Would director’s accusation against Wanda be prelude to China’s version of Paramount Act?

Wang Sicong (left) and Feng Xiaogang (right)

One of China’s most famous film directors publicly accused the country’s richest man last Friday of underplaying his latest movie in the latter’s cinema chain and monopolizing China’s film production.  

In an open letter posted on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like Chinese microblog, veteran director Feng Xiaogang said his film “I Am Not Madame Bovary” has been given on average 40 percent or more of available screening slots in China’s cinemas, but only around 13 percent in those run by Wanda Cinemas, owned by Wang Jianlin’s Wanda Group.

As Wanda is China’s biggest cinema operator with 7.8 percent of China’s more than 38,000 screens, according to entertainment consultancy EntGroup, losing support of Wanda’s cinema chain usually means loss of box office revenue.

Writing under the name of Pan Jinlian, the oriental equivalent of Madame Bovary and the critical monicker of the protagonist in his new film, Feng suggested in the letter that the screening arrangement was a form of revenge by Wanda against Huayi Brothers, a private film company behind Feng’s film, as the latter poached Wanda's former senior executive, Ye Ning who had worked for Wang Jianlin for nealy 15 years, in March this year.

“This is really a simple problem. Because of its personal conflicts with Huayi, Wanda’s revenge has affected a director’s work,” Feng said at a fan meeting in Shanghai at the weekend.

In response, Wang Sicong, Wang Jianlin’s son and a stakeholder in Wanda Cinemas chain, said on Weibo that there was a no-competition clause in Ye’s contract, and Wanda has a right to allocate limited screen slots based on its expectations of the film’s market performance.

In turn, Feng accused Wang and Wanda of acting irresponsibly to their equity holders because the film screening arm of Wanda is a public company.

“With 40 percent of screens nationwide, our film achieved 62 percent of total box-office receipts on its opening day. At Wanda, we got 13 percent of screens, but accounted for 30 percent of its receipts," Feng said on Saturday.

Wang Zhonglei, Huayi's president, responded to Wang Sicong's remarks, saying "several Huayi executives were poached by Wanda first. I should be the one to be unhappy before you. However, talent movement in the industry is very normal."

As both Feng and Wang Sicong have around 20 million followers on Weibo, the verbal exchange between the two attracted millions of views and comments on Weibo, while Wang Jianlin and Wanda Group itself have remained silent so far.

Lu Chuan@陆川, director of Born in China thinks Feng should let it go because the current screen share of an art movie like this one is already good enough in China, and “if a film’s controversy can be turned into attention and examination of the film itself, that would be fortunate. If not, that’s sad,” he said.

I Am Not Madame Bovary garnered 146 million yuan ($21.2 million) in its first two days of release, a significant sum for a drama film with a mostly circular format, according to China Daily. The movie, a gentle satire of the country's bureaucracy, has been widely lauded as Feng's best in a decade.

Concerns over industry monopoly

Feng’s accusation against Wanda of limiting the screenings of his film also triggered speculation on whether this issue would eventually develop into a Chinese version of Paramount Case, a landmark United States Supreme Court antitrust case in 1948 which changed the way Hollywood movies were produced, distributed and screened.

Before the case, major film studios in the US owned the theaters where their motion pictures were shown, either in partnerships or outright and complete. The specific theater chains showed only the films produced by the studios that owned them.

Wanda Group, which was originally a real estate company headquartered in northeast China’s Dalian city, has moved into entertainment industry since the establishment of Wanda Cinemas in 2005. In the past few years, the group has bought several of the world’s leading companies in film production and distribution such as Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, America’s second-largest cinema chain AMC Entertainment and Hoyts Cinema, the second-largest cinema chain in Oceanic.

Meanwhile, with its subsidiary Wanda Cinemas the largest cinema operator in China and having acquired the country’s leading movie portal Mtime, the company now has a complete industrial chain “which spans film production, distribution, screening, film studios, film festival and more,” according to the company’s website.

Poster of "I'm Not Madame Bovary". Photo: Douban

In fact, it was rumored in July that Wanda Cinemas was limiting screen slots of Huayi’s animation “Rock Dog” on the first day the movie was shown, which was though denied by Wanda later.

Besides “Rock Dog” and “I’m Not Madame Bovary”, another film, “When Larry Met Mary”, produced by Huayi, also got a low screen allocation of 5.3% in Wanda Cinemas, compared with a Wanda-produced movie called “For A Few Bullets” which got 31.1%, when the two were shown at the same time in July. Wanda also arranged a stunning 67.5% of screen slots for “Warcraft,” produced by Legendary Pictures.

Feng said "I'm Not Madame Bovary" was an innocent victim in the rival companies' scuffle as he didn't even know Ye.

“Who will be next?...All directors might get ‘revengeful’ screening arrangements resulting from the two companies’ old scores. This could tremendously hurt China’s film industry. This is not just my own business,” Feng said.

In fact, it is not the first time that a Chinese filmmaker has voiced anger toward low screen allocation by the cinema operators. In May this year, a Chinese film producer kneeled down in an online broadcast, crying and begging Chinese theater owners for more showtime for his film, which triggered both controversy and sympathy for Chinese art-house films.

A new film “The Wasted Times” produced by Huayi and featuring China’s leading performers Zhang Ziyi and Ge You will be released next month. While the Wanda-produced “The Great Wall” will be shown in the same period, many have already begun to predict how Wanda will arrange the screens for the two movies at that time.

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