Critics Blamed for Chinese Films' Disappointing Box Office

Courtesy of Block 2 Pictures

A Chinese movie site pulled reviews from professional critics, while leaving amateur ratings unchanged, after high-profile films, including Matt Damon's 'The Great Wall,' performed below expectations.

It's a "solution" that more than one poorly reviewed Hollywood director probably has entertained.

With another batch of high-profile local movies disappointing at China's box office, blame was cast this week in a new direction: on film critics.

During the past two weekends, three would-be blockbusters have opened below expectations in China. Legendary Entertainment's big-budget Chinese co-production The Great Wall, starring Matt Damon, opened to $64.7 million; Alibaba Pictures' romantic comedy See You Tomorrow debuted to $40 million; and Jackie Chan's latest action-comedy, Railroad Tigers, earned $31 million.

Those are sizable numbers, but far less than the $92 million that Mojin — The Last Legend, a local fantasy adventure, opened to during the same period last year.

After averaging 30 percent growth every year for a decade, China's box office has all but flatlined in 2016, inspiring head-scratching and, increasingly, finger pointing throughout the Chinese industry. The most common explanation for the downturn — and one endorsed by Chinese state media — has been the relative low quality of domestic Chinese films in 2016. But the critical consensus that served as the basis for that rationale is now coming under assault, too.

The three new releases all have been met with mostly lukewarm to negative reviews. On Douban, a leading Chinese reviews aggregator similar to Rotten Tomatoes, The Great Wall currently has a score of 4.9 out of 10, while See You Tomorrow sits at a lowly 3.8, and Railroad Tigers at 4.7. Mtime, a similar movie site, has the films rated a little better at 7.0, 5.2 and 6.2, respectively. The sites' scores reflect the reviews of both professional critics and film fans who are registered users.

An editorial published on the mobile site of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on Tuesday said "vicious and irresponsible" reviews written to "grab eyeballs" had caused serious harm to the ecosystem of the Chinese film industry. The article singled out Douban and Maoyan, another influential reviews aggregator and mobile ticketing service, for its "surprisingly low" ratings of the three Chinese films. The piece went on to suggest that Douban's reviews might have been hacked and manipulated.

The sentiment reflects Chinese film studio Le Vision Pictures' response to a negative review earlier this month. The company, which co-produced The Great Wall, posted a statement in the form of a legal letter on its official social media account after an influential online critic issued a scathing one-line review of the film. The critic, who writes under the Weibo handle "Xiedu Film" and counts nearly 750,000 followers, hyperbolically blasted the film's celebrated Chinese director by simply writing "Zhang Yimou has died."

With a budget of over $150 million, The Great Wall is the biggest China-Hollywood co-production ever, and all parties involved had a lot riding on the film.

In the letter, Le Vision characterized the critic's language as an assault on Zhang's reputation, saying it was "akin to libel and cursing [the director]." The studio demanded a retraction and an apology.

Xiedu Film replied by saying that he didn't intend to "curse" Zhang, but meant that The Great Wall signaled the end of Zhang's "artistic career."

The stakes were raised considerably Wednesday when Maoyan removed professional film critics' reviews from its main page in response to the criticism. The Global Times, a nationalist state-backed newspaper, reported Thursday that Douban and Maoyan's offices were visited by officials from media regulator the State Administration of Press Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT).

Zhang Hongsen, film bureau head of the SAPPRFT, denied Thursday that officials intervened in the ratings services' operations, according to local media reports. 

Douban's ratings have remained mostly unchanged, while Maoyan's now are now made up exclusively of user-generated scores and stand at 8.4 for The Great Wall, 7.8 for See You Tomorrow and 8.5 for Railroad Tigers.

The controversy has inspired fervent debate on Chinese social media, with some film fans defending the value and integrity of independent criticism, while others argue that reviewers and ratings sites are lacking professionalism and unfairly harming local films.  

So far, Western critics largely have aligned with China's unfiltered critical consensus. "Matt Damon epic delivers spectacle but not soul," said the Guardian of The Great Wall. "Hardly epic," concurred The Hollywood Reporter's review. 

THR described Railroad Tigers as a "ploddingly penned Jackie Chan vehicle," but praised the film's action sequences. The South China Morning Post gave See You Tomorrow a 3.5/5 rating, and THR had this to say: "The film is an impermeable melange of shapeless storytelling, rehashed gags, vacuous relationships and painfully over-the-top performances from its usually top-notch cast." 

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