Intellectual property is the film industry’s latest buzzword. The movie Silent Separation was first adapted from a novel into a TV series and then a movie, which aired during the May Day holiday.
The show comes hot on the heels of film adaptations of The Left Ear and Ever Since We Loved. Aside from sharing some of the top young film stars, the movies share the same trait of adapting popular young adult fiction.
Chinese film industry writers have coined the term “IP movie” to describe the trend.
Intellectual property includes copyrights, patents and trademarks and is not a new concept for Chinese filmmakers. The country’s first film, Dingjun Hill, as well as the internationally acclaimed Farewell My Concubine and Red Sorghum, were also adapted from books.
But since 2013, the majority of films have all been adapted from existing intellectual property. Among the top draws were Where Are We Going Dad, a film based on a popular variety show, and My Old Classmate, based on a song of the same name.
Many filmmakers are following the trend and scrambling to snap up more property.
Competition for Rights
Aside from the oddball variety show or song, the most popular properties for film and TV adaptation are novels. Many Internet novels option their film rates for 2 million to 5 million yuan. Rights to the most popular novels can cost as much as 10 million yuan.
Public data shows the cost of intellectual property rights to books published on Cloudary, an online literature platform, has increased 10 times during the last year.
By the end of 2014, there were 114 Internet novels licensed for film and TV adaptation and 24 slated for film alone, the Economic Observer reported.
Novels – especially Internet novels – are considered preferable to original screenplays because they have an existing fan base. Adaptations offer an easy way for film producers to tap into that fan base. Even non-readers are drawn to the productions by their knowledge of the fan base.
Silent Separation, for example, was serialized on Jinjiang Original Net for more than 10 years. Its large fan base offered guaranteed consumers for the film.
“When you consider it, the producers are buying the fan base rather than the stories. The size of a novel’s cult following determines its value to a producer,” said Ran Jia’nan, screenwriter of the film Painted Skin.
Screenwriting is the biggest risk a film producer can face. Adapting an existing novel to a screenplay usually takes three months, but developing an original story can take much longer.
Short on Imagination
A dearth of originality could be to blame for the adaptation trend.
But it’s not all doom and gloom: the film boom is also leading some producers to gamble on bringing original content to the screen.
“A few years ago I attended a seminar for screenwriters. Only one actually talked about developing a quality screenplay – the other 20 just wanted to explore crafty ways to insert product placements. It seems like there simply aren’t enough people in the industry who want to be creative,” said Shu Huan, the screenwriter of Lost in Thailand.
What’s more, not all producers can profit on IP movies. While Where Are We Going Dad and Running Man won huge profits, film adaptations of Voice of China and Happy Boys were miserable failures.
“Licensing intellectual property can be an opportunity, but it can also be a trap. Although some novels are popular, they really don’t fit the screen,” Shu said.
Finding a Direction
Adaptations are also popular abroad: nearly two-thirds of Hollywood’s productions are adapted from novels or comics. The most popular in recent years include The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games. Some have turned into long-running series, such as The Fast and the Furious, which is on its seventh film, and 007, which now includes 24 films.
But where Hollywood’s adaptations show off a superior quality, Chinese films still have a long way to go.
At the Beijing International Film Festival, American screenwriter William Rabkin said purchasing property rights is just the first step. Toy Story 3 brought in $1.1 billion at the box office, but the related games, books and media sales brought in $8.7 billion.
But that long-term earning power depends on the movie’s success. A good story should be the core of any movies.
“Stories should be meaningful and attractive. They need to capture the spirit of their time. It’s hard for a movie to succeed if the producer is only focusing on the popularity of its source material rather the story itself,” said Zhao Hui, the marketing director of the film Where Are We Going Dad.