TAIPEI, Taiwan — Lights, camera, laughs.
Tens of millions of film fanatics are entering theaters around Asia during the long Lunar New Year holiday, but Hollywood can’t count on them to boost the box office for its mostly serious Oscar nominees. Even with the Academy Awards buzz at a peak barely two weeks before the ceremony, patrons are opting for lighter fare.
“Viewers are mostly drawn to action films, films with special effects, comedies or easy-to-follow ‘popcorn’ movies,” said Ross Lee, a manager with Vieshow Cinemas, which owns one of Taiwan’s largest theater chains. “In Taiwan the big hits are traditionally disaster films like “2012.”
Lee and others say that with Chinese movie-goers using the New Year holiday to escape their daily grinds, they generally give the cold shoulder to weightier movies, like this year’s leading nominee “Lincoln” or last year’s best picture “The Artist.”
“‘Lincoln’ is an American film,” said Hong Kong film fan Leo Wong, 31. “I think Americans will probably be more interested. I don’t really understand the history. And it’s too serious.”
Reflecting Wong’s critique, Hong Kong’s film industry goes out of its way to pander to the local preference for lighter New Year’s selections, turning out a sub-genre of films specifically designed with holiday tastes in mind.
This year’s Hong Kong holiday crop includes “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” a prequel to the classic Chinese fable, and “I Love Hong Kong 2013,” a super-light comedy with an all-star cast and a crowd-pleasing happy ending.
Explaining her preference for watching locally produced comedies, Hong Kong movie-goer Christine Lam said it reinforced the spirit of the season.
“You want to do this on Chinese New Year,” she said, “to watch Chinese movies instead of Western ones because it gives you the vibe.”
Chimed in husband Andy Lam: “(New Year comedies) are funny and we have a lot of fun. We just laugh.”
Sun Shaoyi of Shanghai University’s School of Film and TV Arts and Technology said in addition to aesthetic considerations, Oscar nominees vying for attention on the mainland must also contend with officially sanctioned blackouts.
“Authorities limit the number of Western films showing during the New Year period,” Sun said. “They have to do this to protect the local market.”
But even allowing for the artistic and administrative roadblocks, some Oscar-nominated films do manage to make a big impact in Chinese-speaking markets during the New Year holiday, particularly if they are accompanied by a positive critical buzz.
Christine Lam said she had decided to use this year’s holiday to see “Les Miserables,” notwithstanding its relatively heavy subject matter.
“This is a very famous movie and people are talking about this movie very much,” she said, adding that the film’s much ballyhooed operatic style and live singing by actors had tipped the balance in its favor.
In Taipei, trading firm owner Thomas Huang said his own preference for thrillers made going to see “Zero Dark Thirty” an easy viewing choice. He said he also took in local hero Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” the special effect-rich story of a young man’s epic journey of discovery, “half because Ang Lee is Taiwanese and half because of the Oscar nominations.”
Huang saw best-picture front-runner “Argo” previously and would not miss other nominated films if trusted critics endorsed them. He said he’s captivated by the pomp of the Oscar-nomination ceremony, which raised his interest in the nominated films as well.
“You don’t count on the Oscar awards as a guarantee a film is good, but they are still generally up to a certain standard,” he said.
Taiwanese film critic Wen Tien-hsiang said that even if some Oscar-nominated films did not do well with Chinese-speaking audiences during the New Year holiday period, scoring big on Oscar night would help to guarantee them substantial audiences later.
“Films winning awards will definitely gain them viewer attention,” Wen said in an email. “Film companies sometimes decide to screen Oscar winners only after they get the prize.”