Why The Wandering Earth may just be a one-hit wonder

February 21, 2019 19:09
A number of online media outlets have declared that The Wandering Earth has opened a "New Era" for China’s sci-fi movies. Photo: The Wandering Earth film still

China's blockbuster sci-fi movie The Wandering Earth (流浪地球) was No. 1 at the box office across the mainland during the Lunar New Year period.

The film has grossed more than 3 billion yuan (US$446.48 million) just 10 days into its opening, thus surpassing the 2014 box office record of 1.97 billion yuan made by Transformers: Age of Extinction and making it the highest-grossing sci-fi movie in the mainland. 

The box office success of The Wandering Earth has generated a lot of hype in state media.

The People’s Daily has attributed the rise of mainland-produced sci-fi movies to the growing national strength of China.

A number of online media outlets have claimed that The Wandering Earth has opened a "New Era" for China’s sci-fi motion pictures.

But would the box-office success of a single production really mark the coming of age of Chinese sci-fi movies?

First of all, one has to understand that sci-fi movies are virtually attached to sci-fi literature.

In the United States, which is the undisputed leader in sci-fi movie production, science fiction is highly popular and often on the top of the national bestsellers' chart.

On the Amazon.com (English version), for example, there are over 60,000 science fiction books written by some 5,000 sci-fi authors for sale.

By comparison, on the Chinese Amazon.com, one can only find two mainland sci-fi writers who have more than 10 novels to their credit.

One of them is Liu Cixin, the author of the novella on which The Wandering Earth is based.

Wu Jing, a big-time mainland martial arts actor, was paid over 100 million yuan for starring in the movie adaptation. However, Liu was only paid less than 3,000 yuan when his novella The Wandering Earth was first published in the mainland magazine Science Fiction World back in 2000.

Liu himself once lamented that there are probably only two or three sci-fi writers in the mainland who can live off earnings from royalty payments for their books, including himself.

Second point: as we all know, the support of a complete and well-established industrial chain is instrumental in ensuring the sustainable development of the sci-fi movie industry.

Take the US as an example. While major film production labels such as Walt Disney Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures are key players in the sci-fi movie industry, they also have long and proven experience in marketing, production and related merchandise sales.

Famous Hollywood sci-fi franchises such as Star Wars all have a very long industrial chain attached to them, and have given rise to a wide range of peripheral merchandise.

In contrast, Chinese-made sci-fi movies only grossed 890 million yuan at the box office in the first half of last year, and accounted for less than 10 percent of the total box office revenues (9.506 billion yuan) of sci-fi movies in the mainland during the period.

Besides, in the absence of a firmly established peripheral and supporting industrial chain, it is unclear how the producers of The Wandering Earth can continue to milk revenues from the franchise after it is taken off the big screen in China.

Last but not least, while the tradition of sci-fi literature is deep-seated in America, thanks to the country’s education system that encourages innovation, there are only a handful of higher education institutions in the mainland that are providing courses in science fiction, and most prominent Chinese sci-fi novelists had actually worked in other fields before embarking on sci-fi writing.

According to Baidu, one of them is Beijing Normal University, whose faculty of arts has been offering a program in science fiction since 2003. Yet within a period of eight years, only 15 students were admitted to the program.

Suffice it to say that the commercial success of The Wandering Earth is unlikely to reverse the continued downturn in the Chinese sci-fi literature sector, and China has a very long way to go before it witnesses a New Era for its sci-fi movie industry.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 16

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor