Chinese Film and Those Pesky Foreign Audiences

In the Hutong

Glued to CNBC

1804 hrs.

The New York Times does an amusing little story about a hush-hush crash course at the UCLA film school for young Chinese entertainment industry suits, aiming to instruct the PRC execs in the way Hollywood does business ( China’s Media Moguls Tutored by Masters of Hollywood).

Why can’t you people just read the words?

The executives, all in their “20s and 30s,” were given lectures and workshops by some of the leading lights in Hollywood, each clearly motivated as much by a desire to crack China as any thought of helping the youngsters.

But the money quote was not delivered by Dan Glickman of the MPAA, Mike Simpson from William Morris, or even Gareth Wigan, the former vice-Chair of Sony Pictures and one of Hollywood’s leading globalizers.

No, the quote of the day was delivered by one of the young Chinese executives:

“When the floor opened for questions, the Chinese had questions of a different sort…Another wondered how Chinese films could find a global audience when American viewers continue to reject subtitles. ‘Americans are spoiled,’ the questioner complained.”

Moviemaking would be great if it weren’t for that darned audience

Without arguing the speaker’s point, he calls our attention to the real core of China’s global box-office problem.

The gap in quality of material and production values between Chinese films and big-budget western productions is still significant, but it is declining. The quality of China’s leading productions easily matches that of some of the more popular independent films in the United States.

But for all of the improvements on the production side, Chinese film executives have a lot to learn about marketing – especially international marketing. Rule one, of course, is that blaming your target customers for your failings is a fig-leaf for incompetence.

One of the core differences between the film business in China and that in the United States is that the US industry is at least nominally driven by what people want to pay to watch. The result is a lot of dreck, of course, but dreck that at least has a shot at making some money.

Chinese film, on the other hand, is dominated by the creative conflict between filmmakers and regulators, the latter acting on behalf of party ideologues. There is precious little room in that clash of power and ego for the voices of executives speaking on behalf of the ticket-buying audience.

So despite the best intentions of Robert Rosen, dean of the UCLA School of Theater, FIlm, and Television, and China Film Group’s urbane vice-chairman Jiao Hongfen, one does not hold out much hope for improved prospects for Chinese film in with significant masses of non-Chinese moviegoers.

At least, not until marketers start having a say in the product.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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