MAD ABOUT MOVIES

Fresh-faced au­di­ence laps up ‘Made in China’ films

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at ray­mondzhou@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

It’s hard to pin­point year zero for the re­ju­ve­na­tion of China’s film in­dus­try, but 2013 will prob­a­bly be re­mem­bered as the year the in­dus­try gained full con­fi­dence and changes hap­pened faster than any prog­nos­ti­ca­tion. By the end of 2013, China’s box-of­fice to­tal is ex­pected to hit 21.5 bil­lion yuan ($3.54 bil­lion), 10 times the rev­enue of 2006. Last year’s num­ber al­ready placed China as the sec­ond-largest cin­ema mar­ket in the world, next only to the United States. But only this year did the ra­tio of do­mes­tic re­leases rise well above the 50 per­cent de­mar­ca­tion, and with­out any pal­pa­ble ma­nip­u­la­tions.

Sure, Hol­ly­wood su­per­heroes still com­mand their share of China’s box of­fice. For ex­am­ple, Iron­Man 3, Pa­cific

Rim, Grav­ity and Fast and Fu­ri­ous 6 all brought in north of 400 mil­lion yuan in the Mid­dle King­dom, but they were ex­cep­tions.

Most im­ported movies had re­spectable in­stead of mag­nif­i­cent re­turns. More im­por­tantly, they were trumped by a slew of mid-bud­get Chi­nese pro­duc­tions that did not re­sort to spe­cial ef­fects, but rather, had di­a­logues that res­onated with the lo­cal au­di­ence.

Speaking of China’s movie­go­ers, their av­er­age age has dipped to 21.4 years old. Un­sur­pris­ingly, love sto­ries sell, es­pe­cially tales that are not grounded in re­al­ity, at least not on the sur­face. These rom-coms (ro­man­tic come­dies) may use theHol­ly­wood for­mula in nar­ra­tive struc­ture, but they are stud­ded with in­side jokes that ap­peal to to­day’s young.

And these au­di­ence mem­bers hail in­creas­ingly from cities and towns smaller than Bei­jing, Shang­hai, Guangzhou and Shen­zhen. The as­pi­ra­tions and aes­thet­ics of this de­mo­graphic form the bedrock of China’s mar­ket, and they have their own tastes and quirks. One thing is for sure: They do not have any pa­tience for art-house fare, mak­ing 2013 the most fal­low year for this genre— not a sin­gle in­de­pen­dent-look­ing movie sur­vived the cut­throat mar­ket. Even stu­dio pic­tures with se­ri­ous sub­ject­mat­ter are go­ing un­der. The race is on to dumb-down the Chi­nese screen as much as pos­si­ble.

On a pos­i­tive note, 2013 is the year good genre films ap­peared en masse, sur­pris­ing even in­sid­ers with their solid box-of­fice per­for­mances. Movies like Find­ing Mr. Right and Silent Wit­ness were made by un­known di­rec­tors, but the ex­pert sto­ry­telling tech­niques won over a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of au­di­ences. The re­sult also awak­ened in­vestors to the re­al­ity that top money and top stars may not be enough for a hit movie— if they are not sup­ported by a good script.

The emer­gence of a large swath of the young pop­u­la­tion as new con­sumers of the cin­ema ex­pe­ri­ence is largely driven by the real-es­tate in­dus­try, ar­guably one of the na­tion’s most cash-rich. It is adding 10 screens per day in the process of build­ing shop­ping malls and mod­ern­iz­ing the ur­ban land­scape. China grewfrom 1,923 screens in 2003 to around 18,000 by the end of this year, march­ing over the half­way point of the US num­ber. This means that, per capita, China still has great po­ten­tial.

The de­vel­op­ment of re­cent years is ex­pected to con­tinue for quite a while as the coun­try main­tains its pace of ur­ban­iza­tion and more peo­ple get ex­posed to the cin­e­matic ex­pe­ri­ence, now fully en­hanced with 3-D and gi­ant screens. No­body is sug­gest­ing peo­ple have given up their tablets and note­books as movie-watch­ing plat­forms, but the movie the­ater as a pre­ferred plat­form is gain­ing fast among the young.

