China Just Invented the Future of Cinema Watching (But Everyone Older Than 30 Will Hate It)

By | August 6, 2014 2:37 am PST

This week saw a cinema screening in China that may prove a watershed moment for how films are watched on the big screen. But chances are that unless you are a Millennial, particularly in Asia, you are not going to want to embrace it.

I’ve seen things…

Covering mainland China as a non-Mandarin speaker based in Singapore for me is a bit like watching an outdoor screening of Bladerunner from a neighbouring roof through a pair of binoculars; I can make out most of what is happening, pick up a lot of what is said, though I cannot pretend to understand everything that is going on. But to quote from the films memorable final monologue, “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.”

Because my perspective, disadvantaged though it may be, provides some fascinating insights into things happening in the Chinese exhibition industry, whether it is bizarre hammer attacks, concession food hygiene scares, Wanda IPO shenanigans or inherent structural market weaknesses – and that’s just in the last two weeks! And like Bladerunner this perspective offers a very real glimpse into the future – of cinema.

Because it is important to remember that the future of cinema does not lie in the west, which only offers stasis or a gentle decline of shrinking older audiences into wider, more comfortable and expensive seats, watching Avengers VII or a Met Opera. That is how THE END of cinema going as we know it plays out in cinema auditoriums everywhere from multiplexes in Manchester to art-houses in Atlanta, observed with gourmet popcorn and a glass of wine in our hand.

Whereas in China and Asia, cinema continue to grow and evolve as a social experience in the non-flickering digital projection light off the Imax/CFG screen. That is where we have to look to understand the future, particularly if we want to remain part of it.

China and Asia – the Cinema Innovators

We don’t need to rehash the already well-established importance of China to the global film and cinema business, whether it’s the gargantuan box office earning of Transformers 4 or the fact that it is the single most important growth market for Imax. What is important is not that China is now the second biggest cinema market in the world – though on uncertain foundations, as we’ve discussed many times before – but that it is a market that is continuing to expand.

This is equally true for the rest of the Far East and Southeast Asia, with the exception of Japan. The cinema business in South Asia is also growing, but with more restrictions, particularly in India where it is hampered by red tape and costly malls. (India also has a different and more traditionalist – not to say conservative – cinema going culture, that is in many way closer to that in the west than in China.)

So when we talk about China, it is often also a shorthand for talking about cinema developments in an arc across Asia that stretches from Seoul/Beijing/Tokyo, down through Singapore/Jakarta/Kuala Lumpur through to Chennai/Islamabad/Dubai.

It is in these markets that we are seeing the greatest innovations when it comes to cinemas. This comes from most of them being under-screened and unencumbered by legacy cinemas and multiplexes with their analogue heritage, as well as having a young population. It is easier to embrace the future if you can build it from scratch than if you have to retrofit it, particularly for audiences that don’t have a fixed concept of what ‘cinema’ should be. Asia is the only continent where the majority of cinemas that have never seen a 35mm print will soon outnumber those that at least once had a film projector. Asia *is* digital cinema.

There was much talk at CinemaCon about CineBarco with its three-screen Escape system, but it is in Korea that it had already been tried with the Kia ScreenX (to promote local auto brand).

Korea is also home to the 4D motion seats (4DPlex’s 4DX and ACOUVUE’s Cine-Sation) that are winning over converts at an astonishing rate. It is also no surprise that interactive advertising solution providers Yummi Media Group (of Cinime fame) see the Chinese market as important, if not more important, than the USA.

I could mention countless other examples, ranging from bookstore cinema in China to the world’s largest cinema screen in Lotte Cinema World Tower, but regular readers of Celluloid Junkie will be familiar with these already. So let’s skip ahead to Qin’s Moon and the phenomenon of ‘interactive barraging’ in the cinemas.

The Legend of Qin / Qin’s Moon

Qinshiming (or Qín Shí Míng), The Legend of Qin, which is going on wide release in the mainland this coming weekend (8th of August or 8/8 – a very lucky number), is an animated feature film distributed by Huaxia Distribution, Toonmax Media and Enlight Pictures. It is based on an animated television show that has been running on China’s CCTV for several seasons.

Here is a recent episode from the television series The Legend of Qin, a.k.a Qin’s Moon (S04E01, or the first episode of series four in non-torrent lingo).

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about the TV show.

