Year-ender: Film Review 2013

2013/12/26 10:30:00 (Beijing Time)   Source:China Daily    By:Raymond Zhou

China's movie-makers hit pay dirt this year, thanks to a variety of factors including a hungry young audience.

It's hard to pinpoint yearzero for the rejuvenation of China's film industry, but 2013 will probably be remembered as the year the industry gained full confidence and changes happened faster than any prognostication. By the end of 2013, China's box-office total is expected to hit 21.5 billion yuan ($3.54 billion), 10 times the revenue of 2006. Last year's number already placed China as the second-largest cinema market in the world, next only to the United States. But only this year did the ratio of domestic releases rise well above the 50 percent demarcation, and without any palpable manipulations.

Sure, Hollywood superheroes still command their share of China's box office. For example, Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, Gravity and Fast and Furious 6 all brought in north of 400 million yuan in the Middle Kingdom, but they were exceptions.

Most imported movies had respectable instead of magnificent returns. More importantly, they were trumped by a slew of mid-budget Chinese productions that did not resort to special effects, but rather, had dialogues that resonated with the local audience.

Speaking of China's movie-goers, their average age has dipped to 21.4 years old. Unsurprisingly, love stories sell, especially tales that are not grounded in reality, at least not on the surface. These rom-coms (romantic comedies) may use the Hollywood formula in narrative structure, but they are studded with inside jokes that appeal to today's young.

And these audience members hail increasingly from cities and towns smaller than Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The aspirations and aesthetics of this demographic form the bedrock of China's market, and they have their own tastes and quirks. One thing is for sure: They do not have any patience for art-house fare, making 2013 the most fallow year for this genre - not a single independent-looking movie survived the cutthroat market. Even studio pictures with serious subject matter are going under. The race is on to dumb-down the Chinese screen as much as possible.

On a positive note, 2013 is the year good genre films appeared en masse, surprising even insiders with their solid box-office performances. Movies like Finding Mr. Right and Silent Witness were made by unknown directors, but the expert storytelling techniques won over a significant number of audiences. The result also awakened investors to the reality that top money and top stars may not be enough for a hit movie - if they are not supported by a good script.

The emergence of a large swath of the young population as newconsumers of the cinema experience is largely driven by the real-estate industry, arguably one of the nation's most cash-rich. It is adding 10screens per day in the process of building shopping malls and modernizing the urban landscape. China grew from 1,923 screens in 2003 to around 18,000 by the end of this year, marching over the halfway point of the US number. This means that, per capita, China still has great potential.

The development of recent years is expected to continue for quite a while as the country maintains its pace of urbanization and more people get exposed to the cinematic experience, now fully enhanced with 3-D and giant screens. Nobody is suggesting people have given up their tablets and notebooks as movie-watching platforms, but the movie theater as a preferred platform is gaining fast among the young.

The revival of Chinese cinema started with the Fifth Generation filmmakers in the 1980s, and they shifted gears in the new millennium to big-budget star-studded projects. The Sixth Generation emerged in the 1990s and has been stuck in art-house doldrums, self-imposed or otherwise. Now a new generation, perhaps without the sequential number, is taking over the industry and the diverse backgrounds and styles have made it impossible to group its members together. Of this year's runaway hits, many were directorial debuts or second features, including those by Zhao Wei, Xue Xiaolu, Guo Jingming, Sun Jianjun and Fei Xing, among others. (Last year's Wu'ershan and Xu Zheng fall into the same category, too.) And few of them studied film directing in the Beijing Film Academy, once the sole portal toward filmmaking success.

These newcomers are the fastest climbers on the pyramid of the movie business, followed by a mammoth army of youngsters who are honing the art and craft of filmmaking at the base. Many of them are making so-called micro films, short films that rely on digital technology for production and editing and on the Internet for distribution. Though widely uneven in quality, this is a perfect tool for practicing the new form of audio-video story-telling. In other words, the democratization of filmmaking as both a way of communication and a for-profit business is benefiting the young generation.

Another manifestation of the changing dynamics is Hollywood's new attitudes to the Chinese market.

Hollywood continues its practice of incorporating Chinese elements, especially stars in cameo roles, in its franchise movies. Iron Man 3 not only features Fan Bingbing and Wang Xueqi in flashing appearances, but customized a slightly different version for the China market. Many in China see that as a sign of Hollywood kowtowing to market forces, but some hold the opposing view, citing the fact that Fan does not make the US cut of the movie. When Gravity makes a Chinese space station and its module as vehicles that saved the protagonist on her return to Earth, local audiences again took notice.

But the event that sealed public perception was a cast of big Hollywood names, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, Ewan McGregor and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who descended on Qingdao for the launching of a 30 billion yuan complex that Wanda touted as China's answer to Hollywood. The Chinese press jokingly called it "a tuhao party", which is tantamount to the parties thrown by DiCaprio's character in The Great Gatsby.

Chinese cinema goes back more than a century, but as a big business it is exploding into a new era. Records are made and broken constantly. What appeared far-fetched two years ago could be within reach two years from now. But it's a gambler's game. Audience tastes change almost overnight and unpredictable factors, especially the scheduling of the opening vis-a-vis other contenders, may often determine whether a movie is a hit or a flop.

But what an exciting game!

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