Memo to China: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Start Making Watchable Movies

by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 8, 2012


To: Those calling the shots in China’s film industry

From: A concerned foreigner

Re: Unsolicited but well-meaning advice


Dear Chinese Film Honcho:

I’ve just read a report from an official-sounding Beijing organization called the Academy for International Communication of Chinese Culture, which tries to explain why “many good Chinese film productions have not yet reached the mainstream audiences overseas.”

Excuse me, but do they know something I don’t? What good Chinese movies? Your movies don’t reach mainstream audiences overseas because they’re generally unwatchable. Even your own people, who have extremely limited movie-going choices thanks to your restrictive quota system, are staying away from these mediocre pictures.

It’s not that Chinese filmmakers can’t make good movies. People like Ang Lee, Wong Kar-Wai, Wu Tianming, Liu Jiayin, Lou Ye, Tsui Hark, Wayne Wang, Justin Lin, and others have shown the world that they know how to make artistic and crowd-pleasing films. In perhaps the ultimate compliment, Hollywood gave a Best Foreign Language Oscar to your Taiwanese brother Ang Lee’s film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon a while back. More recently the Best Picture Oscar went to a movie (The Departed) that was adapted from a film (Infernal Affairs) written and directed by three of your own Hong Kong brothers, Alan Mak, Felix Chong and Andrew Lau.

No, Chinese filmmakers and storytellers aren’t the problem, it’s the rules and threats you shackle them with. And your often atrocious behavior. You just can’t seem to play nice with others.

So, herewith, some unsolicited advice on how you can do better. Follow these rules and before you know it you’ll be making films that people may actually want to see.

  1. Cut the Hypocrisy – What’s with all the censorship when you let your people watch anything and everything they want on the internet and pirated DVDs? How come I can buy a copy of Saw 4 or The Human Centipede on any street corner in Shanghai but I can’t depict a character in my movie carrying a gun or smoking a joint? Do you really think your people are so sheltered and chaste that their minds are in danger of being polluted by a two-hour movie theater experience?
  2. Stop Treating Everyone Like Children. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to protect your children from inappropriate content, but do you really need to apply rules that are appropriate for 4 year-olds to prevent everyone over the age of 17 from seeing images of sex, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ activities? We all know you’re having sex; there are 1.4 billion of you for heaven’s sake! Stop pretending it doesn’t exist. An intelligent film rating system would be a big improvement.
  3. Feed the Writers and Artists – You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China. Please stop locking them up. Try investing in them instead. Let one hundred flowers bloom, and don’t cut them down when they do. Good movies need good stories and creative thinking. Here in Hollywood we have a thing called ‘development.’ It means investing in a writer and his or her story before you start making the movie.
  4. Take Risks – Stop asking us to guarantee you a 30 percent secured return on movie investments when you know we need risk capital. Don’t plead ignorance of capitalism—you guys are the best capitalists the world has ever seen. And show some imagination. Aren’t you tired already of backing Ming dynasty kung fu retreads or anti-Japanese WWII propaganda films or the 215th remake of The Monkey King?
  5. Learn Some Manners – Let’s face it, you know you need Hollywood. We’ve already figured out how to make movies the world wants to see. So show us a little respect. You keep coming over here saying you want to do business with us, making promises, signing contracts, then disappearing off to Vegas and Disneyland never to be heard from again. Or you seduce us into coming over to you with promises of investment when all you really want to do is milk us for information and ideas or ask us to work for you for free. We’ve got enough bullshitters over here, thank you. If you believe in guanxi then start acting like it!
  6. If You Have Money, Stop Talking About It and Start Investing It. If You Don’t, Then Please Go Away! – Okay, we get that you’ve figured out how to publish press releases about your supposed new billion dollar fund and your Goldman Sachs advisors. We get that it’s fun for you to see your name in bogus stories in Deadline. Enough talk. If you really want to participate in the global film market, then put your money where your mouth is.

You think I don’t know what I’m talking about? Fine. Why don’t you ask Feng Xiaogang, your most commercially successful filmmaker? I know he’ll agree.

Robert Cain is a producer and entertainment industry consultant who has been doing business in China since 1987. He can be reached at and at

12 thoughts on “Memo to China: 6 Things You Can Do Now to Start Making Watchable Movies

  1. This is what we call freedom of speech, even if no name is put to the article, it still sends a message that we are all thinking.
    Let’s see what the next 6 months brings after the recent Xi Jinping visit to LA and the current Big Boss of China film Han Sanping returns back to China and makes any announcements.
    Even though he is leaving the position this year he will still be handy to have as a door opener or co producer with influence.
    I’ll stick to my plans for Hong Kong until the situation improves in China, I see lot’s of sexy and violent scenes on China Home Cinema nightly from Hong Kong, you just can’t show Chinese women’s flesh– we all know they are doing it but mainly in the dark.
    The CPP CPPPC meeting in Beijing even mentioned legal prostitution the other day, you never get a warning in China, it just happens, so if you’re in the right place at the right time it comes down to luck.