The Legend of Qin (Chinese: ????; pinyin: qín shí míng yuè), aka Qin’s Moon is a CG Chinese animated TV series. The story is based on the novel of the same name by Taiwanese writer and entrepreneur Wen Shiren. It is China’s first 3D wuxia animation, produced by Sparkly Key?Hangzhou Xuanji Science & Technology Information Corporation (Hangzhou StarQ)? in Hangzhou, Zhejiang. The title means “The bright moon of Qin Era”, quoted from a famous poem. Here it also contains the names of the two heroes. Ming(bright) is the hero Tianming, Yue(moon) is the heroine Yue-er.

This TV series was broadcast around Chinese New Year in 2007.[1] The background of this TV series is begin from the building of the first Chinese empire: Qin to the end of the Capital of Qin which named XianYang been compromised by the soldiers from Chu. The span of this series is 30 years(including memories). It shows a juvenile named Tianming, who has the blood of heroes, grew up to a hero, as well as changed the development of the history with his ability. It is an inspirational TV series which combines martial arts, fantasy, history together with each other, and leads the audience to witness the surging, magnificent and beautiful ancient Chinese world two thousand years ago.

It is is popular enough to have spawned both video and smartphone games.

QinShiming

As well as a devoted role-play and cosplay following.

Qins Moon cosplay

And here is the teaser trailer for the film itself:

So what is so special about this film, you may by now impatiently be asking. How is a CG animated film going to change cinema?

Is the film any good? Maybe, maybe not. The animation is hardly better than that of the television series, despite (because?) it being China’s first 3D wuxia animation. The trailer has so far been viewed just 4,200 times and not attracted a single comment.

Does any of the above matter? Not at all. Will people still go to see it? Yes, and that’s even if they know that it is bad. This likelihood has nothing to do with affinity to the original – though that an cosplay and popularity of the game will play a small part – and everything to do with ‘tucao’

The Art of Tucao

Don’t bother googling for the term, as it will only lead you to tucao.cc that features quasi-pornographic anime. The best explanation of tucao comes from writer Ginger Huang, writing about “Weibo’s Premier Sino-Satirists” and how the Twitter-like micro-blog ‘reclaimed the concept of irony and satire.’

[T]he most commonplace satire you can find on Weibo is not duanzi, which takes a great writer to perform, but tucao. Tucao comes from the Japanese, meaning to joke about something that you dislike. More often than not, tucao on Weibo target things that are distinctly Chinese, such as the Spring Festival migration and PM2.5 statistics, and they spread like wildfire. For those eager to avoid the infamous three-month freeze on their account from too much tucao, adding “I’m talking about North Korea” at the end of the post is a good way to distract attention.

In a country that despite its great strides in improving the material well being of its citizens still clamps down on political dissent, venting your frustration on non-political targets on Weibo is an escape valve for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

My Mandarin-speaking friends at the Singapore Film Society (Hello, Keng Kiat and David!) were the ones to tell me that in China you go and see a film for the shared (pop) cultural experience, even if you know that it is bad. That way you can still discuss with your friends how terrible it was and make fun of it, whether in person or, more importantly, on social media.

It is the combination of tucao and The Legend of Qin movie that has created what could forever change cinema watching as we know it. Except in this case, cinema goers did not wait until after the film to share their views about it.

“Interactive barrage in the theater, not all movies are suitable barrage movies”

Qin's Moon audience barrage

The photo above, taken from the movie’s Weibo page, is of the audience at the preview screening, which was attended by the film’s director. The movie was shown and warmly received but the smartphones they are holding are not just to take pictures of the cast and crew.

In fact, the phones are intentionally switched on throughout the screening of the film. An article from Shanghai News Channel on 4 August provides more details.

A lot of tucao comments drifting away from the screen, the effect looks like a flying shooting game barrage, so users will have the effect that occurs when a large number of tucao comment, called the barrage. “Bomb” is read as “dan (fourth tone).” We’ve seen barrage, mostly occur in network video. Barrage can give the audience a kind of “real-time interactive” feeling, but also blocks the barrage of video content ills, a barrage of some outdated will reduce the audience’s attention for the video.

Last Saturday, the animated film “Qin Shi Ming” premiered at a  conference hall at the first screening, with more than 1,300 people witnessed the Shanghai Grand Theater of China Guangming screening and thousands barraged the first movie! In more than two hours of conference and film screenings, the audience can enjoy speaking to other fans through SMS platform, their point of praise, tucao through a projector, showing both sides of the screen on the wall, watching movies edge interactive, fresh and interesting!

So by using a combination of SMS/Weibo, those in the audience can share their comments in real-time, not just to others with smartphones inside and outside the auditorium, but also see the comments projected in a stream on the wall on both sides of the cinema screen.

The pictures below give an idea of what this looks like, though the difference in contrast between the bright (3D?) cinema screen and the two side screens, with blue chinese characters, makes the latter look a bit dim.

