Ip Man 3, the third instalment of the hit kung fu franchise based on the life of a martial arts master specialising in Wing Chun skills, has enjoyed massive success on its opening weekend in China.
According to estimates from the Beijing-based box office monitor Ent Group, the fight flick grossed 443 million yuan ($68.1 million) in just three days.
This may seem like good news, except that the high earnings were marred by fraud allegations that Dayinmu Film Distribution, the distributor of Ip Man 3, is bulk-purchasing discount tickets through cinema chains across the country to enhance the film's perceived performance.
Ticket sales for Ip Man 3 surpassed 300 million yuan ($46 million) on March 5, the second day since its opening, reports China Daily.
This is a mind-blowing figure in March, when box office performances tend to be weak.
Internet users began to speculate on the authenticity of box office earnings, with renowned Sina Weibo user dianyingpiaofangba, who specializes in analysing box office performances in China, calling to "stop films from paying the price of these actions (box office frauds)."
Signs of this dubious phenomenon started to spread on China's social media, from the surge of ticket sales from a single cinema, sold-out ghost screenings at midnight and during daytime on a weekday, fully booked front two rows (often considered less desirable seats) in theatres in advance, and abnormally high ticket prices alleged to falsify an enhanced performance at the box office.
According to a Weibo post made by Shanghai-based Dongfang Daily, ticket prices at China Film Cinema Guanggu Tianhe branch in Wuhan, Hubei province rose sharply after midnight, rising from 38 yuan ($6), a widely accepted discounted price for films, to 203 yuan ($31) at midnight.
Furthermore, tickets were sold for showings of the 105-minute film in the same movie hall (hall No 3) at merely six minute intervals. Logistically speaking, this is not very likely.
"More than 80 per cent of ticket sales are made through third parties (referring to e-ticketing apps).
"Only when cinemas reach a certain number of screenings can we receive subsidies from them. I personally opted for increasing the number of invalid screenings for the subsidies.
I apologise for any of the inconveniences this may have caused, and I state that this cinema has not signed any agreements with the distributor of Ip Man 3 for direct purchases of movie tickets," said Jin Zhe, marketing manager at China Film Cinema Guranggu Tianhe branch.
According to Chengdu Economic Daily, similar situations are happening nationwide, including Hengda Cinema in Dongguan, South China's Guangdong province and Pacific Cineplex in Chengdu.
Liu Hui, General Manager of UME Cineplex Huaxing branch in Beijing, a theatre accused of faking sold-out shows on weekdays, said she is helpless to face the allegations during an interview with Beijing News.
"People are often suspicious at the good box office performances of domestic films, but this is in itself a doubtful point to make.
"For a film like Ip Man, it is actually very normal to have a box office performance and showing schedules like we do. I would not be surprised if the final ticket sales reach 1 billion yuan ($154 million)," said Liu.
According to Liu, Disney's Zootopia, which is also playing right now, is showing 13 times a day at her theatre.
The number for Ip Man 3 is 15, not remarkably high compared to Zootopia.
Attendance rate is roughly between 70 to 80 per cent on weekends, and as of now, only two shows on the afternoon of March 7 and four shows on the afternoon of March 8 are sold out.
"Sold out shows are concentrated around International Women's Day (March 8), as some of the employers are buying tickets for their employees.
"Why is it that no one questions sold out shows for imported films, and makes such a fuss out of it when it comes to domestic films?" Liu added.
Frauds in box office records have become familiar in China's film industry.
Bribing cinemas to co-operate and mass-buying tickets to one's own films may bring about a hefty marketing bill, but it is often deemed a "worthy investment" if the move can attract more viewers to the theatres.
Some of the distributors allow, or have no choice but to abide by the unspoken rules of the market. However, this is the first time for a film to be "caught redhanded" and governing institutions were alarmed enough to issue statements.
China's media watchdog State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and China Film Group, one of China's largest distributors, said that they have begun to look further into box office frauds after the "serious and abnormal fluctuations in the box office since March 4" to maintain order in the film market and for its sustainable development into the future, though the specific names of the films were not released.
"We will nullify box office returns as necessary and punish cinemas, distributors and film companies involved, depending on the seriousness of the offence," SARFT said in an official statement released on March 6.
Several e-ticketing institutions, including Maoyan and Baidu Nuomi, have all received notices from SARFT to investigate the abnormal fluctuations in the ticket sales of Ip Man 3.
SARFT has also asked e-ticketing institutions to provide their contracts with the distributor of Ip Man 3 for further scrutiny.
Producers of Ip Man 3 have yet to respond to the allegations.