A poster for the movie I Want You Photo: IC
Making a hot television show into a movie is nothing new in an age where the entertainment industry becomes increasingly integrated.
But blindly believing that a TV hit will render automatic box office returns could not be more wrongheaded.
The latest fiascos involving the movie I Want You, which is the cinematic version of The Voice of China TV show, proved this supposition beyond all reasonable doubt.
Starring popular singers Wu Mochou and Li Daimo from the hit TV show, I Want You is still based on a talent show but contains a certain tired romantic element.
Zhejiang TV broadcast the first season of the TV show in 2012.
The movie producer predicted a surefire hit when it premiered, hinging on the massive popularity of the singers.
The Voice of China has a total TV audience of 200 million home and abroad, explained the movie’s chief planner Jin Lei.
If all of them went to the cinema to see the film, its box office would surpass that of surprise 2012 hit Lost in Thailand, a landmark domestic small-budget flick and very much a dark horse on it debut in December 2012. Lost in Thailand eventually bagged 1.26 billion yuan ($208 million), a record for domestic films.
With 30 million yuan investment and no more than two months’ production, I Want You premiered on December 27 last year. Jin hoped for 1 billion yuan in box office takings.
The first day the movie took in 1 million yuan, the second day, a Saturday, managed 500,000 yuan.
For the first three days including the weekend, I Want You collected a meager 2 million yuan. After that, theaters began pulling the film from their screening plans.
From the formal start of shooting on October 10 to its premiere in late December last year, the production took two months, filming a little over 20 days.
In fact, the hasty production schedule produced a largely empty story stuffed with familiar faces better savored on TV.
"A television program is like a free lunch," said film critic Wei Qing. "Even if it has a bad taste, people will still go for it because it’s free."
"But film is different. Audiences must buy a ticket to watch it. So if the movie is of a poor quality, even though it comes from a red-hot TV show, audiences won’t buy it."
Fan base That’s not saying converting a TV show or other popular formats into a movie is always a bad idea.
One precondition is that the popularity of the stars is sufficient to lure their broad fan base to buy tickets.
Taiwan-based pop rock band Mayday released its biographical documentary-style film 3DNA in 2011, garnering a tidy 30 million yuan at the box office, a satisfying result for a concert film.
Like I Want You, 3DNA is a musical film heavily dependent on fan support. People won’t spend money on a film if they aren’t interested in the sound. After all, a singer is not a film star.
"Mayday has a very strong fan base in the country, accumulated over a dozen of years," critic Ma Hongguang told the Global Times. "On the other hand, singers from The Voice of China didn’t actually have as much popularity as the producer expected.
"Their previous nationwide tour wasn’t so appealing to their fans."
Absence of solid fan support is fatal for a film based purely on the popularity of the singers.
Chinese rock’n’roll legend Cui Jian released his 3D concert film Transcendence in 2012, encountering a lukewarm reception in the marketplace.
"Fans are the target audience for concert films," said Hu Ju, a senior producer of live performances. "Cui’s fans are mostly in their 40s, while those for Mayday are young people, the pillar of the film industry."
While the rockumentary format is only just emerging in China, it dates back to 1967’s Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan or the better-known 1970 Rolling Stones classic Gimme Shelter.
Produced in 2011 on a budget of $13 million, the Justin Bieber concert film Never Say Never reaped $73 million in North America, a highly profitable venture among its peers.
Fame is not enough. Visual effects matter too. Audiences look for excitement from a filmed live show. That’s why 3D is increasingly popular. The dazzling visual effects of U2 3D (2007) or Part of Me (2013) by Katy Perry satisfied cinema-going fans.
"For a concert or music film, the quality is still very important," Ma said. "The film I Want You looks like an extended MV [music video]."
Great expectations Successful or not, transforming TV shows or concerts is now hot in China. This year in March sees the movie premiere of Happy Boy, an annual popular music talent show broadcast on Hunan TV. Directed by Fan Lixin, the documentary-style film about young male singers is targeting an estimated fan base of 5 million.
The hottest of all the hottest mainland TV shows last year Where Are We Going? Dad will premiere as a movie on the biggest Chinese day of the year: lunar new year’s eve.
Hinging on the runaway popularity of the reality show’s child stars and their fathers, the movie reportedly took only one week to shoot, suggesting an even more blatant commercial intent than I Want You‘s two months.
"But different from The Voice of China which witnessed declining popularity in its second season last year, Where Are We Going? Dad is still hot right now and audiences seem to want more," Ma said.
"Maybe it’s all just a question of good timing."
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