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    China Business
     Jan 10, 2006
City's film industry looks for a sequel

By Ilan Carmel

SHANGHAI - Last month, in a smoky basement bar at the heart of old colonial Shanghai - the legendary Bund - an assortment of young amateur filmmakers gathered for an improvised short-film competition. The event organizer, Juan Vargas, had come to Shanghai from Colombia on a writing mission and turned to film production after realizing the potential in the market.

"We are trying to encourage people to make films," explained Vargas, whose newly established production company, Mei Wen Ti Productions, had just produced its first feature film, 90 Days Visa, in Shanghai. For Vargas and his small circle of associates, the contest, which had been announced and hastily organized

only 10 days earlier, was an opportunity both to contribute to and stimulate the emergence of an independent film industry in Shanghai as well as a way to recruit young promising talents.

These amateur filmmakers toiled day and night for 10 days to produce 15 short films, each several minutes in length, just so they could get their foot in the door and mingle with the rising small community of independent filmmakers in China's eastern metropolis. One of these entrepreneurs was Frenchman Severin Bonnichon, who, like most of the contest participants, had used equipment from home to shoot his debut pieces in Shanghai. The short, slightly intoxicated Bonnichon said he had made a few short films back in France, but in Shanghai he was at a disadvantage because he did not have access to proper equipment or a professional film crew.

At present, there are two sides to the film industry in Shanghai: the independent film sector, which is barely in its infancy; and the government-run Shanghai Film Studio, which has been releasing mainly propaganda films that are embarrassing even relative to typically low-quality features produced by China's domestic film industry.

"The problem with the Shanghai Film Studio," said Adrian Cortez, who was the cameraman for 90 Days Visa and one of the co-founders of Mei Wen Ti Productions, "is that the government keeps a tight lid on the creativity of the commercial productions here."

Cortez spoke about generating an environment of creativity among local and international talents: "The main problem we are facing is with [screenwriting] ... There are good writers out there who are writing for English-language magazines; we just need to [improve] the [quality] level and also attract good writers from overseas."

Cortez, who graduated with a degree in film from Yale University, is about to open his own media consulting company, called Tangran, and is also working on medical projects in North Korea, is one of the financial motors behind the independent film productions. He said independent films do not mean non-commercial ones; there is plenty of liquid cash in Shanghai looking for an investment return.

Vargas, however, was the one who raised the 3,000 euros (US$3,640) needed for the production of their film. According to Cortez, when independent films improve in quality, they will be able to attract more investment from wealthy, pragmatic Chinese businesspeople who are seeking to develop profitable new industries. The additional funds will then further improve the quality of locally made films, in a kind of virtuous circle.

"The key element here is money," said Cortez, "so if these films can start making money, the government will follow suit and release some of the pressure."

The current stagnancy of Shanghai's dream factory is ironic given the city's role as the birthplace of Asian cinema. In the first half of the 20th century, Shanghai's film industry was second only to Hollywood, and Old Shanghai films featuring such stars as Ruan Lingyu, Hu Die, Zhao Dan and Zhou Xuan remain popular classics. Shanghai also provided the foundation for Hong Kong's thriving cinema, as many of its leading actors, directors, writers and cinematographers fled to the then-British colony after 1949. Even after the communist takeover, Shanghai Film Studio took a leading role in the already declining domestic film industry.

China's economic reforms of the early 1980s saw a rapid drop in the quality and the number of films produced in Shanghai, while at the same time the relatively open studios of Beijing and Xi'an prospered and developed.

"Beijing also supports much better universities and training institutes for film production," said Liu Haibo, a lecturer in film and media studies at the Film and TV Institute of Shanghai University. "There is no comparison between the quality of the training centers of Beijing and the talent they attract [and] what is available in Shanghai.

"Shanghai is open only in terms of its economy, infrastructure and its position as a financial center; in terms of arts and culture, it is a very conservative society and environment," Liu said.

