China is experiencing something of a seismic tremor at the box office …
Dying to Survive, led by Xu Zheng, is a dramatic comedy based on the real life exploits of Lu Yong, who smuggled cheap and unproven cancer medication sourced from India. It has struck a chord with the Chinese movie-going public, drawing in 68 million USD past its second weekend. This is the highest performance for any film anywhere in the world outside of the United States.
Joining with it at Number 2 is the revenge drama Hidden Man led by Jiang Wen, Eddie Peng and Liao Fan. It is the much anticipated picture from actor-director Jiang Wen, which earned 17.9 million USD over the weekend.
Beyond these two successful releases, the earth has threatened to swallow every other motion picture in China into the abyss that five movies have voluntarily withdrawn from the race. With reasons of their own, Legend of the Ravaging Dynasties 2 and Oolong Courtyard are among those that opted out of the frenzy by delaying their premiere. The news came as a disappointment to fans awaiting the sequel to L.O.R.D. but it may have been the sounder business decision to make in hindsight.
Even Animal World headed by Li Yifeng, Zhou Dongyu and Michael Douglas, which itself debuted at the top spot by toppling Jurassic World: The Fallen Kingdom, lost steam to Dying to Survive despite also garnering positive reviews.
The latest victim of this phenomenon, the 110 million USD budgeted fantasy epic Asura, debuted a distant third last weekend, raking in a paltry 6.88 Million USD as reported by Variety.
Zhenjian announced that it was pulling Asura from theatres over social media.
There is simply not enough room at the top.
The ill-fated fantasy adventure features a slew of Asian celebrity royalty headed by Lei Wu, Carina Lau and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. But big names are no defence for when a market heads into saturation mode.
The saturation event constitutes the latest in a string of lessons China is learning about its rapidly developing and highly lucrative film market. Who knew that you could have too much of good thing?
While much has been written about the immense size and capacity of China’s film market, conventional wisdom has long-dictated that a film market in any territory can only sustain one hit, or at most two hits, at once. China, though, can be forgiven for failing to notice the snowballing effect Dying to Survive has enjoyed as this event has largely been unprecedented.
Hollywood, however, has long learned how to deal with this form of risk usually through active testing and backroom coordination among major distributors to avoid huge train wrecks.
In 2007, upon realizing the potential strength of the July 4 bound Transformers based on an early cut, Disney promptly moved its own blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End out of July 4th and up more than a full month earlier to avoid direct competition.
Reading a crowded market though is only half of the battle. It is notable that Zhenjian has realized that upgrades need to be done over Asura to go alongside plans for a future re-release of the film, but this is all now happening after the fact.
The silver lining in all this is that regardless of the turmoil for the rest of China’s market landscape, nothing should detract from the wonderful success that Dying to Survive is enjoying. It is a triumph of China’s film evolution towards well-made, striking, and relevant storytelling and long may it continue.
The ongoing growth and development of China’s cinema system promises great rewards for all filmmakers venturing into China’s 8 Billion USD film market. Now, everybody just has to learn how to work together to avoid trying to get through that door at the same time.
Giancarlo Ng is the director of Reversion and a founding member of The Magic Movie Machine.