A decade for China’s filmmakers to advance

AT the Shanghai International Film Festival, which ends on Monday, many Chinese filmmakers talked about the slow down in the box office and lack of high-quality movies with a big social impact.

Many agreed that the Chinese film industry has caught up with the most advanced technology and management from Hollywood, yet they also acknowledged that there is still some way to go before a Chinese production gains significant global impact to satisfy the domestic audience who showed increasing dissatisfaction for domestic movies.

“The next 10 years will be the only open window for Chinese filmmakers to create something better than the Hollywood movies, and we have to seize this opportunity before the market is completely taken over by capital and bankers like in the Hollywood,” says Yu Dong, founder and CEO of Bona Film Group, with both production and distribution business.

He adds that China has grown rapidly in the last 10 years, in terms of film production, sales, theater management, and distribution, while Hollywood studios have been constantly opting for the less risky movies such as superhero films and sequels.

“I say the next 10 years because that’s the time when the first generation of film entrepreneurs, the founders of the film companies, like myself, will still be the decision makers. It is also when we will still have some money to take a riskier road that might lead to different and intriguing movies,” he says. “We have witnessed an inflow of capital into the culture industry in the past few years, and once capital takes over, there is limited opportunity to do something romantic or more artsy.”

Many say the effect is already showing, as investors demand celebrities with a large fan base rather than good actors to make an investment decision. The celebrities are usually expensive and busy with variety shows, concerts and commercial events, giving limited time to acting. It led to quite a few big-budget movies last year that were packed with celebrities yet failed both critically and commercially.

Many expected Chinese box office to reach 60 billion yuan (US$ 8.8 billion) in 2016, based on the annual growth of over 30 percent for more than 10 years. According to the “Research Report on Chinese Film Industry” that was released earlier this week at the film festival, the year wrapped up with less than 50 billion yuan and just over 10 percent of growth.

The per-screen box office dropped by 14 percent, considering that hundreds of new screens were installed all over the country. The sudden turn prompted many in the industry to ponder why.

“The supply side, or the installation of new screens, has hit the ceiling and can no longer drive up the box office so rapidly as in previous years,” says Chen Qin, PhD and research fellow at Fudan University’s School of Economics, who specializes in the economics in the movie market. “Instead, the demand side will become a long-term factor in its growth.”

According to a recent research on Chinese movie-goers behavior by Fanink, Chinese audiences were overall attracted to the theaters more by imported movies, and dissatisfied with domestic movies. Thanks to the increased new screens, more audience have gone to the theaters, but the average annual frequency in movie-going has dropped significantly.

Frontline filmmakers also echoed such conclusions drawn from large amounts of data, urging for good-quality movies that are not standardized streamline work.

“It’s very dangerous to have a ‘standardized success,’ and that’s what I have been trying to avoid — a formula of success for filmmaking,” says director Wang Xiaoshuai, whose “Beijing Bicycle” has won Silver Bear at the 58th Berlin International Film Festival.

“Now, most young directors are working on commercial movies rather than art house films. In my time, most young Chinese filmmakers debuted with an art house film,” he adds.

While Wang, who headed the festival’s jury for new directors, hopes to see more diversity in directors, other big-time producers and directors called for young scriptwriters and actors.

Feng Xiaogang, considered one of the most successful Chinese commercial and comedy filmmakers, criticizes young actors for unprofessional work attitude, overly feminized style, preference for better-paid variety shows and commercial events over acting, among other factors.

“We have no clear distinction between talents and celebrities who go on variety shows and professional actors, and that has become a big problem,” he says. “It’s like having Justin Bieber as lead actor in every movie and TV, which never happens in the United States.”

While celebrities are no longer box office guarantees, movies adapted from popular online novels or games, the so-called big IPs that were considered most secure, have also lost their mysterious appeal.

“We have seen how it has gone from nobody talking about IP to it is the only thing everyone talks about. There are many misunderstandings about IPs,” says John Zeng, senior vice president of Wanda Culture Industry Group.

“The number of clicks doesn’t necessarily transform into box office. We have to increase the non-box-office income, to be less dependent on the box office like in the US.”