In the past few years, mainly during the annual Shanghai International Film Festival, a number of film entrepreneurs have suggested attracting investments to create a bigger film industry in the city, but little action has materialized. One additional reason may be a lack of financial incentives from the government, mainly in the form of tax cuts for investment in film projects. Liu believes the local government has not bothered with tax incentives because it has not perceived an adequate return on investment in films. Local and foreign investors have also been reluctant, at least so far, to pour money into a virtually non-existent industry, for the same basic reason.

So far at least, domestic and international investors in the Chinese film industry prefer to fund sure successes; this usually means Beijing-based productions featuring big-name directors, such as Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Feng Xiaogang, to name a few. These leading mainland directors have also established intimate relations with investors that are based on mutual understanding. In these understandings, China's leading filmmakers are continuously hammering at familiar formulas that make for domestic box-office hits, thereby fortifying their own stance and popularity with moviegoers and investors alike. Typical tried-and-true themes, often seen in popular commercial mainstream Chinese cinema, borrow from nostalgic images of feudal China, or re-create and canonize 20th-century revolutionary and wartime heroic glory.

Critics of China's commercial film industry claim that a trend has developed in the past few years in which China's leading directors indulge in narcissistic ego-trips and public relations campaigns after their initial masterpieces are made. Be that as it may, no one can argue with box-office success. In the past decade, the mainland's film industry has released more then 100 titles annually, and last year the top 10 most profitable Chinese films yielded a profit of 600 million yuan ($74.4 million).

As still another reason for the weak film industry in Shanghai, Liu mentioned the state policy of allowing only big investors to enter the business, as well as artificially directing investments to big studios in Beijing. Furthermore, Shanghai has seen a high turnover in its pool of film professionals and a brain drain since the early 1990s, mostly to the benefit of Beijing's studios and production companies.

Finally, the general commercially oriented environment, especially in the past two decades, has damaged Shanghai's standing as a creative-arts center. The general recession in the national film industry in the past few years has not improved the prospects for a Shanghai-based film industry. Figures from the city's own cinemas show the severity of the problem: only 10% of films screened last year were domestic productions, while the rest were foreign or made in Hong Kong or Taiwan. By contrast, on a national level, Chinese movies sell more tickets than foreign movies do.

According to the list of the 100 Best Chinese Films of the 20th Century, published in the Chinese edition of Asia Weekly, 17 were made in Shanghai between 1923 and 1949, while only nine were made in the city between 1950 and 1997. Of the 114 films produced in China last year, only 24 were made with the participation of Shanghai film studios. And of the top 10 box-office hits in 2004, only Wong Kar-Wai's 2046 was produced by the Shanghai Film Group, although the creative work was done by the Hong Kong production team.

"The political restrictions in Shanghai are much more severe than in Beijing," said Liu. "Films that focus on the negative aspects of modern urban life might not be approved by the authorities." Even with changes in the government's policy allowing foreign investment in Shanghai film productions, the underdevelopment of credit guarantees in China would make it risky for foreign investors to finance full-length feature films. As for local investors, this industry is brand-new, while their tendency will be to invest in familiar industries.

Foreign-produced independent films targeted for export might just be the oxygen mask needed to kick-start Shanghai's film industry once again. The needed talent is already in the city, the investment required is not very high, and there appear to be a growing number of avid believers as well as entrepreneurial forces to make it happen. Vargas, for one, is convinced that as with any other new industry, this one has the potential for rapid growth given the proper vision and financial boost. And he is backing his words with actions: he's already planning the next independent film contest, slated for next month.

Ilan Carmel is a Shanghai-based freelance journalist, covering mainly art, culture and social issues. He has a master's degree in Asian studies from Monash University, specializing in Chinese urban anthropology, and is working on mapping tradition versus modernity in Shanghai using both images and text. He can be reached at ilan.carmel.sh@gmail.com.

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