Dubious online picks and pans inundate legitimate film commentary in Communist China today. Here in a pirated article we follow one movie maker's effort to fight back.BEIJING -- Movies so often 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. 29th, 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."
If you are a soldier of a water army, you are invisible. You will not tell your family or colleague you love or hate this movie. All you're required to do is to talk a movie up to the sky, or malign one to the bottom and do it online. For every post, you'll be paid 10 to 50 Chinese cents.
Those who talk up are called "white water army", and those who talk down "black water army". White or black, they tend to be proud of their collective power, but not proud enough to admit to what they conduct with online anonymity. This accounts for the difficulty of actually interviewing an individual foot solider, but they are said to be mostly students or young people with lots of spare time.
A water soldier who devotes all his or her time to the job, though, can bring in somewhere between 1,000 to 3,000 yuan a month.
Those who do the dirty job are entitled to only 40 percent of what film companies spend on it. The rest goes to online promotion firms that act as the middleman. According to a People's Daily blog post, most of these firms have fewer than 10 employees. They rely on a massive number of account holders through online communication tools. Once they get a job, they subcontract it to the thousands who make postings to drown out legitimate appraisals.
Some of these firms claim that, with as little as 100,000 yuan, they can make a movie into the talk of the town. But, on the other hand, movie promotion makes up a small part of their business, albeit with a high profile.
Discerning readers can find traces, if not conclusive evidence, of "water army" activities. For example, they tend to give the highest score to one movie and the lowest to another one screened around the same time, or use the most extreme language in their commentary, yet give no detail to back it up.
They also tend to be new account owners, with little or no previous activity with the accounts. Bai Jie, a publicity official for CN Movie, says that most accounts that attacked Lu Chuan's movie were opened a day after the movie's premiere. But she cautions that firms managing a water army sometimes buy or keep legitimate accounts to increase the level of credibility.
By all accounts, the war of online hype or harm has shifted to Sina Weibo, China's Twitter-like micro-blogging service, where big accounts have verified users and celebrities have followers in the millions. To have one of these accounts push a movie is perceived to be much more effective.
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Therefore, when someone you trust extols a movie or any other product, he or she may have been paid to do so, yet without disclosing the fact. Pop star Zhang Jie, with 17 million followers, once claimed that he was undergoing a full-body scan, but the gold chain in his photo turned into a smoking gun because one has to remove such items before using the device, thus inadvertently revealing the post's true nature as an advertisement.
When it comes to movies, again it is small potatoes, with the payment of 800 yuan going to an account of some 100,000 followers. Big accounts tend to endorse films for the account owners or their friends. But that does not mean their praise cannot be bought.
This kind of culture has essentially ruined the authenticity of film criticism in China. When Mudiao Chanshi, a film producer and critic, said a film critic could make as much as 60,000 yuan a month, it could be an exaggeration - but how such a sum, or a much smaller one, can be earned tickles the mind. (The answer: Get paid by film companies, of course, in which case it is not film criticism any more, but publicity material.)
Back to Lu Chuan's case. The director will not say who is behind the mudslinging. Logically, it is a no-brainer, but evidence is hard to come by.
In early 2011, The Lost Bladesman became the first movie to defend itself against the secret war of denigration. But the evidence they could collect showed only they were victimized, but not by whom.
"You should not jump to conclusions," warns Zhang Wenbo, who has a film promotion business.
"It could be your rival with a new release in the same period; it could be a peer who gloats over others' misfortune; or it could be fans who hate stars they see as rivals of their favorites."
When public opinions can be forged or bought, it is not just hapless filmmakers who fall prey. Ultimately, filmgoers as consumers have to pay the biggest price.