In a dramatic and much-reported turn of events earlier this week, China's richest man, Wang Jianlin and his Wanda Group, gave a little taste of what his US$8.2 billion investment will bring to Qingdao, with a star-studded statement that China's film industry is ascendant.
To Wang's and Wanda's credit, China’s film industry is booming, and is one of the largest film markets in the world. It grew 36 percent from 2012 and is worth US$1.7 billion annually, all this despite the near non-existence of copyright laws in China and the fact that much of the world now downloads its entertainment. With that in mind, the potential for this new "Chollywood" seems limitless. With this massive cash influx, moviemakers from around the world are keen to get their share of China's market. However, if perceptions of Chinese film don't change, China is where Wang's venture will stay.
Wang wasn't shy about explaining the purpose of his venture; beyond the ever-popular goal of revenue, the billionaire stated that the goal of the project is one of “cultural power.” Thus far, China's attempts at soft power have been relegated to the slag heap of monetary investment and disregarded media schemes. But this latest tact–with Leonardo DiCaprio, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta in tow–might stand a chance of working.
For now, the emphasis appears to be on building a domestic consumer-based industry, but Chinese culture on tap and for export is the next stop. As Wang said on Sunday, "I strongly believe that China will be the center of the global film industry." Comparisons between this multi-billion dollar venture and Hollywood are being made half in jest and for various reasons (not the least of which is talk of a Hollywood-like sign of "Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis"), but the reality is that China wants this beach town–famous for its beer–to be the new Hollywood.
However, China doesn't exactly get along with Hollywood and its freewheeling morals and varied politics. The Middle Kingdom's public have long been grappling with the censorship behemoth that is the State Administration of Press Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT, formerly SARFT), an organization in charge of protecting the CCP's oh-so delicate sensibilities. Now, it looks like the rest of the world–as studios line up for their shot at the teat–may be forced to get to know them as well.
One can never tell what will prick the conscience of the recently merged government office, from protecting the proletariat from the "sensationalism" of singing competitions to restricting the concept of time travel in TV dramas. Their odd decisions make headlines around the world, including the Django Unchained kerfuffle earlier this year and their strange cuts of Skyfall. In the absence of a ratings system, they have free reign.
Hollywood is no stranger to the pettiness of Chinese censors either. Only a certain number of foreign films get to be shown in China each year, meaning that any plot points that might upset the Chinese censors gets scrubbed before release. Whether it is switching the bad guys from Chinese to North Koreans as in the case of Red Dawn, or scissor-happy censoring as in the case of Cloud Atlas, the world has taken note that China is a little bit different when it comes to filmmaking.
If Wang's Chinese Hollywood in Qingdao has any hope at all of becoming a reality, SAPPRFT will need to keep a low profile. While Wang Jianlin is the friendly face of China's soft power, he did raise a few eyebrows when he acquired the AMC theater chain in July last year, with some wondering if it was part of China's great propaganda push.
Censorship and obligatory propaganda are part and parcel for Chinese cinema, something Chinese movie-lovers have been putting up with for decades. If China wants to have any hope of exporting either its culture or its films, some serious changes must be made, both in censorship and in perception.
Perhaps with his profile, money and connections Wang Jianlin is just the man to change China's cinema industry for the better.