China’s Next 90 Minutes

By Kevin Geiger

During the Sixth Plenary Session of 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, which concluded on October 18th, a pledge was made to boost the domestic Chinese cultural industry and to promote China’s international cultural influence.  A communiqué released at the close of the session and endorsed at the conference read, in part:

“Culture has increasingly become a major element bringing together the people and the creative power of the Chinese nationality… It is a major factor in the nation’s comprehensive competitiveness as well as the backbone of the country’s economic and social development… It is the aspiration of our people to enrich their cultural and spiritual lives.”

This is welcome news.  Long a manufacturing powerhouse, China is just now recognizing the value of intellectual property or “soft power”, perhaps in response to incontrovertible evidence from successful Western companies.  Mainland China has a 20th-century history of “hard power”:  industrial production as a transformative economic tool, particularly within the past 30 years.  Unsurprisingly, the Chinese have so far applied the same logic & focus to the entertainment industry:  production is valued over development and quantity is emphasized over quality, which positions China to the rest of the world as a low-rent service provider rather than a high-value brand creator.  While this seems to have benefitted China’s economy in the short-term, it is an insufficient approach for the development of compelling cultural content and innovative intellectual property.

Since 2001, “cultural industries” in China have been recognized as an economic sector subject to State support, promotion and regulation.  A distinction is maintained between “public cultural institutions” over which the State maintains direct control, and “commercial cultural enterprises” which, while relatively autonomous, are still subject to heavy regulation.  As in many other areas of business, the Chinese government struggles to reconcile its wish to control media content with the economic benefits of free market incentives.

China is currently the world’s largest TV drama and comics producer, the third largest film producer (after India and the USA), and the fastest-growing film market in the world, with a reported 2010 box office of over $1.5 billion USD (a 60% increase from 2009).  Mainland China has almost 7,000 movie screens, roughly 25% of which are 3D screens.  As the second-largest stereoscopic market in the world after the United States, the number of 3D screens in China is expected to equal the number of 2D screens within two years.  More than three movie screens are built each day in China, which is also the world’s largest internet market by user.

Yet despite these impressive numbers, China’s cultural products are currently not powerful enough to compete with Western content – especially Hollywood blockbusters.  In an attempt to boost Chinese box office numbers, it is common practice for mainland distributors to “piggyback” domestic Chinese films onto the 20 foreign films that are permitted entry each year.  For example, the purchase of a “Transformers” ticket at a premium price will get the customer two tickets:  one for “Transformers” and another for a Chinese film (usually one with high political stakes for box office success).  The ticket sale is split unevenly and recorded in favor of the Chinese film, which is subsequently announced as a hit, even as theaters sit empty while ushers sweep unused tickets from the lobby floor.

Regional governments in China are increasingly turning to cultural products & entertainment media as means of growing their local economies, relying on public-private partnerships to facilitate their goals.  While some of these partnerships are quite commendable, the pervasive focus upon regional folk heroes and the general lack of attention to good story development makes it unlikely that these enterprises will produce international Chinese entertainment brands with cross-cultural resonance.

Commercial lenders in China are likewise turning their attention to cultural enterprises, in what could signal the nascent development of a Chinese entertainment banking system.  Unfortunately, China currently lacks effective mechanisms for the meaningful collateralization of intellectual property, and basic Western tools such as completion bonds are practically unheard of in the mainland Chinese film industry.  As a result, most “entertainment loans” to date have gone to craft & manufacturing industries, while “soft power” companies struggle for financing.  Despite Western examples of entertainment powerhouses that grew from garages (Apple and Pixar come to mind), Chinese commercial lenders have admitted that they are more likely to finance large companies with State backing than to risk their money on entrepreneurial start-ups with no track record and scant collateral.

In this respect, government & private-sector support for China’s cultural industry has largely been directed at the trees, not the seeds.  For all the talk about which studio (if any) will become the “Chinese Pixar”, it is clear that Pixar could never have become what it is today in the Chinese business environment:  the Pixar seed would have died in the ground.  In fact, it can be argued that Disney’s acquisition of Pixar to boost its own flagging animation division is a tacit acknowledgement of the challenges that large, heavily-managed organizations face when creating from within.  Innovation does not trickle down from the top – it bubbles up from below.

