It’s no secret that the explosive growth of China’s film market in recent years has been shadowed by box office irregularities. Distributors, or cinemas sometimes report lower gross to steal profits from producers. In other cases, filmmakers might report higher box offices to make larger gains in the capital market.
It turns out not only industry professionals are good at manipulating box offices. Some audiences also knows a trick or two. The recently released romantic fantasy film Once Upon A Time became a trending topic in this past week when its fans were found “locking screenings”.
Suo chang, as it was called in Chinese, literally means to lock a screening. It refers to practices of buying minimum possible numbers of tickets of a single screening to ensure it will not be canceled for low attendance.
By “locking screenings”, fans make sure the film they like will keep a relatively high number of screenings for as long as possible and thus appear to be popular and successful. In a market monopolized by a few large theaters and with limited choices of good films, this strategy will allow the film a better chance to achieve higher box office.
In the case of Once Upon A Time, when it was first released on Aug. 3, it enjoyed a row piece rate of 32 percent, meaning almost one third of all the screenings in cinemas that day were allocated to this film. It was a pretty good rate, raking the second place among over 20 films. It was only about 12 percentage points lower than Wolf Warrior 2, which was the most successful film in China, ever.
However, both professional reviews and audience comments were quite negative and after a couple days, the attendance began to show significant decline. It was a logical decision for cinemas then, to reduce screenings of this film to make room for more popular films. To prevent that from happening, fans started to “lock” the available screenings in advance. They would buy one or two tickets of the empty screenings so that cinemas couldn’t replace them with other films.
But why do fans care so much? They are, of course, not crazy about the film, but dedicated to the stars in the cast. Once Upon A Time’s suo chang was mainly practiced by fans of Yang Yang, a good-looking 25-year-old actor. Young idols like him are often called “traffic stars”, which refers to the huge “traffic” behind them–a large number of dedicated fans who are willing to pay for anything they participate. For Yang Yang, Once Upon A Time is a crucial new starting point. This is the first film he participates as the leading role. If it fails, it will undoubtedly cast shadows over his career. His fans won’t allow it.
In fact, suo chang is very common among these fan groups. It’s hard to pinpoint a starting point or inventor, but at least back in 2015, Kris Wu’s fans practiced it with Somewhere Only We Know. Over the years, different fan groups kept doing that for their idols, including Lu Han, Zhang Yixing and Yang Mi.
These highly organized fan groups even developed strict disciplines: they only buy side seats, leaving the prime seats to attract average movie-goers; they usually buy enough tickets so that cinemas won’t feel ripped off; they choose theaters strategically to maximize the number of screenings.
One reason the news of “suo chang” broke out this time was that Yang Yang’s fans locked many screenings with only one or two tickets each, leading to fightbacks from cinemas. On the one hand, for every such a screening of Once Upon A Time, cinemas lost money to cover basic costs. On the other hand, audience just couldn’t get enough of Wolf Warrior 2, so more screenings were needed. Some cinemas cancelled Once Upon A Time’s screenings anyway.
There is no doubt “suo chang” is a despicable way of manipulating box offices, if it’s effective at all. But it’s no more worse than other tricks that have plagued China’s film market in the past few years. Hopefully, we will see less of these irregularities as the market matures.