SVAMA Global Marketing Blog

SVAMA's Special Interest Groups are designed to allow members and friends to network and learn from peers interested in the same marketing specialty. SIGs operate independently and frequently morph into face-to-face, book review, or email sigs depending on the needs of the group.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Pizza . . . and . . . Cut - The Movie Industry in China

INT. BEDROOM - NIGHT On a bed not yet slept in is a box of partially eaten pizza. Nearby, the open window is a portal into black silence. At the desk, a WOMAN stares into the white-blue glare of the computer screen. She is the CONTEST WINNER, but she has 50 more pages to go first. Her fingers never stop typing. There is no sound except for the CLICK CLACK CLICK of the computer keys and an occasional CURSE. The real history of film in China begins in 1896; just one year after the Lumiere brothers presented the first projected, moving picture short films to a paying audience. A Beijing photographer established the Daguanlou Cinema in 1903. Two years later, he essentially shot a concert video for the then contemporary King of Beijing Opera—a ten-minute, silent version of "Conquering Jun Mountain." By this time, the Qing government was on its last legs but could still issue regulations. In June 1911 it decreed that cinemas were to have licenses, separate seating for males and females; and to close by midnight. In 1930, to much controversy, the Daguanlou Cinema broke the ban against men and women sitting together. Beijing might have been first on the Mainland film scene, but Shanghai's economic might during its good old bad days of the 1920s and 1930s, plus the abundance of shady characters quite literally on its doorstep, quickly helped the Paris of the East surpass the capital. J.G. Ballard, the writer whose childhood experiences in Shanghai were filmed as "Empire of the Sun," remembers hundreds of hunchbacks outside the cinema to promote the debut of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." As far as I could determine, Shanghai's oldest surviving cinema is the Daguangming Cinema (Grand Cinema), designed by a German architect and constructed in 1928. There were certainly earlier locations used to screen films, though. The city’s first open air screening of a ‘half sound’ film was in 1908, in the garden of the Astor House Hotel, founded in 1846 and still located at the corner of Huangpu and Daming Roads near the Bund. It’s not clear if the Shanghai Concert Hall was originally built in 1930 for movies, but it was supposedly the best cinema until it became primarily a concert hall in 1959. Shanghai didn't actually need good acoustics for its films until after 1936 anyway. While Hong Kong switched to sound almost immediately, it took Shanghai five years. Experts on the subject attribute the difference to the importance of Cantonese in Hong Kong, but in any case, Shanghai was off and filming. Copies of Chinese films from the city's heyday can be found in the street vendors’ assorted DVD collections. Recently, when I bought one such film, the middle-aged vendor complained that the only people who ever bought those films were foreigners. The young in China only had eyes for Hollywood. Despite China's recent celebration of the 100 years of Chinese cinema, the Shanghai film industry seems to be just waking up from a long sleep. The Shaw Brothers' film empire, which dominated Southeastern Asian film for two decades well into the 1960s, actually began in Shanghai in 1925. It relocated to Hong Kong in 1937 because of the Japanese invasion. Many of Shanghai's filmmakers and major stars went with them, but between 1937 and 1941, Shanghai still managed to make 230 films. The Japanese occupation tried to inveigle the remaining filmmakers into making propaganda for them. Meanwhile, some Chinese filmmakers in Chongqing were busy making propaganda films _against_ the Japanese. Most films made just after 1949 were about the civil war or China's war against the Japanese. However, the quality of filmmaking steadily deteriorated until, by the early 1960s, most of the filming being done was documentaries and news. The wars had made things difficult for the Shanghai film industry, but it was the Cultural Revolution that really killed it. And it was no accident. It was murder. Her birth name was Li Yunhe and under the name of Lan Ping, she was a minor actress in Shanghai between 1934 and 1937. But it was as Jiang Qing that she got her biggest roles: first as Mao's wife and then as a member of the Gang of Four. Initially Jiang targeted Beijing opera, promoting her own ‘model operas’ instead. After consolidating her power, she returned to Shanghai to direct the downfall of its film industry. Between 1973 and 1976, she reduced the city’s film industry to a mouthpiece for the Gang of Four. China’s renaissance of ‘fifth generation’ filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige came out of Beijing in the 1980s, not Shanghai, which has never really recovered. But, there is hope. Shanghai seems to have recently been added to the list of locations considered by Hollywood moguls. The Mission Impossible series recently made a visit and move ‘The White Countess’ was both filmed in and set in Shanghai. Hopefully this is just the beginning and the international vogue will encourage local Chinese to take camera in hand. Exactly what a recent amateur competition encouraged a typically international collection of Shanghai residents to do. Seven teams took on the challenge of making a 3 to 8 minute film that had a list of required elements including a surprise ending. The resulting films were all fascinating and are supposed to be on the sponsor's website at some point. However, I subjected myself to the private torture of the feature length screenplay contest that ran at the same time. Overall, I learned that the level of creativity in Shanghai is amazing and the future of film here looks promising. Just don’t say the word ‘pizza’ around me, please. Posted by Beth Epstein Beth is a member of SVAMA who is currently working in China.


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