Caixin
Dec 29, 2016 06:43 PM
BUSINESS & TECH

Film Booster, Movie Sites in War of Words Over Bad Reviews

The website of douban.com's film booking page shows the Chinese-made films See You Tomorrow (top, second from left) and The Great Wall (top, second from right) with very low ratings. Photo: Caixin
The website of douban.com's film booking page shows the Chinese-made films See You Tomorrow (top, second from left) and The Great Wall (top, second from right) with very low ratings. Photo: Caixin

(Beijing) — A war of words this week between a state-run movie booster and two leading film review sites had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood family-feud drama. The central theme was betrayal, and straddling the battle lines was a parent-like Communist Party trying hard not to take sides.

On one side of the battlefield were Douban and Maoyan, two of China’s most popular film-rating sites. On the other was a state-owned film publication, which accused the pair of unfairly trashing films, saying malicious reviews may harm the industry’s development.

The backdrop was a Chinese box office that is posting its worst growth in years. With two days remaining in 2016, China is nowhere near its 60 billion yuan ($8.6 billion) box office goal for the year. Instead, the 45 billion yuan in receipts is barely more than the 44 billion yuan performance in 2015. The year’s stagnant growth has been a major setback for an industry that has enjoyed around 30% annual growth the last five years.

“Certain influential film critics have wreaked havoc over the industry by irresponsibly publishing ill-intentioned reviews and ratings,” wrote the China Film News, a little-known publication under the nation’s radio and film regulator.

The article criticized Douban and Maoyan for “absurdly low” ratings for the country’s latest high profile films, including the recent mammoth joint production The Great Wall, and raised concerns over objectivity of the sites and their critics. Spinning its own Hollywood drama, the author suggested the sites are “ridden with premeditated conspiracy,” since many Chinese films get hit with just a single star before they finish their first screening.

The review sites didn’t take the criticism lightly, calling the negative-bias theory unreasonable.

“Critics each have their own idea of what constitutes a good film. If it fails to impress, we’ll let people know,” said Chen Shiya, a critic on Maoyan. He added that Maoyan’s critics add balance to “droves” of ghostwriters who are paid by film producers to write fake positive reviews to burnish a film’s reputation.

The magazine piece sent shivers through the critic community after it was republished by the influential People’s Daily, the official voice of the Communist Party, as people feared the central government might take a stronger stance to protect the reputation of domestic films.

Those concerns prompted film critics to speak up in their own defense.

“Chinese films will not be destroyed by sharp criticism, but rather, silence,” wrote culture critic Yang Shiyang. “The demise of the industry will come when people avoid debates over film.”

But then People’s Daily published an editorial that seemed to accept the disappointing box office figures — an apparent peace offering to the film critics.

“China’s film market has been called ‘rich and foolish’ and this slowdown actually shows that the market is more rational and the audience more mature,” the People’s Daily wrote in its follow-up editorial. It urged the film industry to adopt a more-open-minded approach to negative reviews, saying film makers need to “be able to tolerate a one-star review.”

Despite the size of the market, highly acclaimed Chinese productions are relatively rare. The Great Wall received a mediocre five out of 10 stars on rating site Douban, despite a $150 million budget that made it the biggest ever China-Hollywood co-production. Railroad Tigers and See You Tomorrow, both big releases during the holiday season, earned 3.7 and 4.7 stars respectively. By comparison, U.S. war film Hacksaw Ridge was given 8.8 out of 10 stars.

Critics believe that rating sites should introduce multidimensional criteria so that popcorn flicks don’t suffer ill reviews. “The top priority of commercial films is entertainment, while art films tend to have a more delicate visual and narrative style,” said Song Ziwen, editor-in-chief of China Movie Report. “We should not mix the two standards.”

Contact reporters April Ma (fangjingma@caixin.com), Pan Che (chepan@caixin.com)

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