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    Why Some Films Dodged China’s Spring Festival Box Office Frenzy

    To avoid fierce competition and seek more favorable release timings, at least four highly anticipated films chose to postpone their premieres until after the holiday season.

    From a satirical comedy about the backstage exploits of a film star to a touching portrayal of battling illness and finding love, at least four highly anticipated films chose to delay their releases during Spring Festival, seeking more favorable timing amidst fierce competition.

    These strategic delays come at a time when China’s box office shattered records, grossing billions of yuan and demonstrating the fierce contest for viewer attention in the country’s lucrative film industry.

    According to the domestic ticketing platform Maoyan, the overall box office for the Spring Festival, this year spanning Feb. 10 to Feb. 17, grossed 8 billion yuan ($1.1 billion), with attendance reaching 162 million — a new record.

    Among the top performers, the female-led boxing drama “Yolo” earned 2.79 billion yuan, becoming the highest-grossing Spring Festival film ever in mainland history.

    Meanwhile, the satirical comedy “The Movie Emperor,” starring well-known Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and depicting the backstage life of a movie star, along with the romantic comedy-drama “Viva La Vida,” saw unexpectedly sluggish box office results, earning just 83 million and 93 million yuan, respectively, by the time screenings were suspended.

    Directed by Han Yan, known for his critically acclaimed films on death and life, “Viva La Vida” portrays two young individuals’ fight against serious illness and their journey toward finding courage and love.

    Despite a rating of 7.9 on the social media platform Douban, the film underperformed at the box office and screenings were suspended. It was eventually rescheduled to March 30, just four days before the Qingming Festival, a traditional Chinese holiday commemorating the dead. The decision to reschedule was attributed to “a serious mistake made in choosing the timing,” according to an official announcement on the microblogging platform Weibo.

    Additionally, the animated films “Huang Pi: God of Money” and “Ba Jie,” which draw from traditional Chinese tales and feature stories of fictional characters — one from the famous novel “Journey to the West” and the other representing an auspicious mythical beast — premiered on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

    Both films announced they would suspend screenings on Friday and Saturday, respectively, after accumulating box office totals of just 886,000 yuan and 3.32 million yuan.

    Li Ying, 24, a communications executive from the southern city of Guangzhou, chose to watch “Yolo” during her holiday. “Isn’t ‘Viva La Vida’ about curing diseases? Few people would choose to watch those types of movies during the Spring Festival because it’s meant to be a happy occasion,” she said.

    Spring Festival is among the most significant holidays in China, presenting a crucial opportunity for big-budget movies to recoup investments. But releases come with the risk of navigating a highly competitive distribution period.

    In 2023, the box office revenue from the seven-day Spring Festival period amounted to 6.765 billion yuan, accounting for 12.3% of the total annual box office, and saw the release of the two highest-grossing films of the year — “Full River Red” and “The Wandering Earth 2.”

    Such is the competition that films not performing well risk receiving fewer screening slots. On the first day of screenings this year, “Yolo” boasted the highest film arrangement ratio, at 26.7%. In stark contrast, “The Movie Emperor” and “Viva La Vida” received 8.6% and 7.3%, respectively. Seven days later, the screening ratio for “The Movie Emperor” plummeted to just 1.5%.

    Makers of the animated film “Ba Jie” even called for an increase in its screening slots on the third day of the Spring Festival after receiving a mere 0.2% slot arrangement on the first day. They attributed this to “the exclusivity agreements of other movies in the same schedule and the preference of top movie chains for films they have invested in.”

    Ahead of the holiday season, domestic media reported that three Spring Festival movies, including “Yolo,” “Pegasus 2,” and “Article 20,” demanded screening slots of more than 22% each.

    “The Movie Emperor,” not part of this reported “slot deal,” took to its official Weibo account on Jan. 29 to suggest: “Let the audience decide; quietly watch a movie this Chinese New Year,” a statement viewed as a subtle response to the controversy.

    On Jan. 30, the China Film Producers Association and the China Film Distribution and Exhibition Association convened with representatives from investors and producers of films to be released during Spring Festival. They declared that no entity should exploit its market dominance to disrupt operations, including via film scheduling, or impose restrictive arrangements on others.

    Last Spring Festival, the sports drama “Ping Pong: The Triumph” halted major screenings just two days post-release. However, the rescheduling didn’t achieve the expected “triumph,” and the film earned only 100 million yuan at the box office.

    According to industry insiders, the effectiveness of rescheduling remains uncertain. Speaking to state broadcaster CCTV, experts stated that while the competition might be less fierce outside the Spring Festival window, the audience turnout isn’t as high.

    But others have stated rescheduling may offer a buffer and better preparation for future releases. “Withdrawing is a last resort, unless it can exchange time for space to secure a better release opportunity for the film,” one insider was quoted as saying.

    Additional reporting: Lü Xiaoxi; editor: Apurva.

    (Header image: People walk past posters at a movie theater in Huairen, Guizhou province, Feb. 12, 2024. VCG)