By Jonathan Clements.
At the turn of the 21st century, Lotus Lantern was the great hope of the Chinese animation industry, a lavish, big-budget musical conceived in blatant imitation of a Disney blockbuster. Needless to say, it was written off in Schoolgirl Milky Crisis as “a mess from start to finish,” although Chinese TV media mogul Cheng Su Ming dismisses it for a different reason:
“You look at it, and you can immediately tell: no, it’s just too Chinese. Not only too Chinese for Taiwan, but too Chinese for Hong Kong and a lot of other places.”
Cheng is one of dozens of super-smart businesspeople interviewed in Michael Curtin’s Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience: The Globalization of Chinese Film and TV, a book that brings multiple critical tools to bear on the question of how a Chinese producer can call a Chinese film too Chinese for Chinese markets. In spite of contemporary reportage that flags up the Chinese market as a one-size-fits-all consumer base, Curtin examines the radical differences between and within “Chinese” territories – the six million viewers in Hong Kong, seven million in metropolitan Taipei, the 60 million in Cantonese-speaking south China, the Singaporeans for whom Mandarin is a distant second- or third-language…. He points out that nuances between dialects and accents can be so discordant as to lead some programmers to actively favour content from Japan and Korea, where at least the alien quality has its own cachet.
Curtin begins by proclaiming his book to be an exercise in “defamiliarisation”. In other words, the Hollywood expert is taking himself out of his comfort zone, investigating an entirely foreign industry to see if his American methods stick in a historically-grounded and financially-aware account of the development of the film industry in Hong Kong, China and beyond. His analysis includes everything from those who access the materials to those who own them. So this isn’t just a book about you, dear reader, wondering what film you want to see. It’s also a book about Rupert Murdoch, who in 1993 comically propels the Chinese Communist Party into the cable business when he alludes to the democratising potential of satellite dishes. And it’s about the Moneyball accountant who looks at the budget for Purple Storm and asks why the studio is forking out for a celebrity like Tony Leung, when they can get a younger, hungrier Daniel Wu and use the saving to build him into a grateful star.
It’s very rare that Curtin talks about the content of a specific film. Movies to him are just software – grist to an industrial mill that is buffeted by powerful market forces including demographic shifts, legal loopholes, tax breaks, and import quotas. In a historical preamble, Curtin covers origins of movie production in the Taylorised industrial processes of 1920s Hollywood, and the Shaw Brothers’ search for a new market away from the strong-arm competition of their nemeses in the Shanghai cinema community. There are incisive comments about the drift of film-makers into action movies in the 1960s, as the fixed-site theatres in urban centres reached saturation, and Asian exhibitors were forced to look for new venues in the sticks, where Hokkien-speaking audiences tired of having to read subtitles for films in Mandarin.
Curtin has fun with the political economy of modern movies, starting with the sudden realisation by a bunch of Cantonese producers in the 1980s that they all needed $500,000 in their bank accounts in order to fast-track a Canadian passport before the 1997 Handover. Suddenly, movies are going into “hyper-production”, celebrities are sleeping in their cars in the car park because they only have an hour between showing up on four concurrent film sets, and the Hong Kong movie machine cranks into overdrive, part-funded with money from belligerent loan sharks. A year later, of course, video stores are flooded with crappy product, and shop-owners have their arms twisted to take three shitty B-movies for every A-list money-spinner, by Triad distributors who do not care at all for the long-term husbandry of an appreciative and trusting audience. I would add that there was a second sonic boom a couple of years later, when UK bargain bins were jammed with chop-socky nonsense that nobody wanted to buy.
Curtin is obstinately, refreshingly money-minded. He compares the price of a blow-out meal or a night of karaoke with the cost of five people going to the movies, and is unsurprised when Hong Kong audiences give up on movies in droves. One of his interviewees points out that shitty movies have real consequences: once and it’s bad luck, twice and it’s very bad luck, but three crap cinema experiences in a row, and audiences are justified in giving up. As Dan Harmon once said of Hollywood, if the food industry offered the same quality standards as movies, every third can of tuna would have a human finger in it.
