Chinese audiences have gotten used to hearing at the last minute that a film won’t be screened for “technical reasons,” and know that the phrase is usually a euphemism for state censorship. It came as a real surprise to many that they were, for once, unable to watch a film for actual technical reasons this weekend.
Chinese film authorities on Wednesday approved a Friday debut for the 4K remastered re-release of Peter Jackson’s “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film in his classic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The approval came so close to the release date that cinemas across the country were unable to receive their digital prints in time, forcing droves of refunds for cancelled screenings on opening day.
Imax missed opening day almost entirely, and had to continue playing “Godzilla vs. Kong” instead.
“‘Lord of the Rings’ set its release date yesterday, sent the digital prints today, and goes up tomorrow,” marveled one film blogger on Thursday. “No cinema dares to schedule screenings for tomorrow, and whether it can even screen by Saturday depends entirely on the speediness of the express couriers. This is real ‘China speed’!”
Others joked that to have a title as big as “Lord of the Rings” drop at such short notice was “the nightmare of all cinema managers.” “A few more of these high-speed, sudden releases coming out of nowhere and they’re going to drop dead,” one wrote. The March 12 re-release date for James Cameron’s “Avatar” was similarly announced just days before, but distribution went more smoothly thanks to an extra day or two.
China will be re-releasing all three films of the trilogy, with “The Two Towers” set to hit April 23 and “The Return of the King” as yet unscheduled.
Exhibitors on Friday had to contend with angry fans disgruntled that their “Fellowship” tickets had been automatically refunded by online ticketing platforms — particularly since they’d been waiting on tenterhooks for months for release dates to finally be announced.
“After waiting so long and painfully for ‘Lord of the Rings’ to set a date, and then have my Imax ticket for Saturday night to suddenly be refunded — it’s miserable,” said one disgruntled Weibo commenter.
While the “Fellowship” digital copies made it to most cinemas in first, second and third tier cities, venues in fourth tier cities had almost no screenings programmed even as of Saturday morning local time, its second official day in theaters. “Fellowship” accounted for 13.5% of total screenings planned for Saturday in first-tier cities, it accounted for 7.2% in second-tier cities and just 3.2% and a miniscule 1.7% in third- and fourth-tier cities, respectively, according to Maoyan data. Even accounting for regional variations in taste, the latter two figures are abnormally low.
China’s technology for digital distribution via satellite transmission is not yet mature enough for use, meaning that thousands of hard drives must be shipped out for every batch of new releases.
The digital prints for premium large format and Dolby versions of the film are being shipped separately from the standard versions, and will likely arrive at most locations even later. This is in large part because state-owned China Film, which holds a near-monopoly on the import and distribution of foreign films, wanted all versions to be the same, which required modifications. Imax, for instance, had to remove its pre-roll countdown and a post-credits end card to match the other versions.
Many film industry practitioners airing their grievances on social media blamed the China Film Administration, slamming the bureau for mismanagement.
“Sending the prints today for release tomorrow — this is simply foolish, reckless way of working,” chided a top Weibo film critic.
Another wrote: “Why even set a release date if you can’t even distribute the prints by then? This isn’t the first time this has happened — will no one step up and blame the film administration for this style of working?”
Many concluded that China’s state film entities were making such abrupt decisions in order to use Hollywood tentpoles guaranteed to keep turnstiles spinning as fodder to plug gaps in the line-up of local films.
“This is obviously the result of China Film trying to save the market because they think the box office has been too low lately,” one grumbled.
Whatever the reason, cinemas across the country in cities large and small were left in a bind, and had to appease angry customers.
On its official Weibo account, a branch of the Premiere Cinema chain in Xi’an city posted frantically at 6pm on Friday: “The hard drive arrived! We’ve copied it! Pre-sales have started! You can buy tickets now!”
The Oscar Manhattan International Cinema in Zhengzhou city went a step further to reassure skittish ticket buyers by posting a picture of the physical package in which the hard drive arrived. “The drive is in hand, we are in the midst of urgently copying it!!” it wrote.
Memes spreading on social media platforms depicted panicked exhibitors logging onto express courier sites to see if the digital prints had been delivered, then getting blasted in the face.