'Chinawood' hopes to challenge Hollywood for cinematic dominance
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China inaugurated the Qingdao Movie Metropolis this weekend, dubbed "Chinawood", which aims to become the global capital of film production. But as a tool of soft power, will it be sufficiently open to the world to compete with Hollywood?
In the field of new technologies, there is not a US service or social network that does not have its Chinese counterpart. There is a "Chinese Google" (Baidu), a "Chinese Twitter" (Weibo), a "Chinese Facebook" (Renren) and a "Chinese Uber" (Didi Chuxing). But the world of high tech is no longer the only sector in which China is trying to resist American hegemony. On Saturday, this nation of 1.4 billion people opened its own "Chinese Hollywood".
After five years of titanic effort, China inaugurated the largest film studio in the world – reportedly equal to about 200 football pitches – on Saturday in Qingdao, a seaside town on China’s east coast. And while the Chinese internet remains subject to strict government controls, the Qingdao Movie Metropolis aims to open itself up to the world and become the global capital of filming.
'Largest global investment in the history of cinema'
Chairman Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group, the real estate and movie theatre empire that spearheaded the project, is proud of what he said was the largest endowment of its kind. "This is the largest investment the global film and television industry has ever seen," Wang said at the project's official opening on Saturday.
The numbers are impressive: 400 acres of land, 30 sound stages – including the largest in the world, measuring 10,000 square metres – a theatre, a school, a hospital, luxury hotels and a shopping centre housing the largest cinema in Asia. Total cost of the project: 50 billion yuan (€6.6 billion).
Wanda’s cinematic investment is not solely for the sake of art, however. Since the early 2000s, China has become a huge film market. Over the past decade, attendance at theatres has been booming; it is often said that 10 cinemas open every day in the country.
"Arithmetically, this is probably exaggerated, but the underlying trend is solid and reflects the explosion of the middle classes and the accelerated urbanisation of the country," wrote Jean-Michel Frodon, cinema critic for Slate.fr, in 2014.
While the trend slowed slightly in 2016, China remains the second-largest country in the world in terms of box office, after the United States. Last year ticket sales yielded 55.9 billion yuan (€7.1 billion). Some 46 percent of this revenue was generated by international films, but more than half of the turnover is still due to local productions, in particular boosted by the success of the Chinese action film "Wolf Warrior 2".
The Dalian Wanda Group has pursued an acquisition strategy that reflects Chinawood’s goal of conquering both of the largest film markets in the world rather than challenging Hollywood head on. Formerly confined to producing Chinese films, the company extended its holdings into the United States with the 2012 purchase of American company AMC, followed four years later by the acquisition of Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, producer of such blockbusters as "Jurassic World", "Interstellar" and "Godzilla".
In 2016, even before the Movie Metropolis had been unveiled, its studios were already hosting the first major Sino-US co-production: "The Great Wall", a tale of historical fiction by Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon. In China the film was a box-office success, but in the United States both critics and the public were left cold.
"Since the relative failure of 'The Great Wall', the number of co-productions planned here has dropped significantly," said Natacha Devillers, a French producer based in China for the past decade, in comments to AFP. “The Americans have realised that it is complicated to shoot in China: [there are] communication problems, different working methods and a lengthy process for obtaining filming permissions."
But the project's managers remain undaunted. “We have yet to figure out a clear strategy to attract Hollywood and other foreign filmmakers,” acknowledged Sun Hengqin, chief deputy president of Wanda Film Group, in comments to Bloomberg. “Yes, we’d love them to come and shoot their films here, and we will study what are the factors that prevent them from coming and improve our services accordingly.”
Hollywood clichés and Chinese folklore
But a significant challenge remains: The mega Chinese productions may work well at home, but they struggle to win over audiences internationally. The fault, perhaps, lies in the formula chosen for many of these productions so far – a marriage of blockbuster Hollywood clichés and good old-fashioned Chinese folklore.
Some observers also fear that the grand ambitions of the Movie Metropolis will undermine the emergence of any alternative cinematic creations. "A rich businessman who makes films – this is likely to create a replica of Bollywood, where films are produced en masse," Jean-Vincent Brisset, a China specialist at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, told FRANCE 24 in 2013.
Underground Chinese filmmakers must therefore take detours. Censored in their own country because of their critical portrayals of Chinese society, filmmakers like Lou Ye, Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing must rely on the international film festival circuit to screen their work. The latter two will be appearing on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival next month: Jia will once again be competing for the top Palme d'Or prize with "Ash is Purest White" while Wang will present "Dead Souls" – a documentary about dying clocking in at eight hours and 15 minutes – during a special screening session.
The two artists – both members of what is known as the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese independent filmmakers, i.e., those who began directing after 1989 – will cross paths on the Riviera with young prodigy Bi Gan, who will screen "Long Day's Journey Into Night" – his second, hotly anticipated offering – in the Cannes “Un certain regard” category, which is reserved for edgier, independent films.
Disqualified from the recent mega breakthroughs in the Chinese film industry, will these directors be able to continue offering their independent creations? After frequenting international film festivals throughout the 1990s, several Chinese filmmakers, like Zhang Yimou, have now become official artists of the regime. But if it truly intends to compete with Hollywood, Chinawood may have to take inspiration from what the Americans do best: to find a way for blockbusters and independent film to coexist.
This article has been translated from the original in French.