CBS’ venerable news program 60 Minutes just ran an excellent 13-minute story about China’s booming movie industry. The piece offered a balanced perspective on both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for what will soon become the world’s biggest movie territory.
But you might have come away from viewing the story with the mistaken impression that China’s movie moguls are on the verge of competing with, and even overtaking, their Hollywood rivals in the global film market. Two executives who were interviewed for the story said as much on camera. But both are dead wrong.
Image credit: CBS News
Specifically, Dennis Wang, who runs China’s powerhouse movie studio Huayi Brothers, responded to CBS news correspondent Holly Williams’ question about his ability to make globally competitive blockbusters by saying “I think we’ll be doing that in the next one or two years. Maybe in five years we’ll be doing it really well.” And late in the story Ms. Williams gave the last word to Dede Nickerson, an American who has been working in China’s movie industry for the past 20 years. Referring to China’s filmmakers she said, “They understand storytelling. They are… super well-versed in what works globally… So I would say…Hollywood, watch out.”
To which I would say, “Poppycock.”
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a Chinese-made movie? If you’re not a Chinese speaker, when was the last time you even thought about seeing a Chinese movie? If the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon comes to mind, I’ll remind you that the Ang Lee-directed picture was released 16 years ago, in 2000. And although it was filmed in the Mandarin language, it wasn’t a Chinese movie, but rather a collaboration between American, Taiwanese, and Hong Kongese writers and filmmakers. If it had been made in China, by Chinese filmmakers, you never would have seen it because it would have been a lousy film.
It has been years since China made a movie that any mainstream audience outside the Chinese cultural sphere wanted to pay to see. China has virtually no ability to make globally competitive movies on a consistent basis, or even on an occasional basis, and it will be a long time before it ever will.
Which begs the question, why does China, with the world’s largest population, and with a rich artistic and cultural history, have so little ability to reach the level of cinematic achievement that countries like America, Korea, Japan, India, France, Australia, and so many other countries possess? Why, with its government’s desperate desire and enormous financial ability to achieve “soft power” by spreading its cultural influence and ideas around the globe, can’t the Chinese film industry create even a single movie that the world wants to see?
That’s a big question, but I’ll try to answer it briefly, by identifying five key factors that hinder China’s success:
- While China has invested heavily in hard assets for cultural production—soundstages, production equipment, post facilities, and the like—it has never placed much stock in the value of soft assets, that is, the unquantifiable human skills and experience that are the lifeblood of creativity. Few Chinese investors understand or respect the vital importance of the creative spark, and as a consequence they don’t reward it. Film and TV projects are treated as industrial enterprises that require the firm hand of a dictatorial director. There is precious little support for training and development in the fields of screenwriting, creative management, and other ‘intangible’ arts, and so China’s talent pool in these areas is extremely shallow. Contrary to the assertion stated at the end of the 60 Minutes story, very, very few people in China’s movie industry understand storytelling.
- China’s state arts and culture investment occurs in an environment and under a political regime that is deeply antagonistic toward true artistic expression. On the one hand China’s communist culture czars exhort artists and writers to “uphold the spiritual torch of the Chinese nationality and produce a greater number of excellent works” (former President Hu Jintao) while they simultaneously smother the efforts of their country’s greatest artists. It’s emblematic that China’s most famous artist, Ai Weiwei, is the global poster boy for Chinese oppression and intolerance of independent thought. While Korean writers and producers are continually attracting audiences with distinctive, often daringly original stories and styles, over in China popular television programs are routinely thrown off the airwaves for being “excessively entertaining.”
- The story-telling styles promoted by China’s central government don’t lend themselves well to the creation of globally commercial, crowd-pleasing hits. The Chinese Communist Party’s historical emphasis on the collective over the individual has for decades rewarded stories about group achievement. Most favored are those plots about individuals who subordinate their desires and conform their behavior for the common benefit of the people. Ensemble stories that have no single identifiable hero are common. Unfortunately for China, the stories that are most popular around the world tend to be those that are precisely the opposite, ones that draw from the American mythos about maverick individuals who buck the system and flout the rules in order to succeed.
- Censorship is a major obstacle to China’s pop culture success, but censorship in and of itself is only part of the problem. After all, China’s current censorship rules are not all that different from the old Hays Code restrictions that governed Hollywood movie production from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period during which Hollywood achieved many of its greatest artistic and commercial achievements. China’s bigger issue is the arbitrariness of its rules and the mercurial, sometimes bizarre nature of their enforcement. Censorship was just as politically motivated in old Hollywood as it is in modern day China, but there is a crucial difference: under the Hays Code rules, filmmakers were pretty much free to operate within the constraints that had been laid down, and creativity was allowed to flourish so long as one played by the rules. But in China, the specter of government interference haunts every step of the creative process, burdening the artist like a set of heavy chains that continually weighs down their artistic inspiration. Chinese censorship is a government tool for controlling the people, their thoughts and their impulses, and when applied to pop culture it unfortunately tends to squeeze every last original idea, every recognizable human truth, from the fabric of the content.
- China’s educational system also discourages idiosyncratic expression, and generally aims to stamp out ‘undesirable’ creative tendencies at the earliest ages. The Confucian philosophies that have guided Chinese society for many centuries put a premium on obedience to authority and strict adherence to elaborate rules of behavior. Anyone who dares to be different is swiftly put in their place. In the Confucian construct, artists and performers are at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, a rung or two below beggars and prostitutes. China surely has at least its share of the world’s creative talent, but most of it goes unrecognized because the system requires its suppression.
Just yesterday I published this article about how the “PLA Daily”, the newspaper of China’s enormously powerful People’s Liberation Army, assailed the American family animated film Zootopia as immoral propaganda. It was just the latest in a long string of tone-deaf announcements by China’s rulers about the dangers of popular culture that doesn’t toe the Communist Party line. Unfortunately for China, culture that does toe the Communist Party line is simply never going to be popular, not even in China.
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