‘Lost In Russia’ and the Search for a Chinese Netflix

Chinese movie theaters complained when the film’s producers inked a deal with TikTok owner ByteDance, but the agreement isn’t likely to pose a threat.

A still (left) and promotional image from “Lost in Russia.” From Douban and @徐峥 on Weibo

The Lunar New Year has traditionally been China’s biggest annual box office bonanza. Last year was a difficult one for the country’s film industry, but studios still raked in more than 6.47 billion yuan ($970 million) over the seven-day break in 2019, and three of the seven films released that week went on to finish the year in the domestic box office top 10.

This year was supposed to be more of the same, as analysts expected a slate of family-friendly flicks to pull in more than 7 billion yuan. But that was before COVID-19. The viral epidemic, in addition to killing 2,700 and sickening more than 75,000 more in the country as of Feb. 26, has ground life in China to a virtual standstill. With most public places, including movie theaters, essentially shut down for the past month and every holiday movie pulled from the schedule, some media outlets have estimated the industry’s overall losses for February alone could be as much as 13 billion yuan — or more than 20% of last year’s gross receipts.

Amid all this bad news, however, one film appears to have escaped relatively unscathed. On Jan. 24 — Lunar New Year’s Eve — Chinese tech behemoth ByteDance paid 630 million yuan for the rights to the planned holiday release “Lost in Russia,” the latest by-the-numbers entrant in a popular series of comedy movies. The next day, the company premiered the film across its portfolio of popular apps, most notably TikTok. With much of the nation effectively under quarantine and stuck in their homes, the move was a hit: ByteDance claims “Lost in Russia” was streamed 180 million times in its first three days of release.

Not everyone was thrilled to see the film succeed, however. After the producers of “Lost in Russia” sold the rights to ByteDance, a group of 22 cinema chains, including major players like Wanda Cinemas and Dadi Cinema, published an open letter accusing the agreement of undermining “the current Chinese film industry and distribution system.” Their statement implied a fear of a “Chinese Netflix” — a streaming company with the ambition and resources to move beyond their traditional TV turf and upend the way films are made and screened. But if China’s movie theaters are in any mortal danger, it’s not likely to be from “Lost in Russia.” The country’s filmmakers will likely remain dependent on theaters for the foreseeable future.

“Lost in Russia” wasn’t the first major Chinese film to float an online premiere. In 2015, Le Vision Pictures, a subsidiary of LeEco, decided to stream its film “The Vanished Murderer” to owners of LeEco brand televisions the day before its theatrical release.

Cinemas quickly retaliated. A number of prominent chains announced that, if the company went through with the ploy, they would cut screenings and offer customers full refunds. Soon enough, Le Vision backtracked. Continue to read the full article here.


– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.