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Tens of millions of film fanatics are entering theaters around Asia during the Chinese New Year holiday, but Hollywood can't count on them to boost the box office for its mostly serious Oscar nominees. Even with the Academy Awards buzz at a peak barely two weeks before the ceremony, patrons are opting for lighter fare.
"Viewers are mostly drawn to action films, films with special effects, comedies or easy-to-follow 'popcorn' movies," said Ross Lee, a manager with Vieshow Cinemas, which owns one of Taiwan's largest theater chains. "In Taiwan the big hits are traditionally disaster films like '2012.'"
Lee and others say that with Chinese movie-goers using the New Year holiday to escape their daily grinds, they generally give the cold shoulder to weightier movies, like this year's leading nominee "Lincoln" or last year's best picture "The Artist."
"'Lincoln' is an American film," said Hong Kong film fan Leo Wong, 31. "I think Americans will probably be more interested. I don't really understand the history. And it's too serious."
Reflecting Wong's critique, Hong Kong's film industry goes out of its way to pander to the local preference for lighter New Year's selections, turning out a sub-genre of films specifically designed with holiday tastes in mind.
This year's Hong Kong holiday crop includes "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons," a prequel to the classic Chinese fable, and "I Love Hong Kong 2013," a super-light comedy with an all-star cast and a happy ending that sends audiences home in a good mood.
Explaining her preference for watching locally-produced comedies, Hong Kong movie-goer Christine Lam said it reinforced the spirit of the season. "You want to do this on Chinese New Year," she said, "to watch Chinese movies instead of Western ones because it gives you the vibe."
Her husband, Andy Lam, said: "(New Year comedies) are funny and we have a lot of fun. We just laugh."
Sun Shaoyi of Shanghai University's School of Film and TV Arts and Technology, said in addition to aesthetic considerations, Oscar nominees vying for attention on the Chinese mainland must also contend with officially sanctioned blackouts.
"Authorities limit the number of Western films showing during the New Year period," Sun said. "They have to do this to protect the local market."
But even allowing for the artistic and administrative roadblocks, some Oscar-nominated films do manage to make a big impact in Chinese speaking markets during the New Year holiday, particularly if they are accompanied by a positive critical buzz.
Christine Lam said she had also decided to see "Les Miserables," notwithstanding its heavy subject matter.
"This is a very famous movie and people are talking about it very much," she said, adding the film's much ballyhooed operatic style and live singing by actors had tipped the balance in its favor.
In Taipei, trading firm owner Thomas Huang said his own preference for thrillers made "Zero Dark Thirty" an easy choice.
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