Chinese Comedy ‘Lost in Russia’ First to Ditch Theaters for ByteDance’s Video Platforms

The Spring Festival of 2020 has been one to remember. The streets are empty, cinemas are all empty. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, any public places have been temporarily been shut down due to fears about further infections.

Many major Chinese films announced their withdrawal from cinemas amid the peak Spring Festival season, including highly anticipated films such as animated Jiang Ziya, Lost in Russia, and Detective Chinatown. Just as we expect the Chinese film market to enter a deadly calm for quite some time, news came that the production company Huanxi Media Group Limited (listed in Hong Kong Stock Exchange) of Lost in Russia successfully sold the film’s copyright to tech giant ByteDance for 630 million yuan. The film was available for free on several of ByteDance’s short video platforms including Douyin, Xigua Video, Toutiao.

This is a groundbreaking move for the whole industry, as Lost in Russia is the first ever Chinese film sold to a short video company before its release in the cinema. There are several different perspectives on the long-term implications of the move.

For the general public, it’s always nicer to see a newly released film online for free. No membership payment, no nothing. Lost in Russia tells the story of how a decadent and divorced middle-aged man deals with his control freak mother on a six-day train from Beijing to Moscow. The film has no adult content. No deep or superior themes, but it is utterly entertaining and instructive about “a journey to get to know your mother”. In a word, the film is perfect for the whole family to watch, with senior and kids together, if projected onto a big screen in the dining room.

protagonist and his mother in ‘Lost in Russia’ (source: Huanxi Media)

For those involved in the deal, Huanxi Media Group Limited and ByteDance, it’s beneficial for both sides. For Huanxi Media, its stock price peaked on January 24, one day before the movie was out online. For ByteDance, it could be seen as an attempt towards more long-form video content.

Stock price of Huanxi Media peaked on January 24 (source: Baidu)

According to the official statement of the production company, the production cost of the film totaled 270 million yuan, meaning the deal should yield around 360 million yuan in profit. Considering the theme and style of the film, it was meant for the Spring Festival season, unlike films like animation Jiang Ziya, which can more easily be postponed to a later release after the coronavirus outbreak.

Furthermore, considering the pre-sale box office, as of 17:00 on January 22nd, of the total 468 million pre-sale tickets, Detective Chinatown led the way with a 260 million box office, and Lost in Russia sold merely 50 million pre-sale results. In this sense, it seems wiser to avoid the fierce competition and future uncertainties with a clean-cut “once-for-all” deal.

Spring Festival season has always been severely unpredictable for the Chinese film market. Back to last year, The Wandering Earth was the champion of the 2019 Spring Festival season, grossing a 2.01 billion in attendance. The success of the Wandering Earth is hardly replicable, as it is both seen as a novelty in terms of its science-fiction genre and international standard computer-generated special effects.

The shortcomings of watching a theatrical film on an app are also obvious. For netizens, the most common comment has been, “I feel weird watching a lengthy film on a short video platform. I couldn’t even finish it.”

Furthermore, the film itself doesn’t actually excel in terms of the plot, but the beautiful scenery in Russia provides aesthetic pleasure. For the previous movies in the same series, Lost in Thailand and Lost in Hong Kong have both triggered a craze for traveling to destinations in the films for Chinese tourists. According to China Youth Daily, after Lost in Thailand (first movie of the series) was released in 2013, group travel and self-guided tours to Thailand increased by three times year-on-year. For Lost in Russia, the photography seems a little bit of waste shown on small screens.

‘Lost in Thailand’, first movie of the comedy series (source: Beijing Enlight Pictures)

Industry boycott

What if in the future, any movies that might face fierce competition in the theater were just sold to short video platforms? It would certainly be a bad influence for the whole industry.

On the evening of January 24, the Zhejiang Film Industry Association, where Hengdian Film and Television is located, issued a statement saying that it hopes Huanxi Media will stop the online premiere of Lost in Russia, otherwise the Zhejiang film industry will boycott future films produced by Huanxi Media.

Ultimately, altogether 23 theater companies including Wanda Film Corp. issued a boycott statement towards Lost in Russia on the same day. The statement reads:“ As a cinema movie, Lost in Russia temporarily changed to online free premiere, ignoring traditional cinema theaters. The behavior goes against theater revenue and the industrial payment model, which tramples and deliberately destructs the current Chinese film industry and distribution mechanism, and will play a destructive leading role in the future.”

In the long run, it’s hard to predict whether theater attendance will remain strong in the current environment. Despite serious advances in the influence of the short video sector, theaters continue to see investment support. According to the latest data from China Movie Data Information Network, lower-tier cities have added 1,027 theaters and 6,142 big screens in 2019, accounting for 71.97%, and 69.11% of the nationwide number. In the meantime, short video platforms have become indispensable channels for movie promotion. In 2019, 68% of films were promoted through ByteDance’s Douyin (China’s domestic version of TikTok).

Despite the industry boycott, another action comedy entitled Enter the Fat Dragon, bailed on the traditional Valentine’s Day cinema season, and announced its official launch on streaming media platforms such as iQIYI on February 1st, becoming the second movie to be released online. Users could pay 12 yuan to watch the film online, and iQIYI VIP members could save another six yuan. However the film got a disappointing 4.7 rating on Chinese movie rating platform Douban. For artsy movie fans, the shift risks cheapening of the film quality to fit the platforms. For the general crowd, it depends on whether you are in the mood to spend an extra six yuan for 1.5 hours of cheesy entertainment.