Chinese Cinemas Cancel Propaganda Film Screenings

Theater operators in the city of Nanjing called off showings of government-backed "Young Lei Feng" after the film failed to sell a single ticket during its premiere on Monday.

HONG KONG – Several cinemas in major Chinese cities were forced to cancel shows of a propaganda film celebrating an officially-heralded soldier in the face of major public indifference towards the production, according to local media reports.

Screenings of Young Lei Feng, a biopic about a revolutionary long immortalized in Chinese official discourse for his reportedly selfless contributions to the Communist Party, were called off at cinemas in the cities of Nanjing and Xi’an because no tickets were sold. Ironically, the cancelation came on the very day the government designated as "Lei Feng Day."

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Speaking to the Yangtse Evening Post, a staff member from a Nanjing cinema said the venue canceled all four screenings of the film after it opened on Monday. “Not a single person bought tickets, so we had to pull the screening when the time came – all four screenings hit zero at the box office,” he said. “We are quite surprised, as generally you would sell some tickets for a movie one way or the other.” Meanwhile, a report on the portal said two cinemas in Xi’an also had to pull the plug on all of their Young Lei Feng screenings due to similar circumstances. The film still remains on release -- for now -- assuming it starts to sell at least some tickets. 

Venue managers were quoted as saying how such propaganda films have always been a hard-sell, and they expected the film to be taken off screens soon as a raft of more entertaining and profitable releases -- including imports Upside Down and The Iron Lady, and domestic productions such as Runaway Women and The Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters -- are released towards the end of the week.

Perhaps aware of the challenges of marketing Young Lei Feng and two other similarly themed productions (Lei Feng in 1959, Lei Feng’s Smile) to the public, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television issued a communique on Monday instructing party cadres to promote the films through organized group viewings and rural tours, and urged cinemas to come up with proper publicity campaigns to stir public interest in the films.

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With the advent of the internet and the emergence of a very sophisticated and commercialized entertainment industry, however, Chinese audiences have long distanced themselves from propaganda fare which previous generations might have embraced out of either genuine affection or a lack of choice.

Even the authorities have been aware of the need to provide a more glitzy sheen to some of their ideologically-driven epics, with the two films celebrating the 60thanniversary of the People’s Republic (Founding of a Republic, 2009) and the 90thanniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (Beginning of the Great Revival, 2011) more noted for its starry cast of Chinese A-listers than its central political message.

While each of the two anniversary films took over $64.3 million (400 million yuan) at the box office, their performances were largely overshadowed by both imported blockbusters and also domestic commercial fare. The two films were ranked 23 and 24 in the country’s overall earnings standings, trailing even the likes of 2012 (at number 18 with $75 million) and Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (number 20, $73.6 million).