Since Jurassic Park broke Hong Kong box-office records in 1992, the market share of Hollywood films has gradually been increasing. Hong Kong films first started to lose their shine at the box office during non-peak seasons, and the decline later spilled over into the Christmas and summer holidays. Even so, it seemed like Hong Kong films would remain invincible during the Lunar New Year. But this has changed in the last three years.
In 2015, Japanese animation Stand by Me: Doraemon came out top at the box office during the Lunar New Year, with a take of HK$46.7m. It was followed by 20th Century Fox’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, which took HK$32.8m. From Vegas to Macau II, the highest-grossing Chinese film, had to settle for an unimpressive HK$28.4m.
In 2016, Stephen Chow’s The Mermaid grossed a healthy HK$56.2m, but still didn’t perform as well as the Category III superhero film Deadpool, which took HK$58.3m. In 2017, although Tsui Hark’s Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back grossed over HK$5m on its opening day, and went on to take around HK$24.4m, Hollywood’s Resident Evil: The Final Chapter and La La Land grossed over HK$32m each. It would seem that Chinese-language movies don’t have what it takes to attract moviegoers.
The reason is that the market has changed significantly, and local producers have not kept up with the times. During the 1970s and 1980s, almost all the shops were closed during Lunar New Year, and movies were one of the few entertainment options on offer. Lunar New Year is also a time for family reunions, so most of the audiences in cinemas were families. Consequently Lunar New Year movies had to be suitable for young children, grandmothers, and everyone in between. Comedies by Michael Hui, Jackie Chan, Sam Hui, and Stephen Chow usually topped the box office during the Lunar New Year.
Changes in the social climate mean that Lunar New Year is no longer an extended holiday like it used to be, but a three-day break. Family structures have changed, too. A trend towards smaller families means that young audiences now prefer to gather and watch films together, rather than go with their kin.
Chinese-language films released during Lunar New Year over the past three years have been sticking to the same model. Many Lunar New Year films still use the tried and tested formula of the 1980s and 1990s – an ensemble cast of famous stars in a crazy comedy. But interest in this tired genre has been fading. Films which have been focusing on mainland China as their major market, like Wong Jing’s From Vegas to Macau series, and the Monkey King films made by various companies, have just regurgitated the stories of God of Gamblers and A Chinese Odyssey respectively. This approach has not appealed to local audiences.
Japanese animation Stand by Me: Doraemon’s 2015 triumph at the box office could be a unique case – a result of the death of its famed voice actor, Lam Pou-chuen. Lunar New Year is traditionally a non-peak season for US films in Hong Kong, coming after lucrative seasons like Christmas. But with a blossoming of Hollywood films in January and February, the Hollywood studios decided to try out some projects during the holiday. 20th Century Fox’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Deadpool and Sony Pictures’ Resident Evil: The Final Chapter were targeted at the younger generation, who have become less interested in Hong Kong films.
The way that Chinese-language films repeat their traditional, once-successful formulas has made the resulting films less attractive. What’s more, the big-budget China/Hong Kong productions, which feature leading actors from mainland China, have generated less interest among Hong Kong audiences due to their lack of a local flavour.
The movie market in any season can see a change due to fluctuations in audience tastes, and unexpected factors. The loss of market share during Lunar New Year means that local filmmakers need to adapt to the changing tastes of audiences. Only that way will they see their market share return.