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 the world by pumping them with cinematic steroids. In China, all film production, exhibition and development decisions must be approved by the state administration for radio, film and television (SARFT). Such state control means that indie and DV (digital video) filmmakers must work in semi-secret and that approval of completed films can be slow or ridiculously censorious. But SARFT behaves more interestingly than might be expected. Some of SARFT’s senior figures are former filmmakers and technophiles, fascinated by the digital era. Hence, perhaps, the fact that the highly funded Beijing Film Academy is one of the world’s best film schools. Some $10m has been set aside to digitise a thousand feature films a year in China—creating what will soon be the world’s biggest digital archive for film. Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg have long campaigned for an increase in digitisation to rescue fading film prints. In one decision, SARFT can authorise such activity on an unprecedented scale. Provided they digitise the right films to the right standard, film history will thank them. If we leave such research and development to the steroid capitalist market, it will be done piecemeal, and only when someone spies a profit.
That could well be the Chinese motive too, and the Chinese state is wrong in much that it does, but its ability to act strategically, to steer change in the film world when digital and delivery convergence demands it, is surely exciting to the film pragmatists in America and Europe.
What was clear in Shanghai was that Chinese top-downism and western steroid-capitalism are attracted to each other’s strengths. It is possible to imagine that, by 2050, for example, China could be the R&D centre of global film. It would provide the world’s film studio and post-production needs. It could deliver audiovisual content to cinemas, home computers and handsets around the world. It could be home to a great archive—the film equivalent of the library of Alexandria, endorsed by Unesco. Europe, America, Africa and the middle east would provide individual filmmaking voices, writers, directors, actors and stories, and aesthetic ideas, which would guarantee the plurality and subjectivity of world cinema—aspects that China is, for the time being, still struggling to develop.
This is perhaps a pipe dream, and assumes that the courtships that I saw beginning proceed smoothly. It acknowledges that there’s stuff we’re good at and stuff they’re good at. It assumes harmonisation in areas such as human rights. But in Shanghai today there are independent production companies, often set up by Vancouver-Chinese, who are fast becoming go-betweens between state and foreign companies. Such diaspora Chinese will surely be the dance masters and go-betweens of the future.