Preethi Amaresh, Former Research Officer, Chennai Centre for China Studies (C3S)
China’s rise is the economic story of the 21st Century and the entertainment industry is no exception. Cinema was introduced in 1896 in China.[i] The film industry is viewed as part of China’s modernization process and with the global influence wielded by the country’s economy, the rise of “cultural industries” in China is seen as the next step on a path from a developing nation to a world power.
Before the 1949 revolution, China had a vibrant film industry. There were studios in Shanghai – the city was known as the Hollywood of China – which made comedies, romances and melodramas on an almost weekly basis, which were very popular with domestic audiences. But during the Cultural Revolution, the ruling Communist Party of China under Mao Zedong came close to destroying Chinese cinema. Soon after the Cultural Revolution the film industry again flourished as a medium of popular entertainment. [ii]
With China’s liberalization in the late 1970s and its opening up to foreign markets, commercial considerations made its impact in the post-1980s filmmaking. Fifth-generation Chinese filmmakers who had graduated from the Beijing film academy sought to popularize Chinese cinema abroad. Chinese movies like the Yellow Earth, King of the Children, Raise the Red Lantern were widely appreciated by the West. During the 1980s the film industry faced growing competition from other forms of entertainment. However, production rose steadily from 1986, when domestic films began to play to large audiences and tickets for foreign films sold quickly. The industry tried to revive crowds by making more innovative films by copying the West.
China and Hollywood
Since the late 1980s and progressively in the 2000s, Chinese films have enjoyed considerable box office success abroad. Before the 1990s only a few Hollywood movies entered China like –First Blood, Love Story, Roman Holiday, Spartacus, etc.
In 1994, The Fugitive became the 1st US movie open to the Chinese general public. Ten foreign films were allowed in 1994 and since then Hollywood has pushed the US government to negotiate with China for more market access. As a result, in 2012, 34 American films were released.
China, after influencing the Asian market for many years through its different genres of movies, has become extremely influential in Hollywood.[iii] China now has the second-largest movie box-office in the world. By 2026, it is expected to hold a stake of 40%-50% of global market share in movies. So it is no wonder that Hollywood panders to Chinese audiences and censors. China has been eyeing Hollywood to strengthen its entertainment holdings and forge creative collaborations. As China continues its urbanization, and as the number of shopping malls grow and the income of the population increases, the film market will maintain a fast growth rate over the next 10 years.
China and Bollywood
Both Bollywood and the Chinese film industry have been preoccupied with the West rather than East. In 2013, India and China decided to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the film and broadcasting sector. China was the principal guest country at the India International Film Festival, which was held in Goa in November 2017. In a 2014 agreement, India and China planned to improve the market for Indian movies in China and vice versa. Delhi and Beijing announced three movies, which were to be co-produced, paving the way for greater cultural exchange. The idea is to dilute the Chinese stereotypical characters in Indian films. The Chinese movie Lost in India is expected to boost tourism in India by the Chinese just like it increased Chinese tourism to Thailand after Lost in Thailand was released.[iv]
In 2015, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to China and the two governments decided that they would seek to restore what was once a powerful cultural connect. Three jointly produced film projects were signed with major Indian and Chinese film companies, producers and movie stars coming together for the first time. As part of the agreement, the three Chinese entities – China Film Group Corporation (CFGC), Shanghai Film Group Corporation (SFG) and Fudan University Press and India’s Eros International will promote, co-produce and distribute Sino-Indian films across all platforms in both countries. Eros International Group chief executive and managing director Jyoti Deshpande said that Eros is also in talks with Chinese companies like Tencent and Alibaba to curate and launch its digital platform ErosNow in China.[v]
The Chinese have been bewitched by Indian cultural icons be it Buddha or Tagore. Over the last few years, Indian movies have proven to be a potent asset of India’s soft power in China. In January 2018, India’s envoy Gautam Bambawale met China’s top media regulator and discussed cooperation in films and media to improve people-to-people exchanges.[vi] Aamir Khan, who is known to have a huge fan following in China after his movies 3 Idiots and PK, and with recent successive hits like Dangal and Secret Superstar became the only Indian actor who has quietly proved his mettle at the Chinese box office with two US$100 million grossers. With this success, Aamir Khan has also joined the ranks of Raj Kapoor and Nargis, whose film Awara has become ingrained in the memories of Chinese since the mid-20th century.[vii]
Towards the Future
China’s film industry could wind up just like the technological sector. With Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all blocked from China, whether for protectionist or political reasons, homegrown firms like Alibaba or Tencent have prospered. Tapping into their online users, video streaming platforms like iQiyi are bringing movies and TV shows to a wide variety of devices. With financial help from tech giants like Alibaba, the Chinese equivalent of eBay, and tough governmental policing of online piracy, Chinese video sites are due for take off at any given moment. An important factor contributing to the rise in online streaming is the fact that China has become a great source of attraction for tech companies.
Internet technologies have made China one of the most connected – it is estimated that more than 650 million people use the Internet in China – and tech-savvy countries in the world. With that comes an increase in video content consumption. In February 2016, Chinese audiences broke the global weekly box-office record by purchasing US$557 million in tickets.[viii] It is evident therefore, that China as the world’s most populous nation will develop a flourishing movie industry that can reflect its traditions, legends and values.
[i] The History of China Cinema , foreignercn.com, (http://www.foreignercn.com/index.php?option=com_content&id=207:the-history-of-chinese-film&catid=64:china-movies&Itemid=131)
[ii] The Chinese cinema industry: China’s cultural revolution, Independent, 2006 (http:// www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/the-chinese-cinema-industry-chinas-cultural- revolution-6112577.html)
[iv] Nyay Bhushan, Eros ties up with 3 Chinese firms for film production, “Business Standard”, 2015 (http://www.business-standard.com/article/companies/eros-ties-up-with-3-chinese-firms-for-film- production-115051801120_1.html).
[vi] Indian envoy discusses cooperation on Sino-India films, Hindustan Times, 2018, (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/indian-envoy-discusses-cooperation-on-sino-india-films/story-0vhTfzpMehKg8gHtUjsn5I.html)
[vii] Tansen Sen, Is China’s Secret Superstar Aamir Khan the Second Coming of India’s Tagore?, South China Morning Post, 2018 (http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2130794/chinas-secret-superstar-aamir-khan-second-coming-indias-tagore)
[viii] How China Is Remaking the Global Film Industry, Hannah Beech and Hengdian, TIME, 2017 (http://time.com/magazine/asia/4650870/february-6th-2017-vol-189-no-4-asia/)