If you are looking for a city least likely to win a favourable mention at the Golden Globes, the municipality of Chongqing would be a good place to start.
Over the past couple of years its ‘red campaign’ forced local TV executives to air patriotic (i.e. very dull) dramas during primetime hours. Advertising was curtailed heavily too, although commercials were back on air within a few hours of the news that Bo Xilai, architect of the red campaign, had been axed.
In fact, Chongqing was an extreme version of a wider trend. Since the beginning of this year, China’s 34 satellite television stations have also been instructed to limit “excessive entertainment” and “low taste” content between 7.30pm and 10pm. That period, known in China as “Gold Time,” must now include two 30-minute news briefings, and no more than 90 minutes of the lighter entertainment that viewers watch in their millions.
That means no more game shows, soap operas or dating competitions. Singing contests like the long-running Happy Girl are out too.
It is not the first time the government has tried to pull the plug on popular programmes, with authorities at the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) also targeting the hit dating show If You Are the One in July 2010.
The reason? They thought the show promoted “incorrect social and love values such as money worship”, especially after an episode in which a female contestant rejected the offer of a bike ride with a potential suitor.
“I’d rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the backseat of your bicycle,” she scowled back at him.
The show’s producers later changed tack to keep SARFT onside, toning down references to wealth and sex (see WiC68).
Others television shows that dealt with sensitive social issues also faced trouble. Drama Dwelling Narrowness, which struck a chord with a public angered by surging property prices, was cancelled.
Even ‘time travel’ shows, often involving a modern-day protagonist being transported back to an imperial era like the Ming Dynasty, earned official displeasure. Regulators complained that hits shows such as Gong distorted China’s history and should “by no means be encouraged”.
As if that’s not enough to put the broadcasters out of business, SARFT decided early this year that television stations would no longer be allowed to interrupt television programmes more than 45 minutes long with advertisement breaks. Instead, they can only show ads before and after programmes. The goal, SARFT says, is to “improve the level of public cultural services”.
Critics say the various initiatives fit into Beijing’s broader efforts at cultural tightening in a year that will see a once-in-a-decade leadership succession. Others detect a plan to protect the interests of the state media, including national channel CCTV, which has been slow to react to the surge in popularity of provincial upstarts like Hunan Satellite TV (see WiC38).
As we pointed out in WiC143, efforts to ‘control’ television content should also prove a boon for video-streaming websites, where market leaders Youku and Tudou recently merged in a $1.1 billion deal. Tudou says 5.2 billion videos were watched on its site in December alone (a figure double that of the previous year).
Despite their efforts, including from Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, Western media firms have been unable to launch TV channels of their own on the mainland (see WiC74). But overseas firms have had better luck at getting at foot in the door on China’s film industry. Foreign exports (excluding Hong Kong and Taiwanese productions) took more than 46% of the country’s box office last year, and that number will likely go up in 2012. That’s because Hollywood blockbusters have made $39.2 million on average at China’s box office so far this year, compared with $19.5 million in 2011, says chinafilmbiz, an industry blog.
In fact, China’s movie industry, which has been growing at 30% a year in audience takings since 2003, has become too big to ignore.
That means that Hollywood studios have to learn how to play by Beijing’s rules too. Plots that focus on reds-under-the-bed or fret about the oriental duplicity of Chinese villains are on the wane, for instance. MGM has digitally altered the invading army in its yet-to-be-released remake of the 1984 Cold War film Red Dawn so that the baddies are now North Korean, and not Chinese.
Hollywood studios are also setting up co-production ventures with Chinese partners. DreamWorks Animation, the company behind the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda franchises, announced that it was joint-venturing with two state-owned Chinese media groups in February. Disney will produce Iron Man 3 with Chinese company DMG (see WiC147) and News Corp announced this week that it has bought a 19.9% stake in Bona Film Group, China’s second-largest independent movie production and distribution firm.
In all cases, the goal is to avoid the worst of China’s regulatory thicket, as well as skirt regulations that limit the number of foreign films that can be screened in China every year.
In fact, the Chinese have given a little ground here, raising the number of overseas films that can be screened from 20 to 34 (although the additional films need to use either IMAX or 3D technologies).
The authorities have also agreed to foreign studios keeping more of their box office revenues, to a cap of 25%. Currently they get about 15%, much less than they retain from sales in North America (see WiC148).
But Beijing isn’t going to let Hollywood have it all its own way. President Hu Jintao warned last year that “hostile” forces were seeking to “Westernise and divide” the country, talking further about “the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle”. The entertainment and media industries are part of that battleground, as far as policymakers are concerned. They have been making a conscious effort to create movie fare with a distinctly Chinese flavour, as well as pumping money into projects designed to project so-called ‘soft power’.
The goal is to improve China’s image abroad, as it looks to take on a broader global role. So far those efforts haven’t proved successful and they look unlikely to do so in future when even the home audience prefers Hollywood blockbusters to Chinese productions.
Domestic epics like Beginning of the Great Revival and The Founding of the Republic might tick all the boxes with state propaganda officials but they don’t generate much buzz with Chinese cinemagoers, who would rather pay to see robots zapping one another in the latest Transformers flick.
Nor do they have any global appeal (see WiC110). Although the number of Chinese films being made is going up, revenues for the average China release have been falling by 40%, from $5.6 million in 2011 to less than $4 million so far this year.
Only a couple of local directors have produced genuine hits. Feng Xiaogang, director of the If You Are the One franchise, is China’s most bankable director (see WiC91). Feng has also come in for criticism for dunking his own films in product placement. He’s not alone in bowing to commercial inducement. In Beginning of the Great Revival, the actor playing Mao is filmed accepting a rather non-proletarian gold Omega watch (see WiC116).
If a Chinese director is ever to claim a Best Picture Oscar, it is more likely to be Zhang Yimou. His latest film, The Flowers of War, at least won the title of most expensive Chinese movie ever made (see WiC135), although it also bombed at the international box office. Nevertheless, Chinese films may reach a bigger audience in future. Last week the domestic media was abuzz with news that Wanda Group, the largest operator of movie theatres nationally, is bidding for a stake in AMC Entertainment, the second-largest cinema circuit in North America. Wanda also owns a film and TV production company, and analysts say the acquisition would give Wanda new opportunities to reach North American audiences.
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