I know these logistics only too well. If my significant other and I want dinner and a movie these days, that’s dinner and a movie and a babysitter. And if we fancy a drink we’ll need a taxi home, and before we know where we are, the night’s heading for a £100 outlay. So: no, I don’t want to walk out of a cinema making apologies for the latest teen-focussed toy commercials, which is why I don’t support them. I vote with my wallet, and I wish more people who shrug and say the latest caped mayhem “will do” would follow suit. But I digress.
Curtin’s grasp of the money pays real dividends in everything from the impetus to “hyper-production” to the incentivising of piracy – some of the viewers who baulk at £10 for a bad movie simply have a lower price point. He examines every stage of the chain from Ownership to Access – not just the production of the films, but their distribution, exhibition and marketing. He also makes the vital but all-too-often ignored point that a country’s film industry does not merely sell local films, but also repackages foreign ones. He argues over the best way to translate American movie titles with marketers who know that Ghost sounds like a horror movie to Chinese audiences, and You’ve Got Mail sounds like a pun on the Mandarin for You’ve Got Sex. His investigation of marketing dives deep into Chinese culture, into the attitudes of sellers whose customers are used to getting deals and haggles on the street, and who expect every cultural experience to come with a free lucky gonk. A comment on Toy Story 2 in the Taiwanese market follows it all the way to the merchandise on offer in 7-11s. A discussion of the introduction of the multiplex in Chinese markets considers the problems of selling popcorn to people used to bringing packed lunches.
This will all sound terrifying to someone with a freshly-minted film studies degree, who might have previously thought that a job in the industry will mean sitting on a sofa all day discussing Hitchcock. Curtin’s interviewees are the hardest of hard-nosed managers, brutally honest about the uses to which their product is put. Peter Tsi, the former head of programming at Wharf Cable, is ready to describe his movie output as little more than a fish tank to subscribers who care less about what is on than how much they think they are saving by not renting a DVD. He is also frank and revealing about the uses of sport, which allows a TV network to bulk out its programming with foreign material that is still somehow familiar – in the small Cantonese market, making original programming is expensive, but buying original programming usually involves dealing with competitors and rivals. He persuasively compares a modern cable channel to a Chinese shopping mall, largely uninterested in the products on sale, as long as someone is paying the rent for the store-fronts. Wharf’s Peter Woo is even blunter, treating television as “a Trojan horse for telephony” – a pretty light show designed to get people to pay to have their houses wired up, and then to pay rental on those wires thereafter.
I find this all fascinating because creatives still have to create in the midst of all of this. Many a time, I have tried to convey to students the sort of drama that is going on behind the scenes, not on the film set or in the writers’ room, but in the board meetings from which the creatives are usually shielded. When a producer calls me to say (actual quotes) “We have to take out the night scenes”, or “You can only have two actresses” or “Please don’t use any of the following words in your script”, she is the sharp end of a long chain of decisions, budgets and heartaches that all have their origins in the world of business.
Of course, a lot has happened since Playing to the World’s Biggest Audience was first published in 2007, but that is part of its historical value. Many of the interviewees will have moved on, and many of the accountants will have legally destroyed their financials by now. The last few years have seen a rapid rise in the allure of the TV and film markets in the People’s Republic of China, into which many of Curtin’s arguments here seamlessly dovetail. The book remains a peerless introduction to the complexities of Asian media, and I eagerly await his next, Precarious Creativity: Global Media, Local Labor… which, incidentally, is going to be given away free as an eBook, the University of California having decided that a not-for-profit academic publisher best serves its backers by setting a price-point of zero for maximum educational impact, rather than a fortune for only a handful of readers. Now there’s a paradigm to consider… although if you read the small print you’ll see that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. As in every media, someone has to pay.
Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History.