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According to EntGroup's statistics, the box-office revenue for movies in the year 2012 in China achieved around 16.8 billion yuan ($2.69 billion), a 28 percent increase from the 13.1 billion yuan of 2011.
But the big number does not represent prosperity for the domestic industry. In fact, some media used the word "chaos" to describe last year's local movie market.
Taking a beating
With 989 million yuan (as of December 31 and over 1.1 billion yuan after the New Year holiday), greenhand director Xu Zheng's Lost in Thailand became the box-office champion of last year. However, a glance at the remaining top 10 list reveals only two other domestic productions - Painted Skin: The Resurrection and Jackie Chan's CZ12. The others are Titanic 3D, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Life of Pi, The Avengers, Men in Black III, Ice Age: Continental Drift and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Back to 1942, a long-anticipated work by famous Chinese director Feng Xiaogang, ranked 11th with 370 million yuan.
Chongqing Economic Times reported that, except for a few movies like The Great Magician and Black & White Episode 1: The Dawn of Assault, which supplemented ticket sales with implanted ads and selling their copyright to Internet video websites and TV stations, all other domestic films finished in the red. As Ng See-yuen, chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, told the newspaper, 80 percent of domestic movies saw a deficit last year.
Although the call for improving domestic movie quality had already rung out in 2011 when foreign productions accounted for almost half of that year's box office, domestic films still took a beating in 2012.
The lesson to be learned from Painted Skin: The Resurrection, Lost in Thailand and CZ12 is that 3D technology, exciting action scenes and localized comedy are the most bankable elements - as long as the timing is right.
It's anybody's guess
Besides disappointment in the Chinese film industry's quality, another thing many domestic audiences complain about is the disordered screen schedule. For example, White Deer Plain was to begin screening on September 13, but two days before that it was postponed citing technical problems.
The Grandmasters, The Last Supper and Switch are known for causing the worst birth pains, because they all kept teasing audiences about a release date, but then delayed screening for months or even years.
The Grandmasters is the most notorious example. According to website portal ent.sina.com.cn, it's been 16 years since Hong Kong director Wong Karwai first raised the idea for the movie. And even though it recently set a debut date for January 8, many netizens have said they expect yet another delay.
Besides some small-budget movies that did not get much attention, popular big-budget movies that changed screen dates include Lost in Thailand, CZ12 and The Last Tycoon.
Such disorder, as the report from ent.sina.com.cn concluded, is for the purpose of avoiding head-to-head competition with Hollywood blockbusters.
However, movie critic Fang Liuxiang disagrees. He said, "There is no real screen schedule in China, it is always in chaos. Even Hollywood movies cannot decide when to screen. There are too many outside forces that can influence the [Chinese] market."
Box office not a rating scale
Though most of the time what movie producers ultimately care about is the final box-office revenue, and even audiences often compare movies according to ticket sales, experts in the industry widely agree that the box office is not always an appropriate scale on which to evaluate a movie.
Examples can be seen from last year's Seediq Bale, Beijing Blues and Feng Shui.
With less than 10 million yuan in box-office revenue, Beijing Blues proved its worth by taking home a Golden Horse, for it was able to "make a breakthrough" among its peers, as movie critic Wang Siwei told the Global Times previously.
As for Seediq Bale and Feng Shui, they impressed insiders with their "earnest attitude in making movies," said Fang Liuxiang, a freelance film critic. "They are able to reflect the brutal as well as the gentle side of reality and history."
The notion that box-office numbers alone are not a proof of movie quality can also be seen from some of 2012's imported works such as A Separation and The Artist.
Between the years 2011 and 2012, A Separation won more than 70 awards around the world, including an Oscar and the Berlin Film Festival's Golden Bear. "Though the censorship system is much stricter in Iran than on the Chinese mainland, there is never a lack of quality in Iranian movies," a report from ent.sina.com.cn said. "With a cost of $300,000, [A Separation] makes a number of movie insiders blush with shame."
According to the statistics on EntGroup Consulting, a professional entertainment industry research institution, as of December 30, 2012, ticket sales in China for The Artist - the Academy Award winner for Best Picture in 2012 - had only reached 1.54 million yuan. The low number is more a reflection of screen availability than film quality. Additionally, the film had been widely available on DVD for several months: those who wanted to see it already had.
Achieving another record-breaking year at the domestic box office is an important accomplishment; however, as people often do a bit of introspection during the New Year season, the Chinese film industry should learn from past mistakes to avoid repeating them.
By far, the biggest scandal exposed last year was the "water army" issue (fake web postings to alter a movie's rating). As the scandal involving The Last Supper became public, movie critic websites and the reputation of movie companies suffered a serious confidence crisis.
The lesson both professionals and regular moviegoers can take from last year is that judging a film's quality does not always come from high numbers at the box office, but rather the strong impression it leaves on audiences.
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2. Princess and Seven Kung Fu Masters
3. Ip Man: Final Fight
4. Journey to the West
5. An End to Killing