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Muddy waters

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily | Updated: 2012-12-13 11:03

Muddy waters

Crew of The Last Supper at the release ceremony in Beijing. Photos by Jiang Dong / China Daily

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Dubious online picks and pans inundate legitimate film commentary. Raymond Zhou follows one movie maker's effort to fight back.

Movies depend on word of mouth for promotion, but in the Internet age it can be fabricated. Opinions you see on the net may not represent what people actually think about a movie, but could even mislead to the point of contradicting public opinion.

As soon as The Last Supper debuted on Nov 29, director Lu Chuan knew he was in trouble. His historical drama about a ruthless emperor was getting the lowest possible scores on Douban and Mtime, two websites that aggregate movie feedback - this in contrast with the mostly positive reviews he got from critics. Lu realized he was being targeted by the nation's "water army".

"Water army" is a nickname for web users who are hired to talk up or talk down a product. For a product with a limited shelf life but intensive response, the impression of waves of praise or disparagement can make or break it before the press and the audience discover it for themselves.

"When plugging a new release, everyone would say great things about one's own work. I can accept that," says Lu Chuan. "But our profession has reached the moral low of hiring people to throw mud at the competition."

To counteract the effect of the avalanche of manufactured ill will (some 9,000 negative comments per day), Lu admitted in a press interview that he had spent 50,000 yuan ($8,005) to "bump up" his movie's online score, thus becoming the first Chinese filmmaker to acknowledge the employment of the "water army".

Lu did not use the term "water army", but a more euphemistic "word-of-mouth protection team" instead. "I would never pay someone to badmouth my competitor," he adds.

However, Lu Chuan's admission placed himself in an extremely unfavorable situation. As phony comments mingle with real ones online, one may not be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a certain remark is definitely the result of rivals running amok, or that there is a force behind these bad words.

Instead of getting sympathy from the public, Lu got suspicion at most, with some media commentators saying he should focus on making a better movie rather than battling negative comments.

Gao Jun, an executive involved in film production and exhibition, said it was foolish of Lu to make such a confession to the public. (Lu later shifted his statement, saying that the hiring was done by his subordinates without his prior knowledge.)

Some insiders charge that every movie resorts to such secret agents for creating buzz, each at a cost of over 1 million yuan. But this was refuted by Zhang Baiqing, president of China Film Criticism Association, who explains that at least half of China's feature films cost less than 5 million to make and therefore cannot afford such practices.

"The dueling with the aid of the water army happens among some big-budget commercial films," he says, "and the trick is getting less and less effective."

For more coverage by Raymond Zhou, click here

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