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China’s Lunar New Year Box Office Sets Record, Despite Rampant Piracy

Box office figures for China’s competitive Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) period reached a record high this year, despite rampant piracy that likely incurred losses of an estimated RMB1 billion ($147.9 million), Chinese reports said. But the record gross came on the strength of higher movie ticket prices, not from more viewers hitting the theaters.

“The Spring Festival period is the prelude to the rest of the year, and so this [performance] indicates that the Chinese film market in 2019 will be full of uncertainty,” commentators on the WeChat account Entertainment Capital said.

The total box office intake for the Feb. 4-10 lunar new year period reached RMB5.83 billion ($860 million), an increase of 1.4% year-on-year, according to data from online ticketing platform Maoyan. But the number of actual cinema visits was down 10.3% year-on-year to 130 million.

Rising ticket prices were a key factor contributing to the decrease in cinema-going. Tickets for lunar new year’s day in some lower-income third- and fourth-tier cities skyrocketed to as high as RMB100 ($14.80) apiece, making a trip to the movies much less affordable for families. Overall, average ticket prices during the holiday rose more than RMB4.8 year-on-year across the country, with the rise most notable in second-tier cities, where they jumped 13.7%, Maoyan said. The number of tickets purchased for the first day of the holiday was down 2.4% from last year, it noted.

Higher costs drove more viewers to watch illegally pirated films in the comfort of their own homes — a choice made all the more attractive by piracy of unprecedented quality and rapidity.

In past years, pirated versions available immediately after a film’s debut were still quite amateur, with poor sound and picture quality. But this year, just three days after opening, all four of the top new releases had been leaked in HD, with some versions boasting resolution as high as 1280p. They circulated online for as little as 1RMB ($0.15) apiece, with some bundled into gift packages of multiple titles for even less.

Pirated versions “of this quality are more likely coming from people within the industry rather than amateurs,” wrote analyst Wu Yuting on industry WeChat account Pufferfish Film Archive, citing insiders.

Chinese reports estimate that piracy of Spring Festival films likely burned about RMB1 billion ($147.9 million) of profits.

Over the weekend, Gong Ge’er, the producer of the smash sci-fi hit “The Wandering Earth,” said that pirated online versions of films released during the holiday period had been viewed more than 20 million times. “This is a very conservative estimate, since peer-to-peer downloads cannot be counted,” he added.

The unprecedented scale of the piracy has prompted Chinese authorities and film producers themselves to set up operations to scour the web and take down copies. “The Wandering Earth” director Frant Gwo put out a call on Weibo for internet users to send leads on pirates directly to Gong, while China’s National Copyright Administration set up its own tip hotline. “Let’s work together to combat online copyright infringement and piracy, protect excellent domestic movies and purify our online copyright environment!” it urged on its official Weibo account.

The administration had put the eight Spring Festival releases on a new “key works copyright protection warning list” before the holiday began. To seemingly little effect, it warned violators hosting and disseminating pirated versions that they would be dealt with “strictly in accordance with law.”

Despite piracy woes, “The Wandering Earth” has found massive box office success, raking in RMB2.64 billion ($390.9 million) as of Tuesday morning after just nine days in theaters. The tally pushed it past last year’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” which brought in RMB2.39 billion in the mainland, and knocked the U.S. blockbuster out of the top 10 highest-grossing films in China of all time, clinching seventh place.

Last week, Gwo wrote on Weibo of the camaraderie he felt with directors Ning Hao and Han Han, whose Spring Festival releases rivaled his, in the push to fight piracy and make this year’s box office tally historic. He posted photos of stacks of tickets he’d purchased for Han’s “Pegasus” and Ning’s “Crazy Alien,” and of chat histories with his peers in which they urged each other to “keep fighting.”

“This is us — encouraging each other, joining hands, working together, and moving forward!” his photo caption said.

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