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January 12, 2011

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Curtain rises on New Year's films

CHINA'S biggest film season is upon us, the Chinese Lunar New Year, when everyone goes to the movies for laughs, gasps and tears.

This season offers a range of highly anticipated works by noted Chinese directors, and it sees new marketing and promotion techniques designed to grab a bigger audience.

Over the past month, the battle for cinema-goers has heated up, even before the release of big films.

For the first time each of the three major New Year's contenders advanced by one week their media screening and press conferences ahead of national release last month.

The big ones: Chen Kaige's costume epic "Sacrifice" (in Chinese without English subtitles), Jiang Wen's action comedy "Let the Bullets Fly" (in Chinese with English subtitles) and Feng Xiaogang's comedy "If You Are the One 2" (in Chinese with English subtitles). The comedies got good reviews, the epic was considered ponderous and confusing - all are doing well at the box office.

"The market has fully warmed up after days of media exposure of these movies," says Gu Min, a marketing director with Shanghai United Cinema Lines, the city's largest cinema chain. "This time domestic film producers are displaying good strategy and keen sense in marketing and planning - and they have budget for it, as well."

Director Jiang has spent 30-50 million yuan on marketing and outdoor LED advertising, the biggest-ever promotion budget for a domestic film production, according to Gu from Shanghai United Cinema Lines. "To add to the festive atmosphere, there's even a hilarious Sichuan-dialect version," he says.

Getting out front and pushing their own movies is a big change for Chinese film makers who in the past seemed to be too proud to promote their works on their own, leaving promotion to others. Some directors regarded their works as art, rather than mass entertainment, and didn't feel the need for promotion.

Also, new platform has been established between stars and fans, such as microblog. For example, "Let the Bullets Fly" has launched a microblog where fans can make comments and post their reviews.

"Microblogging has largely brought us closer to celebrities and given us a chance to interact with the crew," says fan Stella Song, a 30-year-old office worker.

Ticket sales are not the only revenue option for producers - product placement is getting to be part of Chinese movies, though some critics say it can be distracting and doesn't always "work" with the story.

In "If You Are the One 2," director Feng incorporates numerous brands, including wine, hotels and life insurance.

As for the controversy over product placement, Feng says it will inevitably become an important part of the Chinese film industry, but he warns that the introduction of products should be natural and part of the plot.

So far each of the big domestic hesuipian or New Year's films has grossed more than 200 million yuan (US$30.3 million) at the box office. The darkly humorous "Let the Bullets Fly" has taken more than 460 million yuan in ticket sales nationwide.

More movies

This month's Chinese movie program includes:

January 19: "Shao Lin," a martial arts film starring Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan.

January 26: "My Own Swordsman," a sequel to the popular TV drama in 2006. The film continues its light-hearted parody of social issues through the stories of everyday life in a small inn in ancient times.

This month's foreign offerings are:

January 7: "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," a Hollywood fantasy epic.

January 11: "Tron: Legacy," a 3D high-tech adventure set in a digital world.

Both are in English with Chinese subtitles.

The year 2010 has been lucrative and productive for China's domestic film industry.

Movie theaters took in more than 10 billion yuan last year, a 58-percent increase over 2009.

The nationwide box office of domestic films hit 6 billion yuan, accounting for more than 60 percent of all box-office takings. A total of 17 domestic productions took in more than 100 million yuan.

Foreign movies didn't perform very well last year except for James Cameron's 3D science-fiction epic "Avatar," which topped the national box office with 1.3 billion yuan.

Industry insiders attribute last year's boom to the improved quality of Chinese cinema and the increase of cinema screens around the country.

China has an estimated 6,000 film screens, one-third of which are three-dimensional. June and December are the two most profitable months because of summer vacation and year-end celebrations.

The local cinema is also expected to flourish this year with a batch of new productions. This summer veteran director Fu Huayang will release his latest film, "No Limit," about Shanghai youth and street sports.

Following the success of "The Founding of a Republic" (2009), Shanghai Film Group Corp will offer another mainstream epic, "The Revolution of 1911," this year.

The star-studded basketball movie "Amazing," which gathers Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Yao Ming and Yi Jianlian, is now in post-production. In the film, five Chinese basketball fans form a team to compete against an NBA all-star team.

Also upcoming are the epic "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," based on the 2005 bestselling novel by Lisa See; the costume drama "Zhong Kui," about the ferocious god in folklore who exorcises ghosts; and a 3D animation, "Uproar in Heaven" about the Monkey King.

The boom in Chinese cinema has generated enthusiasm, but critics urge a sober assessment.

Last year China produced around 500 films, including commercial works. Only one-fifth were released in cinemas.

"Screens are no replete with formulaic and superficial blockbuster movies," says noted film maker Liu Xin. "Compared with those in the United States, Europe and South Korea, we still lack really powerful and inspiring films that can provoke reflection and even a pang of sadness."

Liu says the New Year's movie season is too dependent on the celebrities. For instance, last month's screenings were like an awkward Ge You film exhibition, because he starred in all the three big productions, "Sacrifice," "Let the Bullets Fly" and "If You Are the One 2."

"This state of affairs can cause aesthetic fatigue in the audience and represent economic disaster for some moderate-budget productions and art-house movies," he adds.

Film critics emphasize that box-office revenues should not be the basic criterion of success. Last year, less than 10 art-house movies were screened and many more didn't make it to the screen. The city so far has no art-house film line.

"What people want and need is more diverse and original Chinese cinema," says Professor Gu Xiaoming, vice chairman of the Shanghai Film Critics Association.

Creative medium-budget films can represent a strong "middle power" in the film industry pyramid and attract more fans, he says.

"Our film industry has been growing for the past 10 years, but to some extent the film market is still unbalanced and too profit-oriented," Professor Gu says.

"This is a very shortsighted approach: relying on a few shallow and stereotyped mega-productions to propel the industry," Gu says. "We should nurture as wide an audience as possible, and give young art film directors more patience and support."


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