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After overtaking North America as the world’s biggest box office last year, China’s film market is off to a roaring start in 2021. The country’s cinemas sold nearly $200 million worth of tickets over the New Year holiday, the strongest first weekend since record-keeping began in 2011.
Driving much of the earnings was the Chinese blockbuster A Little Red Flower, a romantic drama about two young people battling cancer that has captured the hearts of Chinese filmgoers. The film, directed by the popular 37-year-old filmmaker Han Yan, opened to $80.3 million and generated rave word of mouth. Riding an outpouring of emotion on Chinese social media, it has since soared to $167 million — the most of any movie globally, so far, in 2021.
But A Little Red Flower‘s touching story has struck some Chinese filmgoers as a touch too familiar.
In the days after its release, users of China’s popular movie buff site Douban began writing detailed posts outlining the many similarities — in character, plot, story beats and theme — between A Little Red Flower and 20th Century Fox’s 2014 young adult cancer drama The Fault in Our Stars.
The legal implications of those similarities would likely take a court case to untangle, insiders say. But the emerging backstory makes clear that Fox, and possibly Disney, missed a rare chance to co-finance a lucrative Chinese-language hit.
Based on author John Green’s best-selling novel of the same name, the Fox film became a global phenomenon, earning $307 million off a production budget of $12 million and making stars of its young leads Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort. Although it never screened in China, the movie has developed a sizable fanbase on local streaming sites, such as Tencent Video and iQiyi, where it is currently available. On Douban, it has over 90,000 reviews and a rating of 7.9, which is considered high for the service.
A Little Red Flower already has amassed a devoted cohort too, though, with Chinese fans voicing protectiveness for the film’s cancer stricken romantic leads, played by young heartthrob Jackson Yee and rising actress Liu Haocun. Fierce debate over the allegations about the two movies’ similarities has played out in the comments sections beneath the widely read posts. Once the initial controversy ignited, however, Chinese industry insiders began feeding information to the film buff sleuths who instigated the discussion. Since then, follow-up posts have lobbed claims more serious than suspicious resemblance, or overzealous homage. The allegations now involve a paper trail linking A Little Red Flower‘s key creative team to former efforts by Fox to create a licensed Chinese remake of The Fault in Our Stars.
Whenever a script for a proposed movie project is approved by China’s film authorities — one of the early required phases of Beijing’s censorship process — the National Film Bureau issues a notice over its website listing the film’s title, writer, story summary and the production companies involved. With this approval, the project can move forward with plans for production.
In a Jan. 7 post titled, “Admit it! Little Red Flower has been inseparable from The Fault in Our Stars from the beginning!” a Douban user writing under the online handle “Atsm” references a series of such notices, alluding to having received help in unearthing them from a tipster. The documents, which The Hollywood Reporter has reviewed, appear to show how A Little Red Flower evolved out of a 2016 effort by Fox to adapt The Fault in Our Stars for the then-booming China market (China’s box office surged 48 percent in 2015 and the U.S. studios were working every avenue available to them at the time to tap into the growth).
Tomas Jegeus, who was then president of Fox International Productions, tells THR that the studio was indeed developing a Chinese remake of the film at the time, and that he was personally a big advocate for the effort, believing the movie’s formula would resonate strongly in the country. “We had always thought about a remake because we thought it would be a perfect film in China and Asia,” Jegeus says. “It’s a tragedy and someone dies and no one [in those markets] has a problem crying in movie theaters.” Producing a Chinese drama at that time was also very cheap: “Like the catering budget on an X-Men movie.”
Out of its Beijing office, Fox began working with Chinese producer Yin Lu, founder of local film company Tianjin Turan Film, on a potential remake. Chinese screenwriter Yu Yanlin (co-writer of Jiang Wen’s Gone With the Bullets, 2014) was hired to adapt the story into the local cultural context, with Fox footing the bill for the script. Adding further local industry heft to the project, the in-demand Chinese director Han Yan — whose 2015 cancer-themed dramedy Go Away Mr. Tumor earned $80.6 million and was selected by China as its submission to the Oscars in the international category that year — boarded the project as a producer.
John Green, The Fault in Our Stars‘ author, had a deal with Fox that included the remake rights. Green also was “super happy” about the idea of a Chinese retelling. “We knew we had a big hit,” Jegeus adds.
Years later, many of A Little Red Flower‘s credited key creatives would include the same players: Yin as the lead producer, Han as director (rather than producer), and Yu (working under her well-known pen name Yu Yonggan) as a co-writer. But the film would be released as an exclusively Chinese project, with no credit or remuneration channeling back to Fox. Major local players such as the state-backed China Film Group and ticketing giant Maoyan would instead take small stakes in the film.
