Chinese Moviegoers Lead the the Way For Interactive Onscreen Text Messaging

By  · Published on August 20th, 2014

Here’s some fun news to read after watching the trailer for Jason Reitman’s latest (see our post from earlier today). And by fun, I’m sure for many of you I should mean infuriating. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Chinese cinemas are testing out a new system for interactive moviegoing where the audience is able to contribute to running commentary of the film on screen. The gimmick involves “bullet screens,” which are named such for the way the messages scroll across the movie, and it’s a concept that’s been around for a while online in Japan and more recently China. The new big screen version, though, can currently be found in 50 theaters in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and other cities, specifically at showings of the 3D animated feature The Legend of Qin.

Why an animated feature? Because it’s mostly young people who are interested in the danmu craze, as bullet screens are called over there (danmaku in Japan), and because as THR relays from a translated Chinese publication, it’s “for younger viewers who can’t spend five minutes away from their tablet or phone.” That sounds like theater owners are both cashing in on a trend (each text sent to screen costs 10 cents) and perpetuating a new social problem that probably doesn’t need encouragement. This is the same country that, as shown in the new documentary Web Junkie, has enough of an issue with youths being addicted to the Internet that they’ve become the first in the world to label it a clinical disorder. Interestingly enough, the director of The Legend of Qin is supportive of the idea, claiming that “many of the opinions of the viewers are very helpful for filmmakers.”

Uh huh. Wait until you see what bullet screens look like, at least of the online sort, in the video below.

Hey, I almost saw some of the actual video there for a second. Don’t worry, it’s different for the theatrical danmu, which puts the messages on an adjacent screen in some locations, according to The Nanfang Insider. They’ve got a photo of that version as evidence, and it appears as though you could possibly ignore the texts if you tried. What I don’t understand is how something like this is being done for a 3D movie. None of the reports mention if the texts are also projected in 3D to fit the film format. I love the suggestion from TechNode that there should be special glasses needed to read the danmu, which would mean another kind of hybrid glasses could be employed for those wanting both 3D and messages?

It’s doubtful that “bullet screens” will make their way to America anytime soon, mainly because they’re not a thing online over here yet. But there’s been talk in recent years by some theater owners of looking into how to cater to text-happy youths and get their ticket dollars in the process. Hopefully they don’t get too inspired by the Chinese audiences. I think we already have enough problems with the way moviegoers over there are influencing how the movies themselves are being made (see Transformers: Age of Extinction). We don’t need them impacting exhibition, too.

Now, to leave you with something less irritating, but maybe still somewhat irritating, here is a sort of relevant video essay (more so to the Reitman movie) about the new ways in which filmmakers are depicting texting within the movies themselves. I feel like the examples given shown with danmu capability could be the most confusing thing in the world.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.