The Chinese distributor of martial arts movie Ip Man 3 -- starring former world heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson -- has had its licence suspended for making up thousands of screenings in a huge box office fraud, regulators said.
The movie, also starring Donnie Yen, is the third instalment in a series of Hong Kong films about the life of famed Wing Chun master Yip Man, teacher of Bruce Lee and other martial arts legends.
Chinese film distributors and cinemas often try to inflate box office figures in order to create blockbuster buzz for new releases and attract moviegoers. There may also be financial incentives for such activities.
Chinese film industry figures said Ip Man 3 raked in more than 500 million yuan ($77 million) in its first four days on mainland screens -- more than Star Wars: The Force Awakens over the equivalent period.
But the film's distributor Beijing Max Screen bought 56 million yuan-worth of the tickets itself, and fabricated more than 7,600 screenings that it claimed generated another 32 million yuan, the media regulator's official newspaper said.
The State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT) ordered the firm to suspend its distribution activities for a month while it "rectified all malpractices", the China Film Newspaper reported Friday.
"Buying box office figures is an 'unspoken rule' of this industry," media commentator Xu Yuan told AFP.
One common tactic is for distributors to collude with cinemas by buying up empty seats in exchange for guarantees that theatres will screen their product.
"You used to invite the cinema managers out for dinner and drinks, but now it's become much more direct. Buying the tickets yourself is a way of ingratiating yourself with the cinemas," Xu explained.
The distributor of "Monster Hunt", touted as the highest grossing Chinese film of all time, admitted in August to falsifying its box office figures by handing out large numbers of free tickets in 17 cities and scheduling extra screenings in the middle of the night, among other tricks.
SAPPRFT had investigated "Ip Man 3" because the case was simply "too odious" to ignore, Xu said, adding: "There had never before been such a high-profile and large-scale incident of box office fraud."
But he expected the punishment would do little to change the long-established practice.
- 'Quality movie' -
Ip Man 3's falsified figures "caused a serious disturbance in the film market, generated a definite level of harm to the environment of fair competition, and adversely impacted the credibility of the film industry as a whole," the China Film Newspaper said.
But Chinese box office fraud has entered a new era where profits roll in not from the movie theatres themselves, but also from the stock market, film critic Raymond Zhou said.
"Before, you bought box office figures for the word of mouth publicity, in order to make the public mistakenly think the movie was really popular so that everyone would go see it," he told AFP.
"The case of fraud with Ip Man 3 was different -- the goal perhaps wasn't even to make money from ticket sales, but from share prices. They simply didn't care whether there's really an audience watching the movie at all."
A Hong Kong-listed company, Shifang Holding, shares its chief executive with Beijing Max Screen and is entitled to 55 percent of the film's net mainland box office.
It shares soared to a five-year high of HK$3.60 on the day of Ip Man 3's China premiere. They have since plummeted after news of the official investigation emerged.
Beijing Max Screen declined to comment to AFP.
Shifang Holding previously said in a statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange that it was "closely monitoring" developments.
"The Board clarifies that the Movie is a quality movie which is recording excellent box office results in both Hong Kong and abroad," it added.