The Rise and Fall of Chinese IP Film Adaptations

  • Intellectual property adaptations have been part of Chinese filmmaking for decades.
  • IP films are adapted from popular copyrighted material, like games, music, and novels.
  • A large percentage of Chinese movies in the past two decades have been IP films.


Anyone at all familiar with the Chinese movie industry has heard of intellectual property (IP). It has been an integral part of Chinese filmmaking for decades, but 2016 seems destined to be the year the IP industry finally falls.

In the context of movies, IP films are adapted from popular copyrighted material, like games, music, and novels. The rights to the movie adaptations are bought up well in advance, and a large percentage of Chinese movies in the past two decades have been IP films.

But while these movies have been expanding the domestic Chinese brands, it is worth noting that although around the same number of IP movies were released in 2016 as 2015, their box office earnings have seen a significant decrease.

For example, this year’s summer blockbuster Tomb Mystery, adapted from Xu Lei’s novel-series Grave Robbers’ Chronicles, made 300 million yuan (US$45 million) less at the box office than last year’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, adapted from Zhang Muye’s online novel Ghost Blows Out the Light. This is strange considering both authors are equally popular.

This has been the case with numerous movies in 2016 compared to previous years, and it seems that the industry of IP adaptations is finally beginning to tank. Before this year, it felt like almost any popular brand could be adapted. But the recent downturn in the IP industry should not come as a shock — it has been years in the making.

Actually, IP adaptations will encounter as many trials and errors as original screenplays, and they can be just as artistically creative as any original script. They are certainly not a new trend in the domestic film industry either — To Live and In the Heat of the Sun, both highly acclaimed and both adapted from novels, were examples from 1994. Both of these projects employed a professional creative team to turn the popular novels into movies. And even if some of these earlier works revealed the technical shortcomings of Chinese films at the time, they were well-received by critics and audiences.

However, this has not always been the case in recent years. The boom in IP adaptations has caused the industry to begin making shoddy products on a large scale just to try and get in on the commercial return. Adaptations like the Tiny Times series — a romantic comedy set in Shanghai — are an example of this. Although it received negative reviews from critics, its box office gross was huge.

These “PowerPoint movies” — so-called because each scene of the movie is beautiful but simple, like a PowerPoint presentation — are jumping on the popularity of IP adaptations, and bringing a terrible name to the film industry. They use product management and internet-era business models to get audiences into the theaters, and create something completely void of artistry. And yet, their staggering box office earnings give any successful businessman an excuse to become a producer or even a director in the name of product manager. This situation has turned the industry into a madhouse.

There’s nothing wrong with buying IP. It makes sense for producers to want to adapt popular brands into movies, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the art has to suffer. Producer and screenwriter Eva Cao told me that when companies in Hollywood buy IP rights, they hire professional screenwriters to transform the original work into a screenplay — a prerequisite to making any half-decent film. It is important to let the professionals do their work.

This is completely different from the situation in China, where marketing and sales departments meddle in the creative process, and big data shapes what the directors and writers create. This profit-oriented, market-based method distorts the industry and diminishes the artistry of filmmaking.

Seeking profit is inevitable when it comes to commercial filmmaking. It makes sense to develop products based on what’s popular with audiences, but people come to the theater to be entertained, not to increase box office earnings. They come to feast their eyes and their hearts. This should be the bottom line of any qualified film.

Business should be taken into account, but it is not the sole purpose of filmmaking. It is time we awake from the pipe dream of movie adaptations, and begin respecting films and the audience. The fall of IP cinema is a better result than the fall of Chinese movie industry entirely.

— This post originally appeared on Sixth Tone.