State-run Chinese cinema has unexpected lessons for the west, and is set to lead research and development in the digital era, in happy alliance with Hollywoodby Mark Cousins / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
The People’s Republic of China wants to do business with the rest of the world. The rest of the world is falling over itself to do business with the People’s Republic. The recent Shanghai international film festival showed how one industry—cinema—is trying to handle this heady attraction. Against the roar of a city of 17.5m people rebuilding itself, delegations from Mexico, Finland, Australia, France, America, Britain, Spain—to name just those I noticed—were in town, exchanging business cards, trying to learn Sino-business etiquette. Like a ball scene in a Jane Austen novel, courtships were initiated and discourse was formal. The dance was somewhat macabre, but many of the attempts at connection were sincere. At a seminar on Sino-Hollywood co-operation, Ang Lee insisted that LA and Beijing can make films together if they focus on the inner lives of human beings. I was in Shanghai to publicise the Mandarin edition of my last book and, in interview after interview, I was asked to describe Chinese cinema, as if it really mattered what we in the west thought of it.
Comparison of the hard facts about Chinese and developed-world film shows the complexity of the integration process. Unlike in the modern capitalist economies, the Chinese film market is massively underscreened. There are 38,500 auditoriums on the mainland, the same number as in America. If cinema ticket sales reached the level of America’s (about four per person a year), and even if they were pegged at just $1 a pop, $3bn extra revenue would be earned each year. And that’s cinema alone. Add twice this amount from DVD and you have $100bn in a decade. The Chinese government obviously wants much of this, and some of it will be pocketed by the American multiplexers with whom it has already formed partnerships. But domestic films represent 68.5 per cent of the market in China (the figure is less than 20 per cent for most European countries), and even if this proportion drops to 50 per cent by 2015, the film industry stands to gross perhaps $4bn a year—almost as much as America, in a country with far lower overheads and labour costs.
When the film trade magazines list the most powerful people in the business, the Chinese will soon be at or near the top. Who will these powerbrokers be? In the capitalist economies, a powerful but unconfident LA-based oligarchy sustains but deforms markets around…