Is it a golden age for Chinese cinema?
- 30 October 2014
- From the section Business
Last year was a record year for the global box office, earning $35.9bn (£22.4bn) in revenues - and it was largely due to China.
Chinese box office receipts have grown at more than 30% per year for the past decade, coinciding with China becoming a middle-income country. And there's tremendous room to grow.
In the US, there are 40,000 movie screens, or one for every 8,000 people, according to EntGroup. There are 20,000 screens in China, but that works out as one for every 70,000 people. And with nearly 100 new screens being built every week, Chinese movie goers are poised to take over as the biggest market in the world.
It's no wonder that big Hollywood movies are catering to the Chinese audience. Iron Man 3 included a special scene with Chinese A-list actors that was only seen in China.
But does it mean that it's another golden age for Chinese cinema?
After all, Hollywood films make up half of the top 10 highest grossing movies in China. The most popular movie is the latest Transformers flick.
The Chinese government certainly wants to renew its film industry to challenge Hollywood. And when they want to show that something matters, they go big and they've built the world's largest film museum.
Chinese cinema has been around for over a century. That's about as old as Hollywood. The very first movie in China was made in 1905. It was the Peking opera-themed flick, Ding Jing Mountain.
The late 1920s and 1930s was when Chinese films flourished. The industry was centred in Shanghai, which was the most cosmopolitan city in Asia at the time. Foreigners mingled with Chinese filmmakers. That was when the first Chinese movie stars were launched. And that era is known as the Golden Age of Chinese cinema.
It came to an end when the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Films were seen as tools for propaganda and filmmakers lost their creative freedom.
The worst period for Chinese cinema was unsurprisingly during the Cultural Revolution. Bourgeois pursuits like filmmaking were prohibited. In fact, there were no feature films made between 1966 and 1973. Needless to say, it decimated the industry.
As normal life resumed and China opened up in 1978, film was slowly revived. Movies such as Farewell My Concubine won the top prize at the Cannes film festival in 1993. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero seemed to usher in a new era for film.
But most Chinese movies have yet to breakthrough globally. And no Chinese film has ever won an Oscar for Best Picture.
But it's changing. I met Lu Chuan, one of China's most promising young directors, who is taking on his first big commercial film. He has brought in CGI experts from Hollywood who had worked on World War Z, and created a rare international team to crew a Chinese sci-fi, action movie.
That's all possible because of the fast-growing box office. Where there's appetite, there's money for films. Plus, the Chinese government protects the industry by imposing a quota on the number of foreign films that can be shown each year. Does this create a perfect storm to launch another golden age for Chinese movies?
Lu Chuan says it's the best of times but also the worst of times. Chasing money at the box office plus censorship means that comedies are favoured and there are subjects that aren't touched by filmmakers.
It has taken him 18 months to get a script approved. He told me that he misses the days when he was a student at the Beijing Film Academy and made films based on dreams.
Gradually, films like Lu Chuan's are beginning to tell a universal story. Could this be the next generation of movies to rival Hollywood?
You can't have a new golden age without the superstars whose influence extends beyond the big screen, and China already has some very popular movie stars.
I met Yao Chen, who may be the most influential star with over 70 million followers on Weibo, China's Twitter. She's also the first Chinese goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Her aspiration, she told me isn't to go to Hollywood but to be in a Chinese film that wins the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
But could China soon produce a truly global hit? Even Chinese box office winners don't do well globally. The record-breaking comedy Lost in Thailand generated nearly $200m in China but only $60,000 in the US.
Unsurprisingly, censorship is an issue.
Earlier this year, the police shut down the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival and confiscated footage from more than 70 filmmakers.
After being released from police detention, organiser Li Xianting told me: "I don't know what the government is worried about. I have wondered all these years.
"The authorities have always been scared of filmmakers and artists and our discussions during the screening event. I don't understand that. If the government wants to create a golden age for film, they should provide a more open and liberal environment for us."
There's also the long-standing issue of piracy. An estimated nine out of 10 DVDs in China are fake. With $6bn in sales, that's more than the annual box office take.
Demand for pirated DVDs is falling as more people want the actual experience of going to the cinema, but it's still a challenge for the industry that typically relies on DVDs, online streaming, and associated merchandise to generate revenues beyond the box office.
There is another source of revenue that the Chinese film industry has already jumped on. Hengdian is the world's largest outdoor movie lot. It's larger than the two biggest US movie studios, Paramount and Universal, put together. There's even an exact, full-size replica of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
And they're even rebuilding the Old Summer Palace, burned down by Western troops during the Qing Dynasty, not in Beijing but in Zhejiang province. No wonder Hengdian is known as China's Hollywood and was the sixth most visited tourist destination in China last year.
American studios are also getting into the market. Universal Studios is building a theme park in Beijing and a Disneyland that is four times larger than the one in Hong Kong is planned for Shanghai.
But China's Hollywood may soon be supplanted by a new domestic project in Qingdao. Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin plans to build the world's biggest movie studio there and launched his effort with an A-list Hollywood cast, including Nicole Kidman and Harvey Weinstein among others.
Wang Jianlin has also bought AMC theatres in the US. It's all part of Chinese firms going global, and the film industry is certainly taking advantage of the push.
When I met Dan Mintz, boss of the Chinese studio that co-produced Iron Man III, he told me that the next stage is to have a Chinese studio produce a global, Hollywood film. That would upset the century-long dominance of Hollywood by six American studios.
How a film does in China is already part of the "green light" process for big Hollywood franchises. If the next stage is that films are not just sold but created in China then it would be another step forward in the re-emergence of China.
Another golden age where Chinese films have the same cultural pull as Hollywood would say a great deal about China's ability to innovate and be creative. Those are the very traits that have cemented US dominance beyond its economic might.
If one day we all wanted to be part of Chinese cinematic magic, then China would truly rival the US.
For more, watch a special Talking Business with Linda Yueh, part of the Designed in China season. Details of when to watch can be found at www.bbc.com/talkingbusiness.