The problem of China’s focus on size is compounded by the involvement of players with dubious motives:  those attracted by the money being doled out to this new “industrial sector” rather than by a love of the entertainment business or the desire to tell great stories.  China’s TV, film and animation industries are peppered with anecdotal evidence of sticky fingers:  film & TV budgets include “commissions” and “public relations” expenses ranging from 5% to 75% of the total production cost; faux animation bases are built with government cultural support and then converted to alternate use (KTVs, spas, wedding halls) after being allowed to “fail”; “awards” of questionable merit are handed out to sub-standard animation broadcasts that go unwatched in favor of more interesting overseas fare available online (in fact, many Chinese business plans include these “awards” as part of their recoupment strategy, even before the awards have been “won”).

Setting aside the ethical issues these practices raise, the hard fact is that production value suffers as a result.  Which means business suffers as a result.  Which means China ultimately suffers as a result.  It’s no wonder that so many aspiring young Chinese creators are dispirited by the current state of affairs – to the point that many are ready to give up before they even get started, or simply fall into lock-step with the status quo.  China’s future sees no future.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.  The history of Chinese animation dates back to 180 A.D., when inventor Ting Huan created what many consider to be the first zoetrope.  Ting Huan’s automated contraption hung over a lamp, and rising hot air turned vanes that spun sheets of paper on which sequential images “magically” came to life.  20th-century Chinese animation began with the pioneering work of the Wan brothers in the mid-1920s.  Their animated short film, “Uproar in the Studio”, created an “uproar” among audiences on the mainland. With ambitious animated films such as the Wan brothers’ “Princess Iron Fan” (released within two years of Disney’s “Snow White” and during the Second Sino-Japanese War no less), China’s fledgling animation industry was technically and artistically on par with the rest of the world. At the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, beautiful animated features, such as the vivid “Havoc in Heaven”, were created with the active support of the central government.  Mao Zedong himself supported the new art form as a way to “let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred of schools of thought contend”.

Ironically, China’s animation industry suffered a catastrophic blow from the social upheaval of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s.  Filmmakers received a dangerous mixed message as freedom of expression was “permitted”, but accompanied by the persecution of those with differing views. Many talented animators lost their livelihoods, and those who survived were compelled to create works that hewed closer to political propaganda than to creative expression.  Although certain reforms took place during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, government control was still pervasive.

Ultimately, the political and economic changes of the 1990’s began to reopen and revitalize the Chinese animation industry, but by this time Chinese animation had fallen behind the rest of the world creatively.  Foreign animation – particularly anime from Japan – was dominant.  China’s animation industry is now generally characterized by low-grade domestic television content and cheap work-for-hire projects from overseas studios.  Occasional theatrical animation hits such as “Big Big Wolf” only seem to encourage a rush to the bottom, as would-be imitators pay more attention to the low budget than to the engaging characters and story elements.

The worldwide success of DreamWork’s “Kung Fu Panda” franchise has caused a great deal of soul-searching in China.  Many here have asked why the Chinese animation industry is seemingly incapable of taking such a creative turn with its own culture, and have wondered when a Chinese animated film will achieve such success in the West.  Director Sun Lijun fired a shot across the bow this summer with his own onscreen statement, “Legend of a Rabbit”, which has sold in nearly 70 overseas theatrical markets and was acquired by Cartoon Network for international broadcast.  Despite this new level of success for a Chinese animated film, “Legend” was criticized by some for its apparent use of a panda as a villain, in an ironic echo of how “Kung Fu Panda” was criticized for the “inappropriate” portrayal of a fat & lazy panda hero.

