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Exporting cinematic culture

Mar 24. 2016
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The Chinese Film Industry looks set to overtake Hollywood a the world box office
Once earning a mere pittance at the box office, Chinese films are now ready to overtake the US market in terms of revenue, says Li Yansong, president of iQIYI Motion Pictures. 
“Last year we were discussing the future of Chinese films in the context of Asia, this year we are looking at global possibilities. This indeed is a marker of fast-paced growth,” Li enthused at last week’s China Daily Asia Leadership Roundtable held as part of the Hong Kong International Film and TV Market, or simply, Filmart.
This year marked the 20th edition of Filmart, a four-day event at the Hong Kong Exhibition and Convention Centre.
The roundtable this year welcomed 12 eminent personalities, including film festival directors and educators, high-profile facilitators of industry-government cooperation in filmmaking, production company heads, big-time distributors and new-age film development professionals.
Zhou Li, editorial board member of China Daily Group and publisher and editor-in-chief of China Daily Asia Pacific, delivered the keynote address.
“Revenue from China’s movie ticket sales is now second only to box offices in the US. In 2015, box office earnings in China touched a record $6.8 billion (Bt237.5 billion) up by 49 per cent from the previous year, according to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television,” Zhou said.
“While North America too made more revenue than before, an estimated $11 billion, that market grew at a much slower rate of 7 per cent, compared to that in China.”
Michael C Ellis, president and managing director Asia-Pacific Region for the Motion Picture Association, went a step further to predict that Chinese box-office takings will overtake the US by 2017.
“In February they already did, for a month,” he noted. “This is a market that is accelerating and the growth has been really staggering. Keep adding 30 per cent every year. It’s going to be absolutely huge.”

One way to beat the home of Hollywood at their own game would be to get more Chinese to go watch movies on the big screen, he added. “In America nine in 100 people go to the cinemas once a month. In China the figure in 3.9,” Ellis pointed out. “If we could get more Chinese to go to the theatre we might be able to close the gap.”
While China’s box office takings continue to multiply, the challenge before the country’s film industry is to leverage the obvious advantages that money can buy and use these to improve the general standard of the fare on offer.
China’s filmmakers can take a leaf out of the book of Taiwanese filmmakers, who would not compromise on quality for the sake of a few extra bucks that co-production might bring, according to Jeanne Huang, former director of the Taipei Film Festival.
While the mainland film industry has its obvious influence on filmmakers in Taiwan, the new-wave directors “are more alert about retaining their own cultural elements and keeping away the ‘commercial’ stuff, even if it means losing money,” Huang said.
Her sentiments resonated with those of CT Yip, executive director of Media Asia Group Holdings. “Content is king,” he said. “Historically money has not always helped create great content or the ability to appreciate it.” So while the mainland box-office success is certainly worth celebrating, “let’s not forget to engage with developing the content”.
Responding to a question from moderator Alexander Wan, senior advisor to China Daily Asia Pacific, Yip noted Hollywood’s interest in Asian content – the evidence of which is in the Wachowskis making “The Matrix”, which was wuxia-inspired – underscores the fact that “a good story goes beyond the colour of the maker’s skin” and is appreciated for its ability to cut across cultural barriers.
A few panellists drew attention to the fact that China’s recent box-office success is best viewed against a bigger picture. Kriengsak “Victor” Silakong, director of the World Film Festival of Bangkok, noted the popularity of Chinese films is slipping in Thailand.
While Hong Kong films and Hong Kong stars were hugely popular in the 1980s, Chinese cinema has struggled in Thailand. Last year, just three Chinese films – two low-budget independent films and a documentary – got a theatrical release in the Kingdom. 
“To get Chinese films back to Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent is the big task for the Chinese film industry,” Victor said.
The box-office race with the US looks different when one considers its population of 320 million against China’s 1.3 billion, said Chen Bin, senior vice-president at DMG Entertainment. “I think catching up with the US is not our aim,” said Chen, whose company facilitates shooting of Hollywood films in China, sometimes in extreme locations, such as the blockbuster “Transformers”. 
“We’re aiming to surpass them. While we cooperate with Hollywood, we’re open to collaboration with any filmmaker who wants to make world-class films.”
He ended his impassioned speech with an invitation to open a dialogue on the possibilities of cooperation. “As long as we have a shared value of humanity and want to entertain people, we could work with people, irrespective of their colour, culture and ethnicity.”

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