The original Fox-led remake effort first turns up in official Chinese records in 2016, when a notice was published by the Film Administration approving a project under a title that is the literal Chinese translation of “The Fault in Our Stars.” The production companies listed were Hunan Tianyu Film and Tianjin Turan Film (the latter’s founder is Yin, lead producer of A Little Red Flower). The writer listed on the 2016 notice is Yu Yanlin (aka Yu Yonggan). And at this point, the story summary on the filing sounds very much like a Chinese summary of The Fault in Our Stars but with Chinese names.
Jegeus says development on the project involved protracted negotiations, with Chinese side taking considerable time to select the right actors.
In 2017, a new notice was released for what appears to be the same project, but with Fox China listed as one of the production companies, along with just Tianjin Turan Film (Hunan Tianyu Film has dropped out). The key creatives are the same.
Not long after, Disney began its historic pursuit to acquire 21st Century Fox. Amid several staffing changes at the studio, Fox pulled back from the Fault in Our Stars remake in the spring of 2018, seemingly letting the film slip away. Amid the flux of post-acquisition reorganization, Disney never opted to reengage the project — but the Chinese side carried on. (A spokesperson for Disney declined to comment for this story.)
During this same period, Fox was also forging ahead with a Bollywood remake. The Indian version of The Fault in Our Stars, titled Dil Bechara, suffered a number of its own delays and setbacks (including the suicide of its 34-year-old male lead, Sushant Singh Rajput, after shooting had wrapped), but Disney eventually completed it. After several COVID-19-related postponements, the film was released in July 2020 over Disney+ Hotstar, where it was well received.
In 2018, a new notice appeared in China from the Film Administration, this one for a project titled Hopeless in Love. Fox is gone, but two new companies have joined, HG Entertainment and local distribution powerhouse Lian Ray Films — both of which would later become the credited lead production companies of A Little Red Flower. Two new co-writers are listed and the summary changes slightly, introducing an ex-girlfriend character, but elements of the Fault in Our Stars story template remain.
No notice was ever released for a film under the title A Little Red Flower. Some in the Chinese industry have concluded that the project filed as Hopeless in Love simply became the project released as A Little Red Flower, as it’s fairly common for projects to change titles and add writers after getting official approval (and doing so is not against the rules, provided the production companies and most of the key staff remain the same). A Little Red Flower would add Han Yan and his sister Han Jinliang as co-writers.
THR reached out to Lian Ray, A Little Red Flower‘s co-producer and distributor, to ask what it knew about the project’s origins and story development when it officially got involved in 2018, but a spokesperson for the company declined to comment. A source with knowledge of the situation says Maoyan and China Film Group were unaware of the project’s background when they got involved.
The growing controversy around A Little Red Flower marks the third time in the past month that a major Chinese movie has been hit with allegations of potential copyright infringement.
In late December, Chinese author turned director Guo Jingming admitted publicly that he had plagiarized another writer’s work in a novel released nearly two decades ago. Days later, his high-profile fantasy film The Yin-Yang Master, which had earned nearly $70 million (and was acquired by Netflix), was yanked from cinemas by government regulators. The authorities never commented on the matter, but criticism had been building online for days over how closely several scenes in the new movie resemble sequences from Disney/Marvel’s 2016 tentpole Doctor Strange, with critics highlighting Guo’s past reputation for plagiarism.
Earlier in the month, South Korean production company Moonwatcher alleged that its IP was unlawfully used as the basis for Chinese action comedy Bath Buddies, which opened Dec. 11 and has earned $62 million. The Korean company said it was working in 2018 with Beijing-based studio giant Wanda to develop an official adaptation of a popular Korean comic, but that the Chinese firm canceled the deal, cut off contact and went ahead with the project anyway. Moonwatcher detailed the similarities between Bath Buddies and its comic property in the Korean press and vowed to pursue the matter in the Chinese courts.
Whether Disney will opt to pursue action and a financial remedy for the Fault in Our Stars case is unclear. China is facing growing pressure from Western nations fed up with the notion that occasional IP theft is an acceptable cost of doing business in the country. But the path forward for the studio would be fraught with uncertainties. The controversy comes during a time of historic trade tension between the U.S. and China, and with nationalist sentiments running high in both nations. The Disney brand also took a hit in China last year after the political scandals and poor performance of its Chinese-themed tentpole Mulan, which was widely ridiculed in the country. The recent racial sensitivity controversy that sunk the big-budget video game adaptation Monster Hunter last year has highlighted how perceived affronts to Chinese identity can escalate quickly — and unpredictably.
Disney has won a copyright infringement case in China before though. In 2016, a Shanghai court awarded $190,000 in damages to the studio after it sued the Chinese producers of an animation called The Autobots, which was determined by the courts to be a copy of intellectual property from the Pixar film Cars. The Autobots, produced by Bluemtv and distributor G-Point, was a relatively low-profile cultural phenomenon, though, having only earned approximately $850,000 during its July 2015 run. In the case of A Little Red Flower, the stakes and opportunity costs could be far higher.
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