May 01, 2006

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Chinese cinema

While I'm pilfering things from the Economist, an article discusses the woeful state of China's cinemas even while it's cinema productions are becoming world beaters. Full article needs subscription so I've put it below the jump.

Everyone is in love with Chinese cinema. Except the Chinese

THE Chinese are hot in Hollywood right now. At last month's Oscars Ang Lee, who hails from Taiwan and is a hero in mainland China, won the best director award for “Brokeback Mountain”. “Memoirs of a Geisha”, which carried off a further three Oscars, starred Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi, two Chinese actresses playing Japanese courtesans. Tom Cruise, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are all making films in China. And Britain's Merchant-Ivory studio has just released “The White Countess”, the first western picture to be shot entirely in China.

Unseen in China

It looks like a remarkable comeback for a film industry that was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution after a glorious early debut. Chinese cinema was born in 1896, just a year after it was invented in France. Yet between 1966 and 1972 not a single film was made on the mainland. Last year there were 260, almost twice as many as two years ago. Only America (425) and India (over 800) produced more. Box-office receipts have also been growing fast, reaching 2 billion yuan ($250m) in 2005, up a third on a year earlier, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), the government ministry-cum-regulator. Those figures pale beside the $23 billion that Hollywood raked in last year. But they compare decently with estimated receipts of $266m for India's Bollywood in 2004.

Like many a Californian starlet, however, the Chinese film industry is not as healthy as it looks. Zhang Hongsen, deputy director of the film bureau at SARFT, admitted this month that only 90 of those 260 films were ever screened in China. Many had to be withdrawn days after their release because of a lack of interest among cinema-goers.

A dearth of screens is partly to blame. China has only around 3,000 cinemas, with less than a tenth of the screens in America for a population five times as big. Much of the countryside is not covered. All in, China's 1.3 billion people managed a mere 200m cinema visits last year.

But the fault also lies with the quality and price of Chinese cinemas. Fewer than half of them are modern, reckons SARFT. The new ones charge a whopping 40-120 yuan ($5-15) a ticket, so are affordable only to the middle-classes. Xiang Yucheng, general manager of Kodak Cinema World, a 930-seat luxury cinema in Shanghai, says his average occupancy at just 20-24% is one of the highest in the country. No wonder China has never developed “a popcorn culture”, says David Wolf, a Beijing-based media consultant.

A more fundamental problem is that the industry is not making the films that people want to watch. Like nearly everyone else, the Chinese adore Hollywood blockbusters. “Titanic” is the biggest-grossing film in Chinese history and the fourth “Harry Potter” adventure is the favourite today. Yet only some 20 foreign films a year are allowed into China—although that number should rise to 40 in 2006 under the country's commitments to the World Trade Organisation.

Even then, though, choice will remain limited. China's censors are as prudish and culturally conservative as they are politically repressive, preferring bland family fare from overseas. Horror, violence (unless of the kung-fu variety) and anything challenging are ruled out. Since China has no proper ratings system, every film must be suitable for all. In a speech last December marking the centenary of Chinese cinema, President Hu Jintao left no doubt that censorship would stay: “All those working with China's film industry should stick to the correct political direction all the time,” he said. Neither “Brokeback Mountain”, with its homosexual theme, nor the Japanese-centred “Geisha” were screened in China. Mr Xiang, whose own cinema is barely profitable, says he could charge a third more to exhibit those films: “I just don't have enough good movies to show.”

Many domestic films are also banned. Directors are eager to comment on the rapid changes in Chinese society. But films such as Li Yang's “Blind Shaft” (a bleak, compelling picture about life in China's illegal coal mines) and “Cry Woman” (whose heroine uses her distinctive wail to become a professional mourner and buy her husband out of jail), were not shown to local audiences even though they had been acclaimed abroad. Liu Bingjian, the director of “Cry Woman” gave up, and now sells men's beauty products for Amway, laments Zhang Xianmin, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy.

A little help from the state

Even those Chinese films that survive the censor's blue pencil and are more than mere propaganda, often fall at the next hurdle: promotion. Budgets are low, advertising costs are high and marketing in China is haphazard. As Mr Wolf points out, “There is no studio system as in America where films must pass a series of executives judging their commercial viability. China needs its own Steven Spielberg—someone who really knows what people want to see.” Most Chinese remain glued to the television and opt to watch the latest pictures on pirated DVDs, which, at 10 yuan each, cost a fraction of a cinema visit and deprived American studios of $2.7 billion of revenues last year.