The re­vival of Chi­nese cin­ema started with the Fifth Gen­er­a­tion film­mak­ers in the 1980s, and they shifted gears in the new mil­len­nium to big­bud­get star-stud­ded projects. The Sixth Gen­er­a­tion emerged in the 1990s and has been stuck in art-house dol­drums, self-im­posed or oth­er­wise. Nowa new­gen­er­a­tion, per­haps with­out the se­quen­tial num­ber, is tak­ing over the in­dus­try and the di­verse back­grounds and styles have made it im­pos­si­ble to group its mem­bers to­gether. Of this year’s run­away hits, many were di­rec­to­rial de­buts or sec­ond fea­tures, in­clud­ing those by ZhaoWei, Xue Xiaolu, Guo Jing­ming, Sun Jian­jun and Fei Xing, among oth­ers. (Last year’s Wu’er­shan and Xu Zheng fall into the same cat­e­gory, too.) And few of them stud­ied film di­rect­ing in the Bei­jing Film Academy, once the sole por­tal to­ward film­mak­ing suc­cess.

These new­com­ers are the fastest climbers on the pyra­mid of the movie busi­ness, fol­lowed by a mam­moth army of young­sters who are hon­ing the art and craft of film­mak­ing at the base. Many of them are mak­ing so-called mi­cro films, short films that rely on dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy for pro­duc­tion and edit­ing and on the In­ter­net for dis­tri­bu­tion. Though widely un­even in qual­ity, this is a per­fect tool for prac­tic­ing the new­form of au­dio-video story-telling. In other words, the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of film­mak­ing as both a way of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a for-profit busi­ness is ben­e­fit­ing the young gen­er­a­tion.

Another man­i­fes­ta­tion of the chang­ing dy­nam­ics is Hol­ly­wood’s new at­ti­tudes to the Chi­nese mar­ket.

Hol­ly­wood con­tin­ues its prac­tice of in­cor­po­rat­ing Chi­nese el­e­ments, es­pe­cially stars in cameo roles, in its fran­chise movies. Iron­Man 3 not only fea­tures Fan Bing­bing and Wang Xueqi in flashing ap­pear­ances, but cus­tom­ized a slightly dif­fer­ent ver­sion for the China mar­ket. Many in China see that as a sign of Hol­ly­wood kow­tow­ing to mar­ket forces, but some hold the op­pos­ing view, cit­ing the fact that Fan does not make the US cut of the movie. When

Grav­ity makes a Chi­nese space sta­tion and its mod­ule as ve­hi­cles that saved the pro­tag­o­nist on her re­turn to Earth, lo­cal au­di­ences again took no­tice.

But the event that sealed pub­lic per­cep­tion was a cast of big Hol­ly­wood names, in­clud­ing Leonardo DiCaprio, Ni­cole Kid­man, John Tra­volta, Ewan McGre­gor and Cather­ine Zeta-Jones, who de­scended on Qing­dao for the launch­ing of a 30 bil­lion yuan com­plex that Wanda touted as China’s an­swer toHol­ly­wood. The Chi­nese press jok­ingly called it “a tuhao party”, which is tan­ta­mount to the par­ties thrown by DiCaprio’s char­ac­ter in The Great Gatsby.

Chi­nese cin­ema goes back more than a cen­tury, but as a big busi­ness it is ex­plod­ing into a new­era. Records are made and bro­ken con­stantly. What ap­peared far-fetched two years ago could be within reach two years from now. But it’s a gam­bler’s game. Au­di­ence tastes change al­most overnight and un­pre­dictable fac­tors, es­pe­cially the sched­ul­ing of the open­ing vis-a-vis other con­tenders, may of­ten deter­mine whether a movie is a hit or a flop.

But what an ex­cit­ing game!

XU CHONGDE / FOR CHINA DAILY

Ni­cole Kid­man (left) at­tended Wanda’s Os­car-like party.

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