The Joys and Sorrows of Domestic Teen Films

In 2013, Chinese actress Zhao Wei’s directorial debut, So Young, became a major success at the Chinese box office, grossing over RMB 726 million, and starting a fad for teen films. The following year, teen films such as Tiny Times, The Continent, My Old Classmate, and Fleet of Time broke box office records one after another. Other teen films include Ever Since We Love directed by Li Yu, Left Ear directed by Alec Su, Silent Separation, The Ark of Mr. Chow and Forever Young directed by He Jiong in 2015, and Who Sleeps My Bro in 2016 as well as upcoming Sweet Sixteen, Yesterday Once More, So Young 2: Never Gone …… Teen films have entered an era of mass production.


The Source of Teen Films


In actual fact, So Young is not the source of domestic teen films. In China, for quite a long time, youth images faded from the silver screen. The earliest teen film in China was In the Heat of the Sun directed by Jiang Wen, which is set in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution and tells the stories of soldiers’ children. Later, Beijing Bicycle directed by Wang Xiaoshuai and Thirteen Princess Trees directed by Lv Le emerged, with the themes of cruelty, marginalization, and incompleteness. Yet for various reasons, they were not shown in the cinema.

The Thai film First Love, released in August, 2010, and Taiwanese movie, You Are the Apple of My Eye, released in 2011, gained incredible popularity through the emergence of social media on the Internet, and scored highly at the box office by relying on word of mouth when introduced to the Mainland in June and February, 2012, respectively. Similarly, the Indian film Three Idiots released on the Mainland in December, 2012, first rose to popularity on the Internet. It was said that the film influenced the screenplay framework and the arrangement of character relationships of the Chinese film American Dreams in China. Meanwhile, the micro-film, Old Boys11 Degrees of Youth, launched on Youku, and aroused sympathy among audiences. The elements such as innocence, comedy, and nostalgia in these films later appeared in other Chinese coming-of-age films, and became their most distinctive features.

From 2010 to 2013, when teen films were sweeping the Internet, costume dramas were declining, after the release of Hero. On April 26th 2013, So Young, the pioneer of domestic coming-of-age films, emerged and dominated the silver screen. It was by no means a con-incidence, and could even be seen as inevitable. It represented a breakout for Chinese filmmakers restrained by themes and funds, and catered to the demands of the market.

What is a teen film? According to Hollywood’s definition of the genre, it is a theme rather than a genre. Usually set on campus, it features students aged 12 to 17. The audience is mainly teenagers or young adults. These films often involve first love, adolescence anxiety, growing-up, rebellion, and conflicts with parents. “Sex” is an indispensible element – a salient feature of adolescence – and more often than not, the element is portrayed with a sense of humor, as in the American Pie franchise. Teen films are sometimes mixed with drama, dance, singing, sci-fi, terror, or other genres.

As a genre, teen film can offer a standard of judgment for potential audiences. Taking a look at the world’s film industry, we can roughly divide teen films into the following types: American sex comedies, Japanese and South Korean campus stories, and Taiwanese teen films with a pure, innocent aesthetic. They are, more or less, different from “nostalgic” domestic teen films. It is hard to define teen films in China. For example, the two films Women Who Know How to Flirt Are the Luckiest and Meet Miss Anxiety by Zhou Xun, involve many scenes set on campus, yet they are categorized as chick flicks. Thus, the teen genre in domestic market is more of a marketing concept; only few movies set in schools are actually teen films in the real sense. Most Chinese teen films are a mixture of the aforementioned American, Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese teen movies.


Audience analysis: Females born after 1990 are the main consumers


Why are teen films so popular? Gao Xiaosong, executive producer of My Old Classmate, says, “When an age is marching forward rapidly, nostalgia will inevitably become the theme.” Zhang Yibai, director of Fleet of Time, attributes it to the emergence of new generations of filmgoers and film-watching habits. As those born after 1985 who prefer “recalling” entered the workforce along with those born after 1995, they became the main audience of teen films. This happened at a time of rapid expansion within the domestic film market.

According to data gathered by Fanink, a Chinese film research company, women aged 25 form China’s main film audience. As Zhang Yibai says, “Every ten years, a new generation of filmgoers emerges, which results in tremendous changes in aesthetic tastes and views. Traditional narrative patterns are likely to be overturned.” Members of the current young generation live in an era of peace with rapid economic growth, and haven’t experienced any major social changes. What they encounter are mainly minor joys and sorrows, and small separations and reunions.