In response, the Chinese government is doing what it typically does to generate growth—build infrastructure. Cash has been found to set up mobile cinemas in rural areas, while businesses in Hong Kong and Macau were told in February that they could set up 100%-owned cinema chains. The same privilege should eventually be extended to western companies such as Warner Bros, the first foreign firm to get into film distribution on the mainland—it operates several cinemas there including a huge new complex in Chongqing, a city of 30m people. With cinemas being built from scratch, there are opportunities for foreign providers of the latest technologies, such as Imax, which is already selling 3D systems in China, and Texas Instruments, with its digital projectors.

New hardware, however, does not foster creativity. What the Chinese film industry needs is less regulation and greater competition. That would mean allowing in more western films, curbing censorship and removing the onerous cap that limits foreign-studio profits to 17% of Chinese box-office receipts. If a reliable ratings system replaced the censor, domestic filmmakers could take more risks, attract bigger audiences and plough back their growing revenues into marketing and more projects. If all that happened, even the Chinese might start to watch Chinese films.

posted by Simon on 05.01.06 at 09:33 AM in the China history, education & culture category.


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Maybe the cause is that the public are pirating the Chinese films, an appropraite bum rap.

posted by: da on 05.01.06 at 12:24 PM [permalink]

away from distribution and exhibition issues, the simple (but painful) reason is that 90 percent of movies made are just no good. Try to make a list of top 10 mainland movies of last five years and it isn't easy. Even the foreign film festival favorites tend to be painfully slow and self-obsessed and wouldn't get a look in were it not for their 'oriental' (sorry) appeal. watched 'bao ber in love' t'other night - looked like it was made by a chimpanzee with a camera in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. shockingly bad.

posted by: mike on 05.01.06 at 01:11 PM [permalink]

I would disagree and say that many of the Chinese film festival films are quite good; although they tend towards sentimentality, many talented directors such as Jia Zhangke, Li Yang and Yang Zhang are making good films.

I think piracy is definitely a problem, as are the cinemas themselves. There need to be some brand spanking new cinemas made, and ones that enforce laws on spitting and gross/obnoxious (not to mention unhealthy) behavior. I will never forget going to see "The Rock" in a cinema in Changsha. The movie did not have advertised start times - you just walked in and sat down; they would start playing the film as soon as they had finished and rewound the reel, which usually means you're about halfway through the film when you arrive.

posted by: HK Dave on 05.01.06 at 02:49 PM [permalink]

If there was a guarantee of buttered salted popcorn and English subtitles I'd be out to the movies at least once a week.

posted by: Feng 37 on 05.01.06 at 05:43 PM [permalink]

"I would disagree and say that many of the Chinese film festival films are quite good; although they tend towards sentimentality, many talented directors such as Jia Zhangke, Li Yang and Yang Zhang are making good films."

could you give some examples because I have racked my brain and failed to come up with any? Even the likes of pickpocket or blind shaft are interesting rather than actually good in a cinematic sense. others like peacock are just dull. who wants to to the cinema (rather than dvd at home) and watch what are basically puffed up tv movies (or stage plays)?

compare china's output with korea, japan or hk and the you see what a tedious, ego-filled, over-directed movie world we are forced to live in.

posted by: mike on 05.02.06 at 12:20 PM [permalink]

Let's be as realistic as possible, and talk about "simple economics", or rather, plain old, common sense. They say, 10Yuan for a pirated DVD, and 40-120Yuan for an admission ticket to a run-down theater - I say, DVD looks pretty good, and the thing is, I make over a 100 times more money than the average, potential movie goer in China - so what's this about "less regulation and more competition". Why should I pay more for something I can have for less - it's stupid. The "Economist" should re-evaluate its own name, and change it to the "Idiots", for failing to see "simple economics" in action - the "Economist" -ha, what a joke.

posted by: Show Biz on 05.02.06 at 03:47 PM [permalink]

"Why should I pay more for something I can have for less - it's stupid."

Well, exactly. At its core, this is the same issue that faces cinema owners in the United States. If you're going to create or maintain a popcorn culture of regular movie-goers, you have to offer more than just the viewing of a movie. You need to give people a reason to get out of the house, go through the time and expense, and get that premium value out of it.

Cinema will not progress much further unless it the business is completely rethought and patrons are either getting a unique experience, OR they're going to get an opportunity to see something they cannot see elsewhere.

Mo bettah, a combination of the two.

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