Focus on nurturing domestic talent

Updated: 2012-05-10 14:04

By Cai Hong (China Daily)

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With a massive 35 percent growth in China's cinema returns in 2011, mainland audiences helped push the worldwide box office up 3 percent last year to $32.6 billion, according to Motion Picture Association of America.

But while the size of this market has attracted Hollywood, China's own contribution to this honey pot is limited.

From 2006 through 2010 China's top 10 box-office grossers were either Hollywood movies or co-productions, according to Zhang Xun, general manager of China Film Co-production Corporation. Most Chinese films barely recover their production costs.

And this situation is unlikely to improve any time soon as China agreed to allow 14 premium format films, such as IMAX or 3D and their 2D versions, to be added to the annual quota on US film imports when Vice-President Xi Jinping visited the US in February.

The invitation sent out last month to foreign filmmakers by Tong Gang, head of the movie bureau at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, demonstrates the country's sense of urgency to make its movies known worldwide.

Tong has pinned his hopes on wooing prominent foreign film directors, such as James Cameron, the director of Avatar and Titanic, with China's "abundant source of stories" and "vast territory and breathtaking landscapes".

Many US movie companies are already rushing to get their foot in the door.

DreamWorks Animation announced a landmark deal in February. It would build a production studio in Shanghai with some of China's biggest media companies.

Also in February Disney announced that the next Iron Man movie would be co-produced in China under a joint agreement between Disney, its Marvel Studios arm and China's DMG Entertainment.

But will the new Iron Man count as a Chinese film?

There is a strong case here for defining terms.

Under the standards set out for co-productions the stories should be China-related. And actors and actresses from the mainland should play at least one-third of the leading roles.

Precisely what is meant by the Chinese film industry is as familiar an argument as deciding what it is for.

There are films that are culturally Chinese The Story of Qiu Ju, which won the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival in 1992 for its director Zhang Yimou. Also, there are films about Chinese stories that feature Chinese actors and Chinese settings, such as The Last Emperor, which won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Bernardo Bertolucci. But are they Chinese?

And of course the industry itself is so much more than the fare at the local multiplex. It is the studios, the post-production facilities, the technical know-how and the locations, film rights and distribution and cinemas.

The second term that needs defining is sustainable - the objective usually ascribed to the government. But it would be possible to have a sustainable film industry that made money from China's expertise in production.

In 2011, Chinese film production generated a record 7.031 billion yuan ($1.116 billion) for the wider economy, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.

But that denies the cultural significance of an industry that is an irreplaceable way of telling the world something about life in China.

If our film officials are serious about wanting our film industry to succeed in terms of international recognition, they should take the long view: nurture the creative talent of tomorrow from filmmakers to games designers.

Encouraged and nurtured, the future generation would be able to create things our film officials could never begin to imagine. Give them a playground, let them make mistakes and give them time: they will undoubtedly generate glorious failures but also unprecedented successes, the awards for which our officials can proudly display on their shelves.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily. E-mail: