Fast-Growing Industry Needs New Direction
Projected to surpass the US to become the world’s largest box office by 2020, China commands center stage as it continues to undergo breakneck growth and cinema expansion with the help of an ever-expanding and aspirational Chinese middle class. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the Chinese box office rose 35 percent to US$2 billion last year. However, as Forbes recently put it, the bulk of this cinematic cash cow still comes from imported Hollywood films. In 2012, only three domestic movies, “Lost in Thailand,” “Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” and Jackie Chan’s “Chinese Zodiac 12,″ made it into the list of the top ten highest-grossing films of the year. The rest were all American, with “Titanic 3D” leading the way, taking in 935 million yuan (US$150 million).
While the popularity of Hollywood blockbusters among Chinese moviegoers translates to a larger market for Hollywood — especially following a new trade agreement with China that gives the United States the chance to increase the number of films exported to China — and possibly cheaper movie tickets for local audiences, China’s film industry continues to face longstanding obstacles including “changing consumer preferences in a diverse marketplace, an evolving and highly competitive digital landscape, price sensitivity, intellectual property rights infringement and government control and regulatory restrictions.”
For example, while imported movies regularly top the charts in China, delayed and combined release dates are one of many frustrating regulations with which major filmmakers and production houses have had to contend. The delayed release of the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall,” many speculate, was meant to curb the film’s chance of upstaging Feng Xiaogang’s “Back to 1942.” The China Film Group, which regulates the country’s film industry, may be planning to release Skyfall at the same time as The Hobbit, in February.
Yet, the grass is not always greener on the other side, as domestic Chinese filmmakers themselves are kept on a short leash, and now more than ever are facing the competition of foreign films right on their doorstep. Tian Jin, deputy director of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), recently said, “The dominance of domestic films in the Chinese film market has been shaken. The domestic films are facing great pressure. The objective reason is that the foreign films have dealt a blow to domestic films.” Director Lu Chuan (“City of Life and Death“) spoke for many Chinese directors when he expressed frustration at the censorship system, telling the New York Times:
We need a fair, relaxed and comfortable environment to be creative, like Hollywood. Their movies can have aliens attacking Los Angeles, even flooding the White House. Film should not just be a propaganda tool. This year is a crisis year for Chinese films. If we lose today, it’s possible more funding will go to Hollywood, not China. And what happens next year?
In accord, Beijing-based filmmaker Dayyan Eng — whose latest film “Inseparable” was the first wholly local production to feature a Hollywood star, Kevin Spacey — added, “We are at a disadvantage because the system that’s in place to regulate or censor [these] things is not the same for Chinese films and for Hollywood films.” Director Lou Ye publicized his frustration over cuts SARFT requested for his latest film on his microblog, writing, “We must not be afraid of movies! If a country, a system feels frightened by movies, it definitely is not because the movie is strong, but it is because [the country and the system] are weak.”
Thus, China’s film market continues to be caught between a rock and a hard place, as it rapidly becomes dominated by Hollywood titles (albeit after a gauntlet of regulations), marginalizing already highly censored domestic creations. According to Voice of America, although Chinese lawmakers recognize that domestic films are facing increasing pressure to compete with foreign films, little is being done to address China’s censorship rules in consideration of other systems such as the U.S. rating system.
Instead, the Chinese government attempts to shield its local film industry by imposing a quota on foreign movies allowed in China each year, a number that increased from 20 to 34 last year. In addition, movie theaters are financially rewarded for choosing to show local films. However, as we’ve seen, merely meeting quotas is not the golden ticket to a successful industry. Clearly, without some form of change in the year ahead, 2013 will remain a highly contentious year in the Chinese film industry, not just for a Hollywood knocking down China’s door, but also for domestic Chinese screenwriters, directors and producers — whether established or up-and-coming.