Companies See Opportunity In China’s Soft Power Push
The Shanghai International Film Festival (SIFF) wraps up on Monday after a week of star-studded events, which have demonstrated two major ongoing themes when it comes to film in China: the Chinese film industry’s efforts to balance a desire for international prestige with domestic protectionism, and foreign filmmakers’ continued interest in cooperating with China in order to break into the Chinese film market. Already a major year for the international film industry in China, many events at the festival bring into dramatic focus key business tendencies, political agendas, and strategies for China’s soft power development that surround the ongoing relationship between the Chinese and foreign film industries.
Boasting its “A-category” distinction on its website, the festival’s self-proclaimed aim is to increase China’s “soft power” when it comes to film, and efforts to do so include attempts to demonstrate China’s international artistic credibility and openness to international films. SIFF’s strategies to up the international cultural caché of China’s film industry are readily apparent, especially when compared to those of the mass market-oriented Beijing International Film Festival, which was held earlier this year. While the Beijing festival generally limits its content to major action stars like Jackie Chan and tentpole blockbuster releases, Shanghai’s festival pushes for a more artistic and cosmopolitan image with a track record for attracting art house directors like Wong Kar Wai, Leos Carax, and Apachatpong Weerathekull to hold court on its juries for the festival’s Golden Goblet award. This year’s major international guests include British director Tom Hooper, actress Helen Mirren, and American director Oliver Stone.
However, in direct conflict with these “soft power” initiatives to appear open and cosmopolitan are continued pressures from both state regulators and film company executives to strictly limit the number of foreign films imported in order to sustain China’s homegrown film industry. Despite the push to appear cosmopolitan, comments at the festival reflected these sentiments. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Chinese movie moguls speaking at the festival called for reductions of domestic taxation and hinted at a continued need for stringent standards on co-productions with foreign filmmakers. For example, Le Vision Pictures’ CEO Zhang Zhao said that foreign filmmakers must “reflect deeply” on their target audience, a statement which lightly references those made by other Chinese film regulators arguing that co-productions must comply with extensive requirements to gain government approval.
The relationship between foreign film industries and China’s state-run movie system is a constantly evolving situation. There have been signs of the market slowly opening to foreign films, but the Chinese film industry is reluctant to encourage imported productions beyond a certain capacity in order to keep the Chinese movie market competitive. While the original quota of no more than 20 foreign films has moved to 34, these films are also often subject to extensive cuts and re-editing. Slow progress has been made on the heavy restrictions on profit margins, which have recently been eased to allow for foreign productions to make returns on 25 percent of their profits, up from the earlier amount of 13 percent.
Full of hurdles, some of the public deals at this year’s event point to different strategies of dealing with the many government regulations that encumber foreign businesses. One example of this was a deal signed at the festival between producers of Michael Bay’s Transformers 4 and Beijing Pangu Investment, the film’s first Chinese commercial sponsor. A landmark project, the producers of Transformers 4 will work with Chinese filmmakers from the beginning of screenplay development, and the two agreed that the film would show several prominent landmarks in the Chinese capital. In addition to demonstrating a certain degree of openness to foreign films on China’s side, it also shows Hollywood’s strong efforts to cooperate with the Chinese film industry to have its movies reach Chinese audiences.
Perhaps one of the directors at the festival making the greatest strides in connecting to China’s film industry was Oliver Stone, who accepted the festival’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The Hollywood veteran turned heads when he used his acceptance speech to call NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden a “hero”, a statement that carried significant political weight considering Stone’s location. Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying and subsequent decision to hide in Hong Kong have been referred to as “Christmas in June” for the Chinese government by China expert Bill Bishop, who went on to state that “Snowden is Santa Claus” for giving the Chinese government ample fodder for firing back at U.S. accusations of hacking and criticisms of its censorship policies.
While there’s no way to tell if Stone’s motivations were business-oriented or purely political, it is clear that foreigners face a complicated terrain in navigating China’s film business, but the country’s vastly expanding audience will encourage further efforts.