By the looks of it, China’s film industry is making great strides: box office sales raked in 2.9 billion yuan ($467 million) last year, and by the end of May, sales reached nearly 1.7 billion yuan ($274 million), according to a report by China’s Sina Entertainment News.
The truth is less glittery. While under ordinary circumstances the box office is a pretty reliable indicator of sales, Chinese distributors and cinemas are neck-deep in a web of bribery, kickbacks, and other behind-the-scenes connivery with the result that official figures cannot be taken at face value.
Cooperating with cinemas and other firms, film distributors buy up tens of millions’ worth of tickets from the box office, then earmark them for resale, boosting the apparent turnout and thus the producer’s’ reputation and competitiveness.
On May 3, film director Gao Qunshu posed a rhetorical question on Chinese social media: “Is there any movie nowadays [whose producers] don’t buy out more than 50 million yuan in tickets on the first day to reach 100 million by the third?”
Another common means of padding box office statistics and undercutting competition is to bribe the cinemas. In exchange, theaters arrange more showing time for their partners, increasing their sales. According to the Sina report, profits are split 43/57 percent between the film distributor and the theater, respectively.
Bribe-influenced scheduling and skewed box office results are particularly damaging for aspiring directors, who do not possess the connections or capital to compete against such schemes.
An anonymous executive at a film distributor spoke to Sina about his involvement in a large-scale box office ticket purchase. The distributor had spent over 60 million yuan ($9.7 million) nationwide to boost one film.
Distributors also team up with their sponsors for support.
“Partners, the film side, the distributor, and theaters often make block bookings. Part of our job is to find partners,” an anonymous employee at a distribution firm told Sina.
“For instance, a movie features an ad for some auto brand. We would then negotiate with the auto company to ask them to make block ticket purchases for the movie. We would get them a good price from the theater.”
According to an insider, a major Western automaker (which is named in the original article), had bought tickets for 300 showings of a Chinese film called “Switch.” The movie achieved box office sales of over 300 yuan million ($48 million).
“Even if the movie didn’t earn much money by the end, the high box office figure may already have created opportunities for the listed movie company on the stock market,” a source in the film industry told Sina.