Author：Verbena C. W，Elaine Yang
“Is an author who hasn’t directed a film a good author?”
In the last two years, this provocative question has become a red hot topic in China’s literary world. And it is not just the literary world. Recently, the Chinese media has also joined the discussion. The immediate cause was the film “The Continent”, released in July 2014. “The Continent” is a road movie featuring three young men from a remote island. Half by choice, half out of necessity, the three decide to travel the breadth of Chinese mainland. On the road, they come across a wide range of colorful characters, including what they believe to be the women of their dreams. It is a journey of humor, existential conversations and goodbyes that shows many facets of life. But whether it is actually any good is largely immaterial to the film’s audiences. What they care about is that the film was written and directed by the bestselling author Han Han. By August 3, this has been enough for the film to have made more than 82 million USD (407 RMB).
In fact, just a week before “The Continent” hit the theaters, Guo Jingming, Han Han’s long-standing rival and best-selling author in his own right, released a film of his own. The film was the third installment of the “Tiny Times” series, based on Guo Jingming’s books of the same name. As he has done with his previous films, Guo Jingming drummed up a storm on social media sites for his movie, revealing a stream of movie posters and trailers prior to its release. Even if it is by now a done deal that “The Continent” will beat “Tiny Times 3” at the box office, the “Tiny Times” trilogy has made more than 160 million USD (a cool billion RMB) and certainly has no reason to feel contrite.
The phenomenon of bestselling authors making movies traces its roots back to 2011, when Taiwanese author Jiu Badao wrote and directed “You Are the Apple of my Eye”. The film was very successful, making more than 24.5 million USD (700 Million New Taiwan Dollars).
These so-called “fan films” (as in films for fans) are a relatively new arrival to the Chinese film market, but they have already turned the traditional logic of the movie industry on its head. These author directed and written films no longer rely on huge investments to turn a healthy profit, instead they count on the collective fond memories of the author’s readers and fans to attract audiences. The number of fans an author can muster is almost guaranteed to directly translate into the the number of tickets sold. In China, bestselling authors have become idols with legions of young fans and even though some have criticized pervasive, shallow materialism of “Tiny Times” or the overly convoluted, but ultimately unsatisfying plot of “The Continent”, these critiques have done little to mellow the frenzied adoration of true fans. For them, there is no better reason to go to the cinema than a movie directed one of their favorite authors. They love the glitz and glamor of the characters, the melancholy of the narration, the unbridled displays of youth and the lyrics the authors write for the film songs. And those things are pretty much all that is needed to get them into the theaters.
With the success of the current batch of “fan movies”, it is almost certain that more and more Chinese authors will give movie-making a try. But directing a movie requires more than just learning where to point a camera. It also means learning about the business side of things. And that can be a tough hurdle indeed. It will be interesting to see if future author-turned-film directors will be able to match the success of Han Han and Guo Jingming; And there can of course be no guarantee that authors who have already delivered hit debuts will be able to repeat their success at the box office. The only thing that is certain is that future for Chinese “fan films” is full of potential; And potential pit-falls.