January 14, 2010

Avatar: Real or Representation?

Culture, Entertainment, People, Society Post by

The Hype

‘Avatar’ is causing mania in cities around China. The film has caused huge excitement amongst cinema goers in Shanghai, where tickets are sold out well in advance and people are taking extreme measures to see the film.

James Cameron’s movie has smashed box office records in China. The film grossed 33 million yuan ($4.8 million) on its first day of release, setting a new opening-day record. Source Variety

Cameron was in Beijing shortly before Christmas for a press conference to promote the movie and the box office results appear to have justified his trip.

A fervour has been created around the film, with viewers desperately trying to get tickets. There were reports of people queuing up from 4am at some cinemas.

The response from cinemas has been to raise the ticket price – in Shanghai the cost is now up to 200 Yuan, leading some BBS users to call for a boycott on the film – clearly, from the hype around the film, that’s very unlikely to happen.

The lack of supply over demand has led China to become the most expensive place in the world to watch ‘Avatar’, the average price in the US being around $13.

According to local Shanghai news reports, despite up to 20 showings a day – people are still finding it hard to find a ticket.

Some have been bringing chairs, quilts and snacks to prepare for the long wait – as seen in this video on Xinmin.

We wonder how much the phenomenal intrigue in the film is being driven by people wanting the status of seeing the movie?

China is a big cinema market, groups of friends enjoy the collective social experience of viewing films together, but with ‘Avatar’, one of the key drivers behind the hysteria surrounding the movie is the chance to be able to say: ‘I’ve seen it.’

Image credit: Xinhua

A friend told us that beyond the spectacular film experience, being one of the lucky ones who has managed to see the film is also becoming a status affair, with friends bragging about the ‘badge’ on BBS and taunting their social group with texts pouring over the film.

An indication of how important that ticket is to some; illegal ticket vendors are selling tickets for up to 600 yuan at the Peace cinema, and people are paying. To put that figure into perspective, that’s roughly 1/10 of a fresh urban Shanghai graduates monthly household income (according to the WSJ).

Real Connections

Beyond the astonishing box office figures, viewer numbers and people queuing in the bad weather to get a ticket, perhaps what’s most interesting about ‘Avatar’s’ reception in China is the way viewers are latching onto the storyline, showing a different appreciation to other markets.

Despite international viewers and critics lauding the films for its dazzling effects, but criticising it for its plot, the narrative structure resonates with Chinese viewers.

An interesting article in Xinhua discusses how the storyline is touching Chinese viewers.

‘Avatar’ tells the story of an ex-Marine sent from the Earth to infiltrate a race of ‘aliens’ and persuade them to let his employer mine their homeland for natural resources.

The plot has gained sympathy from Chinese viewers who see a synergy with forced demolitions in urban areas, the ‘nail house’ responses of residents and the land-based conflict in ‘Avatar.’

Image credit: Reuters

The Xinhua article quotes a blog article on Sina.com by Li Chengpeng:

“I am wondering whether Cameron had secretly lived in China before coming up with such an idea of writing the story of ‘Avatar,’ but with a promising ending in the film.”

“In a word, I think the film is a successful eulogy of the fight of ‘nail houses’ against forced demolitions,” he said.

Other popular bloggers, such Han Han cited the idea of forced evictions with his comment:

“To audiences of other countries, forced demolitions are probably beyond their imagination,” said the young writer, well known for his always-controversial remarks, in one of his blog articles on www.sina.com.

“So I think ‘Avatar’ is a great movie. I give it a full mark of 10, also taking into consideration the 3-D and IMAX,” he said.

However, comments are not all positive. An interesting article in the New York Times talks about criticism rooted in the storylines continuity of a Eurocentric viewpoint, as suggested in a blog post from Huang Zhangjin:

‘From Madame Chrysanthème to Last Samurai to Avatar, when could Westerners stop seeing foreign cultures as female and themselves as male? And when could they stop the cross-cultural narcissism that, no matter how unsuccessful the Western man is, he will be loved by the Oriental woman?’

