There is an idiom in the English language that states, “Don’t take any wooden nickels”. The phrase sprang up in the United States during the early 20th-century when, during the Great Depression, banks would hand out wooden nickels which could be traded in for prizes. This was practice was designed to attract customers into banks which were seen as unreliable at the time.
The phrase, “Don’t take any wooden nickels” was usually said in parting as a warning not to be duped or cheated by someone who might want to pass off a wooden nickel as legal tender. This same aphorism could also be used to remind us of the circumspect nature required when reviewing specific news media stories, though we already have a more direct recommendation in the saying “Don’t believe everything you read”.
This is certainly true in the rash of articles and posts from media outlets far and wide reporting that motion picture theatrical box office in China during the month of February surpassed that of the United States for the first time ever. While there is no doubt this is true numerically, these news stories were designed to foreshadow the not-so-distant day when China will become the number one movie market in the world, ahead of North America, which presently holds the title. Industry pundits can’t help themselves in writing about every minute step toward this inevitability in their desire to be the first to report when it occurs.
Yet one must look a little deeper than the actual February grosses to understand whether the news is at all significant. There’s an old adage instructing us just how to examine such reports; “Read between the lines”.
For some time now media outlets, specifically trade publications, have been juggling the variables used to report on box office receipts. This leads to a form of what I like to refer to as of “selective exaggeration”. Examples are easy to spot and will usually read something along the lines of, “The debut of ‘Big Blockbuster 2′ sets a new record for the opening of a comedy featuring a talking teddy bear opposite a female lead when bowing on an even numbered Friday on an odd number of screens in November”. These new records take so many categories into account it seems one might have a better shot at a black jack table in Macau than they do of ever coming across a release with comparable attributes.
What many of the news stories about China’s box office triumph did not cover was that February is one of the months with the country’s highest movie attendance thanks to the Lunar New Year holiday. Last February Chinese box office amounted to CNY ¥3.04 billion (USD $482.6 million), compared to CNY ¥4.07 billion (USD $650 million) last month. That’s a noteworthy increase of 35%, keeping the country on track with the 36% growth seen in 2014. The first day of Lunar New Year alone set single-day ticket sales record in China, with theatres raking in CNY ¥360 million (USD $48.9 million), according to the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) which tracks such statistics.