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Hit or miss - Oscar for Alibaba's 'Green Book' no guarantee for China success

Set in the south of the US in the 1960s, the film follows the friendship of a working-class Italian-American man who was a driver and fixer for a gay pianist.

Cast members of 'Green Book' with US actor Viggo Mortensen (L), Linda Cardellini (2nd L) and US actor Mahershala Ali (R) celebrate the Best Picture award onstage during the 91st Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California on 24 February 2019. Picture: AFP

BEIJING/SHANGHAI - The big upset at the 2019 Oscars by Green Book was a victory for its Chinese investor Alibaba Pictures, but there is no guarantee the best-picture winner will be a hit when it opens this week in China where viewers prefer blockbusters.

Set in the south of the United States in the 1960s, the film follows the friendship of a working-class Italian-American man who was a driver and fixer for a gay African-American pianist.

The low-budget movie is scheduled to hit Chinese theatres on Friday, marking the first nation-wide release of a film of its kind, centred on race relations, in a market more receptive to blockbusters such as Transformers and Fast and Furious.

Its release indicates Chinese censors are evolving when it comes to themes like homosexuality. While that does not mean regulators have fully embraced gay elements in films, they at least “don’t see it as a dark side that needs to be covered up”, said Wu Jian, an Alibaba Pictures analyst.

Django Unchained, an award-winning Western involving black slaves directed by Quentin Tarantino, was yanked from China theatres the day it premiered in 2013, and only allowed to be re-released a month later after graphic sequences were cut.

Wu is betting the post-Oscars glow will drive box office earnings for Green Book in China. “With its momentum after winning the Oscar it could even reach 300 million yuan if third- and fourth-tier cities can receive this movie,” he said.

But that would still be far behind “Fast and Furious 8’s” earnings of 2.67 billion yuan ($400 million) in 2017, the best performance by an American film in China so far.

“The Revenant”, which won Leonardo DiCaprio a Best Actor Oscar, brought in less than 400 million yuan in 2016, making it the best performing Academy Award-winning film in China.

Green Book’s victory is the first time a film backed by Chinese capital has snagged Best Picture.

“We have a saying: You need to dare to dream, because what if one day it is actually realised?” said Zhang Wei, President of Alibaba Pictures.

Alibaba’s investment in Green Book marks a shift from Chinese companies’ fixation on blockbusters.

“If Green Book fares well in China, maybe companies here will start to focus more on investing in small- or medium-budget movies that have good stories,” said Huang Qunfei, deputy general manager of state-backed Huaxia Film Distribution Co.

OVERSEAS SPLASH

E-commerce giant Alibaba Group, through its 50% stake in Alibaba Pictures, has been cranking up its efforts to grow its film business.

Green Book is the latest in its string of successful movie investments, including Dying to Survive, a top-grossing film in China last year, and Wandering Earth, a sci-fi film which has bagged more than 4.4 billion yuan since its February debut and is slated to appear on Netflix.

Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma said he had watched Green Book three times and would do it again.

“Good movies are not built on piles of cash. I think this movie brings a lot of reflection, and the production cost was very low...I think Chinese movies are not far from an Oscar.”

Alibaba Pictures invested an undisclosed amount in Green Book, co-financing it with others including Participant Media and DreamWorks Pictures.

China is the second-largest movie market globally after the United States, although it already has more movie screens after years of rapid expansion in theatre networks. Its box office revenue rose 9% in 2018 to 61 billion yuan.

Alibaba Pictures hopes more Chinese films can make a splash abroad. “We have a mission...to export better content and let the world better understand China,” its president, Zhang, said.

“A lot of mainstream Western opinions hold that in Chinese films there remains a depiction of China that is suffering, they don’t understand China’s development.”

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