NIGHTFALL and Tian’s previous film THE WARRIOR AND THE WOLF are both co-invested by Edko. Of course, considering the media reports quoting Tian talking about the importance of Hong Kong cops and robbers film as a genre that needs to be preserved, it’s obvious that it’s an Edko PR move.
- Jeff Lau has finished his three-month shoot for (unofficial titled) EAGLE SHOOTING HEROES 2011. Like JUST ANOTHER PANDORA’S BOX, it will have a huge cast of recognizable HK/China actors (Eason Chan, Karen Mok and Ekin Cheng as leads), except that it’s a modern comedy. The film is aiming for a November release.
- Jason Gray write a bit about the upcoming Japanese youth crime flick THE HARD ROMANTICKER, starring Shohei Matsuda.
- A recent Hong Kong newspaper wrote that Daniel Wu and Stephen Fung have been feuding because Wu didn’t want to produce TAI CHI. Daniel Wu has taken to his Alivenotdead blog to deny the comment and even pointed out how the sensationalist Hong Kong press has now gotten him in trouble. I always say that Hong Kong entertainment news is strictly for entertainment, and this is again the case.
Next time: Whatever we can find time for.
Film Business Asia 1
Film Business Asia 2
Time Weekly (via Entgroup)