The Wandering Earth is China's biggest Chinese New Year hit movie right now, having earned over US$300 million in its first five days. Chinese social media is all abuzz about the movie. Author Liu Cixin has the status of both Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke combined in the Chinese Science Fiction scene. The movie has been hailed as a breakthrough, the first Chinese Science Fiction blockbuster, China showing it can play in the same field as the Hollywood big boys.
And according to The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong's English language newspaper, Chinese netizens and hackers are pirating the hell out of the movie.
To paraphrase Stan Lee (badly): "With great popularity comes great pirating."
High-quality pirated copies of the movie have been flooding the internet in China and can be bought for as little as 1 Yuan, which is the equivalent of 15 cents US. The National Copyright Administration and the movie studio have been freaking out and playing whack-a-mole, getting the pirated copies of The Wandering Earth yanked off pirate websites as soon as they get posted.
Even then, the studio's anti-piracy team leader Gong Ge'er has asked for the public's help in alerting them to links for the movie so they can have them removed.
"In recent days, the staff of The Wandering Earth have not had time to celebrate the box office success, but have devoted almost all their energy to complaining to authorities about piracy and blocking pirated copies," Gong said in a report from Beijing Youth Daily.
A high piracy number is the unfortunate proof of how popular a movie or TV show is. Here in the West, the most pirated shows have been Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, The Walking Dead and Star Trek: Discovery. Unlike TV shows, which are already paid for by advertising revenue, popular movies getting pirated eats into the box office earnings of the movie, since people who grab copies of the movie from the internet don't pay for tickets that help the movies earn back their budgets. Digital pirate copies of The Wandering Earth are currently being sold in China either on their own or as a bundle with pirated copies of other current Chinese New Year blockbuster releases for the equivalent of just a few dollars as download files or burned to DVD.
This is alarming for the Chinese Film Industry as people going to the movies this year over the Chinese New Year holidays dropped from 145 million last year to 123 million this year. The Wandering Earth's surprise box office rise in just a few years has helped boost the overall Chinese box office earnings, but if piracy persists, the studios fear that this could end up costing the industry billions.
It was piracy that crippled the Hong Kong Film Industry, from which it still hasn't completely recovered. Now that China is in a high-stakes playing field of massive big-budget blockbusters, they have to worry about piracy putting a dent in the confidence of financiers and studios in how much they can earn back their investment if they pour tens of millions into a movie's budget when it's going to get pirated and downloaded by millions of people in China alone. The industry thinks they've finally cracked how to make homegrown Science Fiction blockbusters for a hungry market, but now they have to worry that piracy might strangle a new burgeoning market in the cradle.