  2. There is something to be said for, “telling it like it is”. Sooner or later the Gorilla in the cutting room will get the message… hopefuly it’s sooner than later. roger

  3. This is the best post so far. Rob, I was about to write you off as another China cheerleader (anyone who has built a career in China has to do his fair share), but I stand corrected.

    I know from personal contact with leaders in China’s film industry that their marching orders are to take China’s message to the world through film exports. The problem is, audiences have no interest in paying to watch thinly veiled propaganda and they have no idea how to address this.

    They could start by loosening up at home, as there is probably a small, but still meaningful overseas audience that is interested in realistic (warts ‘n all) portrayals of modern day China.

    If they can do that, maybe they will start to learn from the Hollywood model. Namely, understanding that explosions, tits and monsters sell tickets (and popcorn) pretty much anywhere. China has the talent, capital and technical expertise to pull this off. The problem is, who is going to invest in something ambitious only to have the juiciest bits cut by censors?

  4. It is so easy and simple to make villains out of the Chinese? Wow! I wonder how much unsolicited advice China paid heed to while getting to where they got in various fields! Let the USA and Hollywood filmmakers not gloat over “We’ve got this figured out” nonsense like cinema was invented in the USA.

    It is highly appreciable that the USA’s film makers were able to learn from others when the art form itself was developing, and it is even more fascinating and deserving of applause that Hollywood has taken cinema to a level of universal appeal not seen before, but there is nothing wrong in showing some respect to other cultures that may be sensitive to the sort of influence foreign cinema might have on their people.

    It would be naive to imagine China’s bureaucracy and its film producers work hand in hand to create these awkward situations for themselves and the others. A lot of people will want to save face while implementing changes, and some changes are just culturally heavy to move and shift.

    Enough of this “You need Hollywood” attitude too, especially when one can find it conveniently easy to leave out, “And we would do almost anything to get our paws on your money!”. Besides, why are some of the geniuses in Hollywood still making crappy movies with huge budgets? Think the Chinese won’t be studying this? Give them time, not a time bomb.

    The rules of other businesses do not all apply to the business of cinema, and if Hollywood can continue to produce so many shenanigans after having been around for so long, how can we blame the Chinese homegrown shenanigans for showing up in this early stage of China’s romance with worldwide audiences, with or without Hollywood’s help?

    • Senthil, I appreciate the points you make, but I must tell you that in the 10 hours or so since this piece was published I’ve received a chorus of private thanks and notes of approval from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Nanjing, Chengdu, Taipei, Seoul, and half a dozen other places including, yes, Hollywood. All from people who have experienced the indignities of dealing with China’s misguided policies and often poor behavior. Yours has been the only note of complaint.

      • Thank you for your kind response as always Rob! I’d be very happy to stand corrected if I have said something unacceptable.

        By no means am I complaining, since I wouldn’t even know where to start amidst the picture painted above, but I often tend to worry that most opportunities for change are lost by one sided attacks. By what yardstick of evolution can we measure our intent to communicate some changes we’d like to see by using language that is already conclusive and hardly suggesting our willingness to better understand the Chinese way of thinking? The romance hasn’t yet run that long either, I would think.

        There are other forums where I vehemently defend the way Hollywood works too! I am of the view that a nation that has come a long way in a short time, relatively speaking, cannot be full of fake, unintelligent, incapable, inefficient, and boorish people. Of course it may be very difficult to us when we are used to some minimal levels of decency and dignity in the way we conduct our business, and we’re suddenly dealing with vastly different standards, but when the filtering out and weeding out is done by the forces of nature and humanity’s infinite will to see things through to the next level of possibilities, I’m sure we will find equilibrium and indeed growth and prosperity in any confluence of souls.

        It wasn’t that long ago when I was horrified on this blog, by the unreal, one-sided, “all in my favor” deal that a Hollywood company had worked out with a Chinese funder. Whatever the reasons may be, I’m actually glad from a Karmic point of view that it did not consummate. Who is the wiser there?

      • I believe that I just saw the 216th remake of “The Monkey King” advertised.

      • My favorite line: “Oh, you Yankee no understand Chinese way of doing business” usually is just an excuse for them to try to continue pulling their crap.

        The concepts of “win-win negotiation” and “living up to the terms of a negotiated & signed contract” are often alien to many of them.

      • LOL! I agree, and I’ve heard that too! It’s not the only context where this sort of thing happens, either. When you come from a culture where survival necessarily means some cut-throat upbringing, it is hard to make sense out of more evolved concepts. With a little training, monkey no touch electric wire no mores.

  5. Great points, together with they witty remarks, it’s almost like propaganda. I absolutely agree. The point about taking risks. It’s true, there are definitely too many remakes of certain kind of films but I would say there is room for remake of some less popular stories/legends/historic events as China or Asia in general seem to have an appetite for this.

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