Surprise (万万没想到)—a low-budget comedy based on a popular web series set for official release next Friday, December 18—stormed into theaters early last weekend, netting $17.3 million from its Friday and Saturday preview screenings, while Hollywood holdovers Point Break ($30.4 million total) and The Martian ($86.9 million total) both withstood a barrage of 15 new releases, hanging on to their second and third-place standings and grossing $10.3 million and $7.4 million, respectively, over the 3-day weekend.
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As China’s fast developing box office grows increasingly crowded with new releases, advance screenings are go-to tools to maximize a film’s exposure and minimize risk, helping distribution companies first, to create buzz prior to a film’s official release, and, second, to give exhibitors confidence in a film’s potential performance in hopes that they then will put it on more screens on opening day.
Previews helped both the breakout summer animated hit Monkey King: Hero Is Back ($148 million) and the early October National Day holiday dark horse Goodbye Mr. Loser ($223.1 million) by giving rise to what Chinese entertainment reporters call “tap water” (自来水 zìláishuǐ)—passionate fans whose social media recommendations cause an outward ripple effect among their circle of friends that is tantamount to free press before the official release. This “tap water” effect is the organic spiritual cousin of the “water army” (水军 shuǐ jūn) of ghostwriters hired to post positive comments online and manipulate word of mouth.
Despite hauling in more than $17 million from a record 70,000 advance screenings, the Surprise strategy of going so wide a weekend before release may have worked against it as its “tap water” appears to have gotten stuck in the pipes. Word of mouth following this weekend’s screenings was so polarized that film and culture website Douban didn’t show its typical aggregate rating for the Surprise on the film’s homepage, posting instead the simple disclaimer “Not Yet Released.” Still accessible, however, were the nearly 10,000 overwhelmingly negative user ratings posted after the weekend previews.
Most posts came from fans of the original online web series, whose Chinese title literally translates as “who knew?” (万万没想到), with each episode comprised of a 3-5 minute comedy sketch. “Who knew it would be this bad?” wrote one Douban user. “Director, are you actually worthy of the support we give your web series? I thought the advanced screenings were to drum up public support. Who knew the film would be so mediocre?”
With the next two weekends in December likely to be dominated by releases from heavyweight distributors Enlight Media (Mojin—The Lost Legend, Devil and Angel) and Huayi Brothers (Mr. Six), one can hardly blame Surprise distributor Bona Film Group for trying to get out ahead as early as possible, yet it remains to be seen if they played their hand too soon.
Among other new releases last weekend, the only films to break into the box office top ten were The Master (师傅)—a martial arts (wuxia) film from the screenwriter of Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster—Ron Howard’s 2013 sports action pic Rush, and the romance Forever Love (北京时间), with $5 million, $1.75 million, and $1.36 million, respectively. Netizens speculated that the two-year delay in the China release of Rush was the result of the inclusion of American cigarette brand Marlboro, whose logo featured prominently in the film as Formula One’s official sponsor in the 1970s. The iconic brand was blurred out of every shot in the Chinese version, as were as several scenes featuring nudity.
—Follow Jonathan Papish on Twitter: @ChinaBoxOffice