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Chinese Entertainment Industry Braces for a ‘Cold Winter’ in 2019

Winter is here for the Chinese entertainment industry, a half-dozen top-tier industry professionals concurred in Beijing at the launch last week of Tencent Entertainment’s annual data-filled white paper.

China’s box office hit new heights in 2018, raking in about $9 billion, but it was also a year of drastic regulatory changes and a government tax crackdown that have spooked investors and put projects across the country on hold.

“Why call this period a ‘cold winter’? In 2018, 20 film and TV companies saw RMB160 billion of stock market value evaporate, while eight saw their valuation fall by more than 50%. The departure of capital has also made the entire film industry encounter unprecedented difficulties,” said Bona Film Group CEO Yu Dong, who was present to receive an award for “trending movie figure of the year.” Bona-backed “Operation Red Sea” was the top film at the Chinese box office last year, grossing more than $530 million (RMB3.65 billion).

Zhang Liyi, chief editor of online news portal Tencent Entertainment, joked about how people had felt the impact of the slowdown personally. “Before, everyone would always ask each other at get-togethers, ‘Have you eaten? Where are you going on holiday?’ Then in 2018, the most common greetings became ‘Is your project still alive?’ ‘Did your business partner run away?’ ‘Did you finish paying your taxes?’”

The film industry was shaken last summer when superstar Fan Bingbing temporarily disappeared from the public eye and was docked nearly $70 million in fines for tax evasion. The episode sparked a governmental push to tighten tax regulations, with many production companies now slammed with requests for back taxes.

The year to come will be about finding ways to cope with a new normal, many at last Wednesday’s Tencent event said.

“Everyone in the industry has already felt it: The stage of intensive production and expansive development is actually already over,” said Yang Ruichun, deputy editor-in-chief of Tencent’s online news portal qq.com. “After the shakeup of 2018, the entertainment industry will definitely enter a new middle period of development.”

Yang said that people would need to “actively reflect and embrace change” to stay afloat in 2019: “We’re in the midst of a cold winter, and if all you do when facing it is complain, I think you may freeze to death.”

Even social media darling Angelababy, known as much for having had a plastic surgeon examine the authenticity of her preternaturally pointed face as for her acting, seemed ruminative. “I think this winter will be a remedy to rid us of our impatience and giddiness. I hope that thanks to this winter, we can really reflect on what it is exactly that we want and truly wish to accomplish.” She was present to receive an award for “star of the year.”

Tencent’s fifth annual white paper noted a number of entertainment trends in China. This year, word-of-mouth became a key determinant of box office performance. In part, that may be because more users have developed the habit of leaving online reviews. The number of people willing to write a review after seeing a movie was up 86% in 2018 from the year before, with nearly three-quarters of viewers doing so more than a day later, Tencent data showed.

“Dying to Survive” star Xu Zheng, “Detective Chinatown 2’s” Wang Baoqiang, and actor turned writer-director Huang Bo were last year’s most bankable male stars, according to a popularity index developed by Tencent. Among actresses, comediennes Bai Baihe (“Monster Hunt 2”), Zhou Dongyu and veteran Zhang Ziyi led the pack.

Even though authorities approved fewer TV shows for production in 2018 than in past years, a greater percentage of them ended up actually on air — a likely sign of both more intensive content restrictions and of the industry’s increasing maturity. In 2017, only about 29% of shows approved by authorities ultimately ended up being broadcast either online or on television. In 2018, that figure grew to 36%.

Despite the industry-wide chill, the report’s data showed that variety shows developed by online streaming platforms were a notable sector of growth, particularly “X Factor”-style reality shows minting new pop culture idols. A number of stars from the top three programs — Tencent’s “The Coming One” and “Produce 101,” and iQiyi’s “Idol Producer” — are now household names.

While the number of variety shows on traditional satellite TV channels has fallen 15.5% in the past two years to 93, the number of online streaming ones have boomed, with nearly 40% more shows in 2018 than in 2016. Online programs with more than 1 billion viewers rose from two in 2016 to 21 last year, where for the first time, two programs also broke the 5-billion-viewer threshold.

Debashish Ghosh, managing director, international, at PMC, Variety‘s parent company, attended the event as a presenter.

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