If you want to win the Chinese box office, just add tap water

June 2018, Shanghai

After an opening weekend in late April where it smashed all sorts of box office records in America, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR was the talk of Hollywood. But by the following Monday, headlines in the trades were less focused on where the Avengers had been, and more on where they were heading next: to China, the Holy Grail of the global entertainment market.

Surprising very few, the Avengers stormed the Middle Kingdom three weeks later, where it broke yet another record: the largest opening ever for any movie in China.

Despite worldwide mumblings of possible Marvel fatigue, it’s clear that there is still a vast appeal among Chinese audiences to watch American superheroes duke it out with intense Tinseltown special effects. These movies are here to stay, whether you like it or not. But instead of philosophizing why these supernatural Western fighters appeal to the Chinese so much, we can go directly to a seemingly innocuous entertainment website called Douban.com.

Douban.com is a Chinese social media site that boasts more than 150 million registered users (roughly half the size of the United States’ population), and countless more unregistered users. It caught our attention because it provides its users a platform to review movies in both short-form and long-form formats to its huge online readership. And Chinese audiences appear to be reading these “amateur” reviews en masse.

On Douban’s AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR page for example, more than 20,000 Chinese readers upvoted the most popular review – alone. (That doesn’t include downvotes and total readership, which aren’t published.) Compare this to AVENGER’s IMDb page, where the most upvoted user review only had a little more than 1,000 votes total, including both upvotes and downvotes. This suggests that there is a greater genuine interest in China in what one’s fellow audience member thinks and has to say.

Positive word-of-mouth can create a bona fide grassroots blockbuster, as was the case with 2015 surprise hit MONKEY KING: HERO IS BACK, a domestic animated movie that was championed by its audiences on social media as a patriotic must-see flick. There were even reports of people calling their local cinemas to add more screenings of HERO IS BACK, and these headlines spawned even more campaigns of people inspired by the news stories, calling theaters in their own hometowns.

Movie studios in China are well aware of how seriously their moviegoers consider online reviews, so much so that there have been numerous cases where ghost writers have allegedly been hired by studios to write fake positive reviews on movie websites with the goal of driving up ticket sales. These ghost writers are derogatorily referred to as 水军, pronounced shuijun, which literally means “water army,” because the studios pay them to “flood” sites like Douban with fake positive reviews. (As you can see, Mandarin is a metaphoric language that is as snarky as it is beautiful.)

But hiring your own water army is a high-risk/high-reward strategy in the cutthroat Chinese market. The awareness of this phenomenon spawned a new internet slang term for the power of the authentic amateur critics: 自来水, pronounced zilaishui, which literally means “tap water.” Unlike the hired water army, this tap water flows naturally and freely with real reviews and genuine positive buzz, and it made a film like HERO IS BACK one of the most successful domestic animated Chinese movies of all time.

But Chinese tap water can easily yield the opposite effect as well. This was especially true when a critic on Douban declared that legendary director “Zhang Yimou is dead,” in reference to his 2016 film THE GREAT WALL. The line went viral instantly – apparently it was simply too droll not to repeat and share on social media. This critic would later go on to rightfully apologize to Mr. Zhang, but the THE GREAT WALL now has a ranking of 5.1 out of 10 on Douban. For comparison, most of Mr. Zhang’s celebrated movies rank in the 8.0 to 9.0+ range.

Much like the backlash of certain Western filmmakers against review-aggregation websites like Rotten Tomatoes, some Chinese filmmakers in turn are now on the offensive against Douban and its online critics. As recently as last month, a young local director named Bi Zhifei publicly slammed Douban, calling it “the gangster of internet reviews.” His movie PURE HEARTS: INTO CHINESE SHOWBIZ received only a 2.1 score out of 10 by Douban reviewers, which he believes caused it to be a box office disappointment. The production company behind Mr. Bi’s film is now suing Douban.

Needless to say, such is not the case with AVENGERS. On Douban, it is clear that the Chinese audience generally agrees that the latest Marvel movies is one of the best. As of this writing, the average score is 8.3 out of 10, which puts it above 96% of all action movies rated on Douban. The buzz is also quantifiable: there are more than 120,000 short reviews on Douban alone and more than 3,000 long-form reviews (some over 8,000 characters in length—think a very, very long essay). All of these are written voluntarily by unpaid amateur critics. This is a level of audience engagement that really doesn’t exist in America.

Couple this with the discerning and unique way in which the Chinese audience intercommunicates using technology and cultural closeness, and you really start to see the power of a site like Douban. When it comes to the film industry here, everyone’s a critic, and everyone is listening to each other. If some online critic with the right following had declared “Marvel is dead,” the tides could have easily changed for the Avengers.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR truly dominated the Chinese box office. But such big numbers and record feats are increasingly commonplace here in China, which still has yet to reach the peak of its entertainment gold rush. The actual “infinity war” is over who will break our top opening weekend record next. Our guess is that it will happen sooner than you might expect... After all, all it takes is tap water.

Contributors: Justinian Huang (Pearl Studio’s Head of Development), with Lynne Lin and Hank Abbott

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