Standing Up to [CENSORED] in China


Follow me on Twitter @robcain or Sina Weibo @robcain, or connect with me on LinkedIn.Feng Xiaogang directors guild photo

By Robert Cain for China Film Biz

April 21, 2013

Last week one of China’s most prominent movie directors, Feng Xiaogang (Aftershock, Back to 1942), boldly seized the opportunity on national television to speak out against his country’s media censorship policies. It’s difficult for western filmmakers to imagine how painful it must be for their Chinese counterparts to contend with artistic repression, but Feng poignantly conveyed this pain in his words and his expressions.

In his heartfelt acceptance speech for the honor of “director of year” from the China Film Directors Guild, Feng grew teary-eyed when he referred to the “torment” that China’s filmmakers must bear. The torment he was referring to was censorship, but in the video of Feng’s acceptance speech the word “censorship” was bleeped out, as can be seen at the 3:51 minute mark

It is it forbidden not only to criticize the Communist Party’s iron-fisted censorship rules, but to even utter the word “censorship” in the wrong context is verboten.

Feng knows all of this, of course; his Film Directors Guild speech was just the latest in a string of public criticisms he’s levied at SARFT and its restrictions on artistic expression.  A lesser director would undoubtedly be prosecuted for such misbehavior, but Feng’s fame and international visibility make him ‘too big to jail.’

The heart of his message is encapsulated in this passage from his speech:

A lot of times when you receive the order [from the censors], it’s so ridiculous that you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, especially when you know something is good and you are forced to change it into something bad. Are Hollywood directors tormented the same way? … To get approval, I have to cut my films in a way that makes them bad. How do we all persist through it all? I think there is only one reason — that this bunch of fools like us love filmmaking — are entranced by filmmaking — too much. (translation excerpted from Rachel Lu’s Atlantic magazine article “Chinese Film Director’s Censorship is Torment“)

Last year the director Lou Ye (Summer Palace, Mystery) took his dissatisfaction a step further: when his dramatic film Mystery was subjected to the censors’ scissors, he tweeted the details of the censorship process to the public in a series of postings on his Sina Weibo account. After weeks of waiting for a decision as to whether his film could be exhibited, Lou tweeted:

I’m waiting for an answer: Can the film be released on time without any changes, yes or no? The answer is so simple but so difficult–[the process] makes me feel disappointed and sad, but I also feel a sense of understanding and support. China’s domestic film industry needs everyone to work together. I totally accept the fact that I’m a director in the age of film censorship. I just want a dialogue [with the authorities], and a dialogue is not a confrontation. There are no winners and losers in a dialogue. There are no enemies.

Both Feng’s and Lou’s pleas were met with widespread approval and support from China’s general public. The job of the censors is ostensibly to promote Confucian morality, political stability and social harmony, and these are noble aims, but in carrying out their edicts they sometimes risk defeating these purposes by offending the sensibilities of their fellow citizens.

As Rachel Lu put it in her Atlantic article, “Many exclaimed the decision to bleep out Feng’s mention of censorship was ‘painting the eyes on a dragon,’ a figure of speech which refers to the finishing touch necessary to bring something to life. In other words, the ironic result may only have rendered Feng’s message more poignant.

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

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China Film Personality: Han Sanping


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

March 7, 2012

This week Hollywood welcomes one of the Chinese film industry’s most important and influential players, Han Sanping (韓三平). As Chairman of the Chinese government/business mega-conglomerate China Film Group, Han is responsible for more financing, production, distribution, export and import of films than everyone else in China combined.

Han is visiting Los Angeles this week to meet with executives at several studios (Universal, Sony and Disney have been specifically mentioned in the industry trades) to seek out co-producing partners, and to consider requests for precious import quota slots. A couple of clients of mine are meeting Han this week to ask that he allow their blockbusters to screen in Chinese cineplexes.

There is no real Hollywood equivalent to Han, because he wears so many hats: producer, director, studio executive, government administrator, and mentor. If you took Jack Valenti, Lew Wasserman, and Steven Spielberg and rolled them into one, you’d begin to get an idea of Han’s power and influence in China. He has overseen the production and distribution of hundreds of movies and television series, he manages the Beijing Film Studios, and he has final greenlight authority on all co-productions with foreign partners.

Han is also widely recognized as a kingmaker who has nurtured the careers of such top directors as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang, and of many leading Chinese actors and actresses as well.

