China’s latest patriotic blockbuster film is a $39 million box office sham

What movie are they really seeing?
What movie are they really seeing?
Image: AP Images/Greg Baker
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China’s stock market isn’t the only institution the government has been propping up lately—movie box office numbers are looking rather suspect too.

A state-financed film called The Hundred Regiments Offensive, which chronicles China’s defeat of Japan during WWII, shot to the top of the domestic box office during the week of Aug. 31, allegedly grossing $39 million. But as the Hollywood Reporter points out, those numbers were probably inflated by movie theaters.

Wang Zhonglei, president of the Chinese production studio Huayi Brothers, scrutinized the numbers on Weibo, and argued that they don’t quite add up. On Aug. 28, he posted data from the movie ticketing site Maoyan showing that while Hundred Regiments took in 40% of box office revenues, it accounted for only about 10% of screenings. Terminator Genisys, the likely real frontrunner for that weekend, accounted for 22% of box office revenues but almost 30% of total screenings.

Judging by the the trailer for Hundred Regiments, it doesn’t look to have the same special effects polish as Hollywood fare such as the Terminator movies.

Other numbers look suspicious as well. Entgroup, a research firm that tracks China’s box office and entertainment industry, estimates that Hundred Regiments took in 5.6 million admissions the same week, on over 99,000 screenings. Terminator Genisys brought in 4.3 million admissions, but was screened over 250,000 times. It’s possible that theaters simply anticipated that Terminator would be more successful than it actually was. But additional evidence points to manipulation.

According to Box Office Media, the government sent a notice to movie theater chains imposing quotas on ticket sales for Hundred Regiments, to coincide with the nation’s 70th anniversary of WWII. The film tells the story of a final Chinese offense against the Japanese occupation of China in 1939, led by Mao Zedong and Peng Dehuai.

As an incentive to cooperate, theaters could receive 100% of the revenues from the first week’s ticket sales, rather than the standard 43%, according to reports. Movie theaters apparently duly obliged and fudged bookings. Pictures circulated on the internet (link in Chinese) show ticket stubs for Hundred Regiments with the screening times and auditorium numbers crossed out, indicating that counter staff were pulling switcheroos.

This isn’t the first time the government has pressured theaters to fudge numbers in the name of patriotism—a similar scheme was reported in 2009, when the epic Founding of a Party was released to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s beginning.

Hundred Regiments‘ creators have a strong pedigree in propaganda—co-director Ning Haiqiang made a film three years ago about the selfless comrade Lei Feng, a perennial figure in party folklore. The news portal Netease reports that the script was personally re-written by Zhang Hongsen, head of the film bureau China’s State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPRFT), which oversees the nation’s entertainment and media industries.

Reviews of Hundred Regiments have not been positive—60% of the film’s reviewers on Douban, a Chinese movie index, have given it one star (link in Chinese), the lowest rating.

“The purpose is to deceive and brainwash,” one commenter said. “This is a crap film. I honor true heros that resisted Japan, regardless of which party they came from, and I also despise false history and propaganda.”