With a star system in place, multiplexes springing up all over the country and domestically-made blockbusters on the screens, you’d be forgiven for thinking China's contemporary film industry is an unambiguously commercial affair. But like so much else here, the hand of the state casts a shadow over the neon glare of conspicuous consumption.
Yet China's Communist Party finds itself in a bind. Although it still views cinema as an ideological tool and maintains a tight leash on local productions, it also wants the domestic film industry to develop into a global commercial player.
So how can filmmakers navigate the apparently contradictory pressures of commercial success and politics, especially when the ideological position they’re expected to reflect is far from clear? One good guide could be in China’s most recent blockbuster—a homegrown movie that smashed box office records.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In financing, release strategy and content, the tear-jerking family melodrama Aftershock offers a potential guide for how a movie can be popular and politically ‘correct’ at the same time. Directed by the mainland's most popular director, Feng Xiaogang, Aftershock traces the repercussions of the 1976 Tangshan Earthquake, which killed at least 242,000 people in northern China.
The movie opened simultaneously on thousands of screens on July 22 and in less than three weeks had smashed all box office records for a domestically-made movie, with takings of RMB 532 million (US $ 78.3 million). The Tangshan City government stumped up for half the movie’s costs, while IMAX Corp. demonstrated the United States’ growing interest in the Chinese market as the other major investor.
And which movie did Aftershocksnatch the domestic box office record from? Another state-funded blockbuster, Founding of a Republic, which became the biggest domestically-produced hit in Chinese history when it was released just before the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in September 2009. Produced by the state-owned China Film Group, the historical epic traces the final years of the Civil War that ended with the triumph of Communist forces over the Guomindang-led republican government. The film took around RMB 420 million (US $61.8 million) on the mainland.
On the surface, such figures imply a healthy domestic industry. But public popularity is only part of the reason for their success—local authorities also help to ensure healthy takings through massive levels of protectionism.
To make sure major local productions don’t have to compete directly with Hollywood, only 20 foreign titles are allowed to be released in mainland China each year under a revenue-sharing deal with state-owned distributors. Alternatively, films can be released outside this quota if they are sold to the distributors on a flat fee basis.
Either way, the arrangement guarantees only a handful of foreign titles make it to Chinese screens annually. Meanwhile, state-owned distributors have full control over their release, meaning popular Hollywood films are kept out of cinemas when key domestic works open, as well as during prime holiday periods.