The kingmaker’s own career was nurtured and mentored by my new friend Liu Cheng. Han began producing movies nearly 20 years ago, which makes him the equivalent of an OG in China because there are few film veterans who can claim that sort of longevity. He has had a producing role on numerous Chinese blockbusters including Red Cliff (directed by John Woo), The Warlords (Peter Chan), Shaolin (Benny Chan) and Aftershock (Feng Xiaogang), and on such Hollywood films as Mission Impossible III and The Karate Kid. He also directed two of China’s highest grossing films of the past three years, the star-studded, Chinese Communist Party sponsored propaganda films The Founding of a Republic and The Beginning of the Great Revival.

Last year I helped Han to evaluate Hollywood visual effects companies for one of his films, and as a result I gained some access to his inner circle. I’ve heard that his trip this week has yielded at least one major surprise: there has been a marked negative shift in the major studios’ attitudes toward co-production with Chinese partners.

Apparently, in the wake of the Chinese government’s recent announcement regarding its relaxation of film import quotas and its enhancement of revenue sharing, the studios’ appetites have diminished for co-production as a means of boosting their China business. With enough quota slots now for each major studio to average 5 or 6 Chinese releases per year, and with their share of revenue now bumped up to 25 percent of box office gross, the Hollywood giants see little incentive to deal with the hassles of Chinese co-production. An unanticipated consequence of Beijing’s opening up of the Chinese market is that it may encourage less Hollywood cooperation, not more. Most of the studios have had trying experiences in the past with Chinese partners, and any incremental revenue they might theoretically earn by making movies in China isn’t considered sufficient compensation for the risks, creative restrictions, and headaches they would have to bear.

From my vantage point this is a good thing. China still wants access to Hollywood expertise and market clout, and the less the studios want to provide these things the more opportunity there will be for entrepreneurial American and other foreign companies. We may see more Chinese money begin to flow into high profile independent productions.

Han Sanping won’t have to concern himself with these issues for much longer; he’s nearing the mandatory retirement age of 60, and it’s widely anticipated that he will soon be leaving his post. Some speculate that Zhang Qiang, a younger protégée of Han’s, will step into the China Film Group chairman’s seat later this year.

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

Chinese ‘Flowers’ Wilt in U.S. Theatrical Release


by Robert Cain for China Film Biz

January 25, 2012

If the message hadn’t fully gotten through yet, last weekend’s box office results confirmed it: China has no idea how to make movies that Americans—or the world—will pay to see.

The latest Chinese film to crash on the rocks of U.S. shores is The Flowers of War, the mainland Chinese blockbuster that opened on 30 North American screens this past Friday. The film seemed tailor-made to captivate global audiences, and with its $90 million price tag, it needed to. But despite its international star (Christian Bale), its world-renowned director (Zhang Yimou), a major U.S. producer (David Linde) who had massive prior success with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and a veteran distributor (Chris Ball), Flowers drooped on arrival with a paltry $48,448 and a per screen average of just $1,615.

Flowers continues a 5 year long string of international misfires from China. Chinese releases in the U.S. have rarely grossed more than $500,000. Even those that earn $50 million or $100 million in their home country typically fail to travel.

It’s not that Chinese films never work in the U.S. and internationally, but successes are extremely rare. The last real hit to emerge from the PRC was Jet Li’s Fearless, which sold $43 million worth of tickets in the U.S. back in 2006.  Hero (also starring Jet Li) grossed $53 million in 2004, and House of Flying Daggers took in $11 million that same year. The highest grossing Chinese language film of all time, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was in fact not a Chinese film at all: its producers were from America and Hong Kong, its director a Taiwanese-American.

The failures are not for lack of trying. Most every Chinese producer, director, and financier desperately wants a meaningful slice of the international market. More than anyone, China’s Communist Party wants to export Chinese culture to global audiences in order to counteract the “creeping cultural influence of the West.” But they’re going about things all wrong.

For one thing, there are virtually zero writers in China who know the first thing about writing film stories that would appeal to international filmgoers. Cultural barriers are certainly an issue, but an even bigger issue is that Chinese studios and investors on the whole have no understanding of the development process. With little respect for writers and even less desire to invest in them, China is doomed to keep making films that are mostly mediocre at best, and terrible at worst.

Another major problem is that China’s film censors scrub out so much of the realism, titillation and thrills from their countrymen’s films that they leave them bland and tedious. Their need to micro-manage and sanitize the themes, characters and genre elements of films is anathema to good storytelling.

A third factor is the unquestioned primacy of Chinese directors, who shoot and edit their films with totalitarian disregard for the input of others. While Hollywood’s collaborative approach to filmmaking is far from perfect, its process of allowing cinematographers, editors, production designers, composers, and other craftsmen to meaningfully contribute and even challenge the director usually leads to better results than the Chinese approach of empowering the director to run roughshod over everyone else.

Chinese filmmakers know that their films don’t travel, and the smart ones know they need help. Hollywood has much to offer to them, if only they would listen.

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