Like many others in the country, China’s mainland cinema industry operates under government supervision. Restrictions and policies are made and enforced by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and by the government’s Publicity Department. But just like the country itself, it is gradually becoming more international, and China has been gaining traction over the past two decades as a serious contender in filmmaking.
Director Ang Lee (born in Taiwan and therefore considered culturally Chinese although the island is politically separate from the mainland, which considers it a runaway province) is arguably China’s only director to reach Hollywood fame, with two big-name, Oscar-winning movies -- first "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000 and later "Brokeback Mountain" in 2005 -- among other critically lauded productions.
Zhang Yimou’s movie "Hero" was released in 2002 in most of Asia and the U.S. and grossed more than $200 million worldwide -- a modest success by Hollywood standards but a very large sum for a Chinese production, showing the world that talent existed in China beyond action stars like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, but also in the form of directors.
More recently, at this year’s Venice Film Festival, Chinese director Wang Bing’s documentary, "San Zi Mei" ("Three Sisters"), placed first in its category. The film edged out competitors including two other films by Chinese directors.
According to the Xinhua news agency, Italian actor Pierfrancesco Favino, a judge at the Venice Film Festival, was impressed with what the Chinese had come up with. “I have a great opinion of Chinese directors, some of which are so incredibly talented. They have changed my way of watching movies,” he said.
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But while industry pros are impressed, Chinese filmmakers continue to struggle to contest on a level of filmmaking that appeals to the international masses.
Victor Li, a Beijing-based filmmaker, said the influence of China’s culture could be a reason they have not reached mainstream success. "The combination of education, culture, history, social-economic structure and even race makes Chinese filmmakers different from those in other parts of the world. I do not see the mass-export status of Chinese movies happening soon,” Li said.
What the Chinese are trying to do is mimic the success of the world’s film center, Hollywood. In a visit to Los Angeles early this year, China’s likely next president, Xi Jinping, met with Vice President Joe Biden to negotiate a trade agreement that would allow more foreign movies to be shown in theaters in China. Until recently, China capped the number of foreign films available for release in the country to 20, the majority of them American. The new deal will allow an additional 14 films to be released, rounding out the quota at 34 foreign films per year. That may not seem like much for the Hollywood majors, but in a country of 1.3 billion people, it is. The deal also includes 25 percent of Chinese ticket sales revenue to be returned to the foreign studios, which is also an increase.
These changes are significant for China, considering the very strict cultural control the government maintains; in fact, this breakthrough has widened the cultural channel of communication between the two nations. Thanks to joint ventures with Hollywood studios, the deal may help China develop its own industry, with the guidance and know-how that the well-oiled Hollywood machine has perfected.
Earlier this year, "Avatar" director James Cameron announced his company would launch a joint venture in China, introducing his famous 3-D digital technology to the budding industry.
But China will continue to struggle to become a big export of original filmmaking unless it adapts its production to what sells globally, which for now is still American movies. Ang Lee himself may be an example of this. He did not become popular in the U.S. until after he began directing American-style movies.
This is why Li, the Beijing filmmaker, predicts it will take a long time for Chinese productions to reach the popularity today's Hollywood movies enjoy in terms of franchise deals, endorsements and international movie premieres.
And if money-making potential is the goal, China cannot ignore the huge problem of copyright. China’s notorious black market for counterfeit goods is a big obstacle for the film industry. In 2008, the Motion Picture Association of America estimated losses of $2 billion due to pirated DVD sales in Asia alone. Until the Chinese government can find a more effective way to crack down on bootleg DVD sales, revenue will continue to suffer -- and movie majors will remain wary of China.