People’s Daily commented, “compared with sci-fi or action themed teen films, domestic teen movies are mostly stories happening on campuses or in the workplace. The teen films of the 1990s were often associated with revolution, historical changes, and other major events; compared with these idealist films, today’s teen films mainly focus on romance, friendship, competition, or betrayal.”

Apart from nostalgia, young and attractive actors are another magic element of teen films. According to a related survey, more than 40% of the audience will take a look at the cast list before going to the cinema. Therefore, to cater to young audiences, teen films usually feature young and attractive actors. As netizens joke, “only young people are attractive.”


Content analysis: Why do domestic teen films resemble each other in so many ways?


In recent years, teen films follow a trend of mass production and stereotyping, with many of them featuring fading campus romances. Whether it is the nostalgia for campus life in the 1990s as depicted in So Young, or the presentation of a beautiful campus around the year 2000 in My Old Classmate and Fleet of Time, they all attempt to awaken the nostalgia of the audience for their youth with various elements.

With the same background and story-telling structure, it is inevitable that they appear to copy one another. In the end, the audience feels that they have seen the film before. Here, we take So Young, My Old Classmate and Fleet of Time as examples, to show which details have been indispensible in domestic teen films in the past couple of years.

  1. Libraries, classrooms, and basketball courts. In campus romance stories, the library and classroom, which the students visit most frequently, feature heavily. The basketball court is the place where romantic stories tend to occur.
  2. Ugly school uniform. The Chinese school uniform of baggy gym suits, while not as elegant as Japanese uniforms, are “realistic” and can trigger memories of middle school years in the audience.
  3. Band of brothers. In domestic teen films, romance will fade, but friendship is everlasting. The hero usually has a group of mischievous friends, who help him chase the heroine.
  4. Drinking. No alcohol, no youth. With alcohol as the catalyst, the heroes and heroines bear their hearts, or say farewell, or voice their inner feelings to push the story forward.
  5. Abortion. To show the scars of youth, films invariably choose abortion as a plot device, with So Young, My Old Classmate and Fleet of Time mocked as an “abortion trilogy”.
  6. Era-specific items. The radio, CDs, and old books in So Young, and the classroom, blackboard, class motto, and certificate of merit, are all recognizable items from the 1990s.

These plots also represent basic trends in the “romanticism” of domestic teen films. This so-called “romanticism” basically neglects reality, presenting the archetypal youth tropes of a beautiful, back-lit heroine, fights, smashed beer bottles, young men playing guitars, the seaside, collective memory, tears, “I love you” and “let’s break up”, misery and support, wedding ceremonies, running, and a theme song at the end. In sum, with similar stories, styles, and backgrounds, teen films are very likely to resemble one another. In the long run, the audience will tire of them. Arranging new settings and creating fresh stories tests the skills of filmmakers.


Marketing analysis: topic marketing, campus-wide promotion, and theme songs


Domestic teen films, with small budgets and high box office returns, have explored a unique way of marketing. Starting from So Young, a mature marketing strategy has emerged. It includes an early stage warm-up, middle stage intense promotion, and late stage enhancement. This has aroused discussions on the Internet about hyping actors and original work, and targeting a specific group of people by relying on big data. Topic marketing and promotion on campuses have proven to be highly effective strategies. In addition, promoting a film through its theme song, though already widely applied in the past, has been successfully deployed as a strategy in recent years.

In 2014, the title of “product manager” emerged in the Chinese film market. In the eyes of these product managers, a film is more of an “entertainment product”, and must be brought closer to the market. “This does not mean that all directors need to become product managers, but the market needs such filmmakers,” says Zhang Yibai. “The term ‘product manager’ does not necessarily refer to the director; it can be the screenwriter, photographer, or producer. What matters is that they can do planning, integrate resources, and control product quality as well as market the films well.”

Take Fleet of Time as an example. Its director Zhang Yibai was also a product manager. As a creator of a “spiritual product”, he was tasked with presenting something fresh to consumers. “We marketed the screenplay, rhythm, and structure of the film, with full enthusiasm and devotion.” In his opinion, “we see marketing as the creation of another film.”

