Chinese Theaters Test System of Onscreen Text Messages During Movies

 Illustration by: Lars Leetaru

Theaters in major Chinese cities have starting experimenting with “bullet screens” on which audiences can send text messages commenting on the film, which are then projected directly onto the screen.

If you're sensitive to people using their cellphones during a movie, then going to the movie theater in China would be far from relaxing experience. Rows of underlit faces and chiming ringtones punctuate the show, despite requests asking patrons to turn their phones before the movie begins.

This experience is set to become institutionalized during some movies for younger viewers who can’t spend five minutes away from their tablet or phone, according to a report in the China Youth Daily.

The inspiration behind the idea appears to be that it mimicks that of watching a movie on mobile media, which is how most Chinese people watch films, with people sending messages about what they like or dislike about the movie.

In a censored environment like China, precautions are taken to remove sensitive or forbidden words.

There are several Chinese movie websites, based on a Japanese idea of bullet screens, where viewers can spend their whole time making remarks on the film via SMS.

The experiment involves a number of theaters in China, including in Beijing and Shanghai, but also in smaller cities such as Hangzhou.

Earlier this month, the Luxin cinema in Shandong province in northeast China tried the system with a screening of the domestic 3D animated movie The Legend of Qin, a TV adaptation that has taken $9.25 million in box office in China so far.

The manager, surnamed Zhang, said the theater was 90 percent occupied and that “bullet information” was sent by SMS at 0.1 yuan, around 10 cents, per message.

“People like it right now, as it’s a new thing," he said. "In the long term, it might affect people’s concentration. We are trying to continue with some bullet screen activities and play some films that young people like. Time will tell.”

Shen Leping, director of The Legend of Qin, is very enthusiastic about it, ran a report on the Nanfang website.

“We are exploring how the response from the audience can affect the movie itself… We are, in fact, putting the director and viewer on equal terms, and I think many of the opinions of the viewers are very helpful for film makers,” he said.

Fellow film director He Ping, formerly head of the China Film Directors Guild, said that no way could what was being screened be changed by the audiences.

“A film with bullet screen must be authorized by the writer when they sign a contract with the producer,” said He.

On the social media sites, the reaction was mixed.

“I hope bullet screens don’t become big in Chinese cinemas to help save poor Chinese films,” Hesheng commented on Sina Weibo, while Riya Sang wrote: “I don’t like bullet screens. The point of watching a film in the theater is to put away whatever is in your hand and focus on the film. Sometimes, it blocks the screen.”

Jinxi Hexi WY also wasn’t a fan. “When the audience complains during the screening, it interrupts our independent thinking and affects our concentration on the film. I don’t like it.”

But others enjoyed the interactivity.

“This is a real way of watching a film. For us, it is exciting and fun,” wrote Xu Huilin. “It is a reform in terms of the commercial model. It is just like when popcorn got into cinema for the first time, a lot of people protested that it would affect the film viewing experience.”

Twitter: @cliffordcoonan

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