The lack of understanding by these critics of “Kung Fu Panda’s” playful yet profoundly transformative story arc is an example of why China’s gradual relegation of the entertainment industry to the private sector must be accompanied by a re-examination of outmoded government regulations if the Chinese Communist Party’s announced goal of international cultural relevance is to be achieved.  The list of content prohibitions from China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television reads in part:

“…animation… must not oppose Chinese constitutional principles; must not endanger the unity, sovereignty and territory of the Chinese state; must not divulge state secrets or threaten national security, interests or honor; must not incite hatred or discrimination among ethnic groups, undermine ethnic solidarity or disrespect ethnic customs; must not advocate cult or superstition; must not disrupt social order or harm social stability or morality; must not advocate obscenity, gambling, violence or crime; must not insult, defame or infringe upon the rights & interests of others; must not contain any content that is prohibited by Chinese laws, regulations or provisions…”

Sounds like a sure-fire recipe for fun, doesn’t it?  With prohibitions such as these (and the very real threat that non-compliant productions will be denied distribution approval) China’s glut of innocuous period pieces and endless Monkey King remakes begins to make sense.  An insidious form of self-censorship settles in among creators who are simply trying to run the approval gauntlet.  Entertainment value is the casualty.

The damping effect of these prohibitions on creative expression is compounded by China’s restrictions on popular social media applications used by entertainment media creators around the world.  China today has a thriving online video & blogging community and 20% of the world’s population, but that is still only 20%.  By blocking YouTube, Facebook and Twitter in favor of its home-grown versions, China removes itself from the global discourse taking place among the other 80% of the world, and furthermore denies its creators an incredible volume of free creative & technical information.  Does this scenario serve the new government call for international-grade Chinese cultural output, or does it instead place China at a serious disadvantage on the world stage?

In order to advance its cultural content internationally, China must open up its markets to foreign content, specifically:  no more quotas on imported foreign films, and no more limits on the broadcast of foreign animation.  By way of analogy, consider that China’s national gymnastics teams and diving teams are acknowledged among the best in the world.  They didn’t attain this level by holding back their competition.  They became the best by competing against the best, improving themselves in the heat of competition – and winning.  Competition makes us better, and national identity is typically asserted rather than surrendered (for those who worry about such things).  So what does the Chinese entertainment industry have to lose by opening its markets to foreign content?  Only its chains.

China’s State Administration of Radio, Film & Television looks with pride upon the hundreds of thousands of animation minutes produced on the mainland each year (a mind-boggling 220,000+ minutes reported in 2010).  But the question remains whether anyone wants to watch even one of these minutes.  Life is short, and content must be “sticky” in order to have any chance at survival.  In other words, the focus must be on quality vs. quantity.

The good news for China is that it can transform its animation industry into an international powerhouse by focusing on just 90 minutes: “China’s Next 90 Minutes”.  These are, in a nutshell:  5 minutes for the Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards, and 85 minutes for the Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards.  If the Chinese government and Chinese animation companies commit themselves to the development and production values required to achieve these two goals, the entire industry will change for the better and an international Golden Age of Chinese animation could lie ahead.  If a little island like Japan can win Best Animated Feature, as Hiyao Miyasaki did for “Spirited Away”, then why not the great nation of China?  How long will it be before a Chinese animation director enjoys accolades from Pixar chief John Lasseter?  And does anyone think that Lasseter admires Miyazaki for the number of minutes of animation he has produced?  Doubtful.

Some Chinese maintain that their country is simply incapable of competing in the international entertainment area, or that to do so will endanger China’s cultural identity.  Both of these notions are absurd.  If China can build a Great Wall that can be seen from space, it is certainly capable of creating a great animated film that can be seen in America.  And the 2008 Olympics were a wonderful example of China’s ability to be international, innovative, contemporary, and very Chinese.  The same can certainly be achieved by China’s entertainment properties and cultural exports.  China’s animation bases will always remain on Chinese soil, but China’s ideas & stories can captivate the world.  That’s the value of soft power.

Some reading this editorial may be tempted to consider it China-bashing.  Far from it.  These are the candid words of a good friend.  I work in China, live in China, and love China.  The energy here is incredible.  The potential here is staggering.  There’s no place like it in the world.  But China – big as it is – is not the entire world.  And in order to take its rightful place in the world, change will be required.

The good news is:  that change is coming.

A veteran of the Walt Disney Company and resident in China since 2008, Kevin Geiger is President & CEO of Magic Dumpling Entertainment: an animation content development company headquartered in Beijing, with offices in Taipei and Los Angeles.  Mr. Geiger was a recipient of the 2011 Beijing Great Wall Friendship Award for his contributions to Chinese animation education and development.

 

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