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The idea of the triptych screen, touted from Gance’s Napoleon in the silent era to Barco’s Escape this year is thus realised, but not with moving images on the side screens, but the a stream or ‘barrage’ of comments from the cinema audience.

While cinema purists will no-doubt react with horror, the director of the film Lee Ping Shen was fully behind the concept.

“For today’s young people, Internet watching videos are popular with the ‘barrage’ way to see, and for “Qin Shi Ming” the main audience is the 15-year-old to 29-year-olds, most of them are growing up in the Internet age after ’90, so why can’t we let them in the cinema but also to experience the’ barrage’ viewing method?”

Lee Ping Shen said, after August 8, “Qin Shi Ming month” release, 50 games will do so “barrage” field, but about the “barrage” one of staff anonymity of the cinema said, “We hope to make ‘barrage’ in some relatively large auditorium, but currently saying exactly how many games is uncertain because the relative simple screenings, making the cost of the barrage is relatively high if the relatively small field of video room to do too much, I am afraid to make ends meet, and we would be more cautious. “

The article goes on to explain the technology, which is focused on SMS delivery, as internet and Wifi coverage in cinema can be complicated and costly, particularly for large auditoriums with big audiences.

The staff said that the barrage of technology is not complicated, you need an SMS support platform and projectors. “Because the audience was more than 1,300 people, the flow is large, from once the session began, for more than two hours the SMS did not stop. Many spectators view this premiere, is subject to a barrage of attraction, you want to come and experience it fresh! ”

Lee Ping Shen said the reason for the use of mobile phone text messaging platform, is to “enable ‘barrage’ adaptation for the majority of Chinese theater environment.” “In China many phone network signal is not good in cinemas and we hope that in the future it could be like many cafes that offer free WIFI services, to adapt to the current era where people pursue real-time access to the Internet. Later, not only ordinary cinema cinemas, IMAX cinemas, 4D cinemas, there will also be a barrage cinema, generation 90, who grew up after 00 have a habit of multitasking in life, so to ‘barrage’ while watching movies, is not difficult for them. “

Baraging Qin's Moon cinema

In case you thought this was a one-off, think again.

The article reveals that there the same week the already released ‘Tiny Times 3.0’ also embraced the ‘barrage’ concept at a screening on 1 August, with fans of the two movies trading furious accusations (on Weibo, of course) about who was the first to come up with the idea.

August 1, “Tiny Times 3” announced that it will build a “China first barrage cinema.” Today, I did not expect that “Qin Shi Ming” would grab that first. Many “Qin Shi Ming” fans also say that this requires an apology from “Tiny Times 3”, that they copied the idea of barrage. In fact, two movies news release barrage with a difference of a few days, it is far from plagiarism.

“Tiny Timese 3” has come to the show late with barrage movies they create public opinion this is the topic of another weapon, which, the film side also postures joked: “Civilized viewing, whether you extract, has already tolerate internal injuries piece tucao. Hand them, the opportunity to come! ” [Chinese joke]

For “Tiny Times 3” to a barrage movie spoof has been a lot of friends that tucao would be too ferocious, and the big screen when the time will be filled with dense text! Fortunately, the case “Qin Shi Ming” tells us that barrage is placed next to the screen, if you can multitask with your mind, you can tucao on the side while watching the movie!

The theatre manager was interviewed and said that this was a unique but early days experiment, and that “we need to look at the specific details of the technical difficulty and then consider whether to try.” The article also acknowledges that ‘not all films may be suitable for barraging,’ with literary dramas not good candidates, while ‘popcorn movies’ are better suited for the barrage treatment.

Want to know what people were barraging as they were watching the film? Here is a selection of quotes:

“Qinshiming” barrage viewing, it is a joy too!

Vicious version – “couple broke up after reading all!”

Confession version 1 – “××, I love you, I want your babies!”

Confession version 2 – “seven rows of 12 micro-seeking letter, after we see the mountain!”

Tucao version – “cinema entrance parking one hour 15 yuan, 20 yuan second hour, black ah!”

Plot version – “! Uncle Yu Meng Meng Da less dawn together!”

Wrath of praise version – “Never spray was so cool!”

Nothing surprising, just how Millennials all around the globe communicate, in snatches and fragments on SMS, IM and social media.

Don’t think it will happen in the west? It already has.

The question is not just whether this will catch on in cinemas in China but whether it will also find a (young) audience in other countries. Asia is pretty much a given, as nobody here seems to be able to sit through a movie without checking their smartphone several times. But what about the rest of the world?

