Art house vs mainstream
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The recent release of Song of the Phoenix, a long delayed art movie, in mainstream theaters in China has turned into a phenomenal social event. It is a two-year-old swan song by the late film director Wu Tianming, dubbed the Godfather of the Fifth Generation by the Chinese press.
The initial 1.88 percent screening rate in the mainstream theaters enraged “half of filmdom” and forced a well-known film producer to enact a “performance art” of kneeling and kowtowing before the camera to plead for more screenings. This had an effect as a result of sympathy from the theater owners. The box office takings zoomed from almost nil to tens of million.
The fact that the film opened with Hollywood blockbuster Captain America: Civil War on the same day, that it was the last movie by a veteran director who suddenly died before the film was even able to find a distributor, and that the tragic storyline of the film is somewhat isomorphous with the current situation of the Chinese film market added to the tragic solemnness of the event.
It also proves that the Chinese film market is still a monolithic whole, though there were a few breakthroughs in 2015 with the releases of such art house movies as Jia Zhangke’s Mountains May Depart and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin, which could be seen as a turning point of the market trend.
This constituency does not come with historical baggage, or historical enrichment for that matter. As much as half of the one-billion-yuan-plus hits are directorial debuts whereas veteran filmmakers including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen and Feng Xiaogang are playing catchup in box-office figures. This wave of internet-informed and internet-facilitated filmgoing is coming on strong and brutal.
As it stands, Chinese moviegoers have very different expectations from imports and domestic fare. For imports, especially those from Hollywood, they want big spectacles with state-of-thearts special effects. Franchises minted in the new century come with a built-in audience, but other than that, branding of stars or genres has to be built from the ground up.
Home-grown hits have to be deeply rooted in the cultural soil of the day. Comedic elements are de rigueur as any Chinese-language film with a box-office result of 1 billion yuan or above cannot do away with it. That has created a dichotomy of high-flying known quantities from Hollywood and modestly budgeted sleeper hits from unknown Chinese directors sharing the stratosphere of record-breaking superhits.
Foreign participation in Chinese products may take many forms, but the track record for co-productions has been sporadic at best. There has not been a single case of such an effort conquering all four quadrants that use both markets across the Pacific and both commercial and critical acclaim as yardsticks. The cultural divide seems too wide to bridge. What’s touted as the solution is nothing but token appearances of marquee names in each other’s products.
Hollywood franchises with Chinese cameos are not co-productions either technically or culturally. But Bona’s Yu predicts that the trend will be reversed when China’s market size grows several times what it is now and on-screen or off-screen talents flock to the Middle Kingdom for opportunities. “If the co-production is in the Chinese language, it will have China as the predominant market. If it’s in English, the market will be global. We’re already faced with such choices,” says Yu.
In the past decade, Hollywood studios have made occasional forays into purely Chinese productions that target only the Chinese market, but the success rate is not encouraging. Now, Chinese companies are looking westward for similar investments, in projects and also in corporate entities. Unknown to most outsiders, more and more Hollywood heroes and superheroes would be vaulted into public sight with the help of Chinese money.
Chinese conglomerate Wanda’s acquisition of US film studio Legendary Entertainment early this year has been the most visible case, but by no means the last. There will come a time, much sooner than expected, when mutual investments in each other’s film projects will be so extensive that the cultural imprint of a story will have little to do with the nationality of those who bankroll it.
So far we’re talking only about the theatrical market, or films as shown in movie theaters. Using a wider perspective, you’d find that the constellation surrounding this brightest star is undergoing rapid changes as well. China does not have a developed ancillary market for theatrical releases. Yet feature films customized for the online platform are projected to reach 2,200 in number and 1 billion yuan in revenue this year.
The change is happening now. There are more movies and more ways to watch them, including virtual-reality movies that are yet to go commercial. The terms “film” and “picture” will sound quaint when you think of their origins.
This event could well be a reminder to the filmmakers, who would prefer themselves to be called “artists”, that when they choose to engage in self expression and personal aspiration, they must have a clear-cut positioning before they start: for whom are the expression and aspiration meant?
If you want to reach an audience, you should know where your audience is and find the right channel to relay your message to them instead of forcing others to pay for your expression and aspiration that are not meant for them in the first place. It is unfair and unreasonable to blame the theaters and audience for not appreciating something that is not designed for them.
In any country, even in France, where art movies always enjoy a niche market, it is unwise for a small art movie to pit itself against a big commercial one.
Since the inauguration of the theater chain almost 20 years ago, why couldn’t we establish an art house theater chain in China that could be devoted to the distribution and exhibition of art film? The answer is simply that we do not have an adequate number of “art movies” to sustain the existence of an art house theater chain.
Because of the quota on the import of foreign films, even Oscar winners barely make it to the Chinese theaters. How could a meager crop of domestic art films support an art house theater chain in a market where viewers can have full access to all sorts of film resources via the internet almost for free?