Cameron himself has claimed that the story is one of love, ‘that transcends cultures and species.’

3D and Spectacle

The interpretation of the narrative from viewers in China has correlation with the theme for the upcoming Expo, expressed in the tagline: ‘Better City, Better life.’

The theme is sure to resonate with Chinese people – with a hope for ‘Better living’ encompassing more considered urban environments that take consumers/peoples needs and feelings into account, with a greater focus on urban planning, cultural preservation and the continuity of communities, as well as demonstrating China’s intention to prove it’s sustainability and green credentials to the rest of the world.

Certainly, it will be interesting to see if the affiliation some Chinese are feeling with the narrative of ‘Avatar’ will manifest itself with the promise of the 2010 World Expo.

3D Future for consumers

Massive collective visual experiences like the Expo and the 2010 World Cup also provide perfect opportunities for electronics manufacturers to showcase 3D technology.

Large scale international events and sports will be the first to profit from the 3D experience – manufacturers have been using the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympic games – arguably the greatest global visual spectacle of the millennium so far, to demonstrate the capabilities of 3D television.

The international scale and presence of Shanghai and China being centrepiece on the world stage during the Expo is an ideal opportunity to use the technology that has kept audiences in rapture about ‘Avatar.’

Beyond the big screen, we’re also seeing more examples of 3D technology beginning to penetrate the consumer market: Sony, Samsung and Panasonic have all announced plans to release 3D TVs in the next year. Cable providers such as Sky in UK, Europe’s most HD-ready nation, have announced 3D TV channels will be launched next year.

At CES in Las Vegas this week, 3DTV was again the toast of the town, being celebrates as an ‘Industry Saviour.’ Despite potential challenges, experts are predicting 3DTVs will occupy a significant share of the market in the next few years, making the move from the big screen to the home.

Today, Sony also announced plans to take 3D throughout its entertainment offering: TVs, Blu-ray players, Laptops, and PS3 will all be 3D compatible, as well as content ranging football to golf.

Impact on Chinese cinema market

China has a regulation on the number of foreign films screened each year, currently set at 20 per annum. Interestingly, the two biggest box office grossing films last year were both foreign productions: 2012 and Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, which both took over 60 million dollars.

Cameron’s use of stereoscopic vision might encourage chains around the world to upgrade their hardware to showcase more 3D films.

There’s evidence that the cinema business in China is growing due to state of the art multiplexes with 3D IMAX screens

The success of the film will be a call to China’s own cinema industry to catch up with Hollywood filming techniques, estimate to be some way behind in terms of CGI and 3D technology.

We look forward to seeing how the 3D revolution affects China across all of these aspects.

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One Response to “Avatar: Real or Representation?”

  1. Greg Wells says:

    Hey Alex,

    Great article. Couple of points…one on the story and the other on the technology.

    Fascinating stuff about the interpretation of the story line in China. Despite some obvious schmatlz and the Hollywood ending I do think it is an important story. There was a great Monbiot piece in the Guardian on why it is a particularly important story that did need telling. He depicts it as the story of how America came to be, and the colonisation of the native American peoples – judging its success on the vitriol the political right have been. Whereas in Britain and across Europe it has obvious resonance with the atrocities of our history in Africa amongst other places around the world.

    On the slightly lighter note of 3D. I think it has a bright future. I particularly see ‘events’ being the big growth point, particularly in 2010. I think price and lack of content may keep it out of peoples living rooms for the time being, but certainly tying in major sporting and cultural events like concerts will be big this year. O2 in the UK have announced 3D cinema screenings of 6 Nations Rugby for their customers, and talks with various networks, tech companies are afoot to put WC2010 in 3D. I think the world cup will be a seminal event in live 3d event broadcasting.

    Great blog!

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