To put the question like this is to look at the issue from the wrong end. What you saw described above is already the norm for all other media. It is just that cinema is, as so often is the case, late to the game.

Lady Grantham twitter Downton Abbey

Most famously these type of ‘conversations’ take place on Twitter around broadcast television content, with Forbes last year asking ‘Can Twitter Save Live TV?

[A] new study from Nielsen shines a rare good light on live TV. The study, done in conjunction with SocialGuide, shows that the more people are tweeting about a show, the higher the ratings. The study found tweets to be one of three significant variables (along with prior-year ratings and advertising spend) to align with TV ratings.

The study found that among coveted 18-34 year olds, a 4.2% increase in tweets corresponded to a 1% rise in TV ratings for a mid-season episode.

That doesn’t mean that tweets cause ratings to be higher. It’s more likely a sign that if a show is buzzy enough to get people tweeting while it airs live, it’s likely doing better in the ratings.

The lesson for broadcasters here: make more shows that people feel the need to watch live and that they want to talk about right away. TV shows are already inundated with suggested hashtags but it will likely take more than that.

While this is most common for reality television shows such as American Idol, Survivor, The Bachelor, but networks are increasingly pushing actors to live tweet during the broadcast of dramas that they appear in. BBC America recently announced that Orphan Black was  the first ever ad-supported drama series to double its ratings from season one to season two in A25-54 and 18-49 in Live+7, much of this driven by cleaver positioning of the show with social media, and also released the following interesting statistics.

  • Orphan Black was the #1 television show on Twitter and Tumblr for the day of premiere and was the #1 ad-supported cable drama on Twitter for the week.
  • BBC AMERICA is the first network to live-tweet a TV show with animated GIFs. @OrphanBlack shared animated GIFs timed to the season finale.
  • #3 on Twitter among ad-supported cable dramas on average during its run and seven times the activity from season one to season two.
  • The Orphan Black Tumblr has had over 750,000 notes from almost 140K fans in season two and there were 11.3 million notes on the Orphan Black topic in the new season.

Downton Abbey live tweeting

For anyone who wants to seriously get to grips with this trend we recommend the study published by MIT in live tweeting during ‘Downton Abbey’ (!) called “Together Alone: Motivations for Live-Tweeting a Television Series“, by Steven Schirra, Huan Sun, Frank Bentley at MIT Comparative Media Studies. You know that a social trend has arrived when MIT starts publishing white papers about it.

The other place to look for this type of behaviour in a non-live environment is YouTube. Google’s video site is mostly thought of as a repository for funny cat videos, but it is where most Millennials get their content from rather than broadcast or cable television, whether it is music videos, make-up tips or user generated content.

Scroll down the comments for any youth-oriented video and you become aware that YouTube is not just a video sharing website, but in fact the third social media website after Facebook and Twitter.

Weird Al tacky YouTube comments

Then consider that the same Millennials are now abandoning Facebook and Twitter (now that mom is on one if not both), for one-to-one or one-to-many conversations on instant messaging platforms such as WhatsApp (acquired by Facebook), Line, Kakao, Telegram and many others. With stickers. Don’t forget stickers.

“Would you like to see it in Imax, Atmos or Barrage?”

The question is not ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘how big’ will barrage be when it rolls out in more cinemas. The cost is relatively small, given that the auxiliary ‘barrage’ projectors need not be DCI grade. There will be a cost to modifying the auditorium, with small laser projectors needed so that actual side-screens do not have to be installed, but that texts and more can be projected on the darker side wall.

What will be really interesting is when stereoscopic 3D technology is used, with a function to allow a real-time insertion of SMS/tweets/tucaos into the main projected image, so that they appear to be floating in front of the screen. Most directors will hate and reject this idea as a major distraction from the narrative of the on-screen action. But there will be ones who are prepared to try new things.

Cinema owners will have no qualms about it, if it proves to pull in more audiences. They are likely to find allies in cinema advertisers and solutions providers (Hello Yummi!), who are likely to try this first in the pre-show or even trailer segment of the film. It is also ideal for event cinema (alternative content) that is screend live and if people are willing to tweet during Downton Abbey, why shouldn’t they during a MET Operperformance of Carmen? But movies is the biggest prize of all.

I for one already have my hashtag ready: #Avengers2tucaoGVKatong

Patrick von Sychowski
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Patrick von Sychowski

Patrick was a Senior Analyst at Screen Digest, went on to launch the digital cinema operations of Unique and Deluxe Europe, then digitised Bollywood at Adlabs/RMW, and now writes, consults and appears on panels about cinema all over the world.
Patrick von Sychowski
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