When Shi Kong, a screenwriter, received the cheque for his script Struggle, which became one of China’s most popular TV drama series (see WiC18), he took to his blog to complain about the low pay.
“Based upon the television audience ratings data, the most conservative estimate is that over 30 million people tuned in to watch Struggle. And the last I checked, I earned Rmb800,000 from the show. I can do the math: on average each audience member paid me only 3 fen (half of an American penny),” Shi vented in his blog. “So I am depressed: at 3 fen per person, I worry about how many people I need to reach in order to get a full meal.”
It’s not the first time Chinese scriptwriters have demanded better compensation. In other countries, salaries for scriptwriters generally account for about 20% of the total investment in a TV or movie production, reckons Yangzhou Evening New. In China, this figure is 5% at most, and often much lower.
Actors’ salaries, on the other hand, make up the majority of production costs. Popular stars can take more than 80% of the total budget. Take singer-actor Nicholas Tse (our Red Star in issue 114). Last week the newspaper says he charged Rmb300,000 for each episode of a TV series, while the scriptwriter received Rmb200,000 for the entire project.
Scriptwriters also complain that more often than not, it’s a struggle to receive what they are owed. Most writers do get an upfront payment for their work but the amount varies dramatically. Those on good terms with their producers receive as much as half their fee upfront. But more junior writers are likely to receive only 10% in advance and the residual amount only after the film has been shot.
They are also at the mercy of censors. That’s because when the writer finishes a script, the production company then sends it to the authorities for review. If the script does not receive an official approval, the scriptwriter will not be paid the remaining balance, says Beijing Review.
“This is no way to make a living,” Wang Xiaojun, another scriptwriter, told Phoenix Weekly. “Everybody thinks that it is glorious to be in the film and television industry. But the glory does not belong to the scriptwriter. The actors and actresses make the most amount of money, followed by the director… For us, this is a lot of work which gets no appreciation.”
So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that audiences are complaining about the lack of creativity on screen.
According to a survey conducted by the China Youth Daily, 74% of respondents said the quality of TV shows and films is deteriorating; and 47% thought that was down to not enough good scriptwriting.
Indeed, as Robert Cain, has argued in his blog chinafilmbiz, one of the reasons Chinese films fail to compete against Hollywood productions is the quality of storytelling. “You have so many brilliant artists and writers in China, “ Cain writes. “Please stop locking them up. Try investing in them instead. Let one hundred flowers bloom, and don’t cut them down when they do. Good movies need good stories and creative thinking.”
Wang Xiaojun also argues that producers, directors and investors need to understand that scriptwriters are more than wordsmiths.
“I attend meetings with investors all day,” Wang laments. “They keep talking about art and boasting that they can make an unsurpassed television drama series. The worst thing is that they have little or no understanding of art. Until they realise the script is the most important part of a story, China’s film industry has little hope.”
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