Zhang used “Weibo’s List of Hot Topics” as a magic weapon in promoting Fleet of Time. For over three months, the film made it onto the list every day, with three to five topics.

In terms of marketing, apart from conventional road shows, another secret of teen films is on-campus promotion. The producer will choose key universities in 10 to 20 cities to take part in a campus road show. Through putting up posters on campuses, inviting the cast to present exchanges and lectures, and arranging film screenings for students, a buzz is created, which boosts box office sales.

Another effective strategy is to promote the film’s theme song. So Young and Fleet of Time invited Faye Wong to sing their theme songs, which almost guaranteed box office sales of 100 to 200 million yuan.


Mass production and stereotypes: Are teen films consumed excessively?

In July, 2013, when Tiny Times I was released amid controversy, director Wang Xiaoshuai held a special screening of his film, Beijing Bicycle.

From this film to Jiang Wen’s In the Heat of the Sun and the “trilogy of youth” (Platform, Xiao Wu [or The Pickpocket] and Unknown Pleasures) directed by Jia Zhangke, these art house films with elements of youth are vastly different from the teen films that have emerged in the past couple of years.

Yin Hong, Executive Dean of the School of Journalism and Communication at Tsinghua University, said that the reason why the teen films directed by the sixth generation of Chinese directors failed to score highly at the box office is that they lay excessive emphasis on self-gratification in terms of artistic value, with a narrow visual field in terms of social life and life experience. “Techniques and skills alone cannot hold up a film”.

Since 2015, the competition between teen films has grown increasingly fierce; they vie for well-known IP, invite celebrities to be directors or supervisors, and feature young and attractive actors. These are the new trends of the genre.

Teen films adapted from popular novels or with well-known theme songs tend to be more popular. Film stars serving as producers or directors draw more attention to the films. They also have access to more resources, which can facilitate shooting. Young, attractive actors add youthful vigor to the films.

However, the subsequent problems are growing ever more salient. Absurd stories and stereotypical plots have reduced teen movies into “fans-only” films. In recent years, despite high box office figures, teen films suffer increasing criticism from viewers. It has become a strange phenomenon that domestic teen films, with lower public ratings, tend to score more highly at the box office. The No.1 box office film, Fleet of Time, has a rating as low as 5.4 out of 10. Tiny Times III, which was heavily criticized by netizens, ranked among the top films in terms of box office revenue.

With so many films launched between 2015 and 2016, are teen films consumed excessively? Zhang Wenbo, CEO of Bravo Entertainment, says, “In terms of the market, we need to make two concepts clear. One is category; the other is brand. In a mature market, be it the production of mobile phones or films, products must form their own categories, and each is connected to another. For teen films, romances, action movies, and feature films, we must develop our brands under different categories. The brands, on the other hand, reflect specific differences and competitiveness. To some extent, blindly following the trend can help a new category of films to mature”.

Chen Hongwei, Managing Director of the Project R&D Center of Wanda Media Co. Ltd, says, “Following the trend is different from blindly copying. Making the right judgment about a situation cannot be called blindly following the trend. This is the crux of the problem.”

As teen films with high box office takings receive bad responses from the public, many industry insiders are concerned that teen films have overdrawn the enthusiasm of the audience. In fact, in such a large film market, specific genres emerge from time to time. It is normal. For example, Hollywood Western films, sci-fi movies, and fantasies all led the tide for a period of time.

In Zhang Yibai’s opinion, teen films today are a sort of compensation for the young Chinese generations born in the 1980s and 1990s, who lacked recorded images as they grew up. Now they hold such tremendous consumption power, they are happy to gain “sympathy” in the theaters. Therefore, it is consumer demand and a gap in the market that have lead to the high popularity of teen films.

There will always be teenagers in the world, and thus teen films will always have an audience. However, stereotypes will not pass muster. Tu Biao, a movie critic specializing in box office analysis, believes that the trend will soon fade away, with new types of film emerging rapidly. Other critics argue that teen films will be reinvented to reach new audiences.

Are teen films consumed excessively? Du Yang, producer of My Old Classmate, believes so. “There is an exception. If new stories or topics are created, the development of teen films can be sustainable in the future. Although teen films are leveraging collective memory, there are a lot of fields within the topic of youth, so if directors can find new perspectives of their own, movies made with true emotion will succeed.”

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