Shanghai: Chinese Film Execs Talk Overcoming Industry's "Severe Winter"

Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
Bona CEO Yu Dong, Beijing Enlight Media's Wang Changtian joined on stage by other studio heads at the Shanghai Film Festival.

Studio chiefs, including Bona's Yu Dong and Beijing Enlight Media's Wang Changtian, remained bullish on the country's prospects despite a series of scandals that hit the sector last year.

Top Chinese film executives came together at the Shanghai International Film Festival Sunday morning to discuss recent industry challenges and tout their slates for this year's 70th anniversary celebrations of the People's Republic of China. 

Bona Film Group chairman and CEO Yu Dong said that 2018 was "a very difficult year" for the Chinese film sector, with actors and other key sector players hearing "all kinds of criticism from society." For example, tax evasion scandals were in focus late in the year, he noted. (One notable one was the Fan Bingbing case.) "The whole industry had a reorganization of different taxation arrangements," he said. "A lot of people felt the pain [in this] self-reflecting and self-checking process, everybody was reflecting whether they did anything wrong."

So overall, he said 2018 was "the year of a severe winter for the movie industry in China." He also cited big stock drops of many publicly traded film firms, lauding the industry for putting out as many films as it did despite these challenges, which earned applause from the audience.

"However, last year was also the warm spring for creation of movies," he said, mentioning that Chinese films "made a breakthrough" in terms of quality output, including in new genres, and box office social influence. He cited such films as Bona's own Operation Red Sea, which led China's 2018 box office charts with $570 million. Other breakthroughs in terms of quality were Beijing Culture's critically acclaimed comedy drama Dying to Survive, and Zhang Yimou's return to period martial arts filmmaking, Shadow

Wang Changtian, CEO of Beijing Enlight Media, argued that the effects of some negative news last year, which hit "some of the morale and confidence," continue to linger, citing tax and “misconduct issues." He explained: "Since we are all being seen as law breakers…we need some time, we need some event to turn that around.”

Financing is one of the challenges. "The capital market has given up on China’s film industry, I believe," Wang said. "We cannot find enough funding for projects.”

Ren Zhonglun, chairman of Shanghai Film Group, also highlighted that last year the Chinese industry slowed down. "This year it will be flat, and that is already the good news," he said. "Being flat and steady brings some benefits. Two or three years ago there was a lot of growth, but there were a lot of impulsive actions as a lot of people wanted to flood into this market and get a piece of the pie — it caused disturbances and wasn't a healthy landscape."

While much discussion is concentrating on the country's box office surpassing the U.S. as early as next year, Ren said: "We should not rush to be passing somebody," but instead focus on film quality and "developing own narratives."

He noted that in 2018, China's crossed 60,000 total screens, "but revenue per screen is down." There is one key remedy, he concluded: "We need better movies.... We shouldn't be obsessed with the numbers, we should be more obsessed with the quality." 

He noted that the best 100 movies ranking includes such top titles as The Godfather, adding that it would be great "if there is a Chinese title in that upper ranking." Everyone in the Chinese film sector should pursue that goal, rather than chasing quick revenue, he added. 

Fan Luyuan, CEO of Alibaba Pictures, said China "needs more sequels" before it can think about outperforming the U.S. or U.K. "Like Star Wars, they have sequels," he said. "They know how to operate IP."

Overall though, "I am still bullish about China’s film industry," he said, reiterating other speakers' focus on having to improve film quality. While China has a big population and can draw bigger box office, he asked: "But is that the purpose? I don’t think so. We still want to be improving the quality of the content, so that we can tell better Chinese stories."

Most industry bosses were optimistic about the slew of Chinese anniversary films set for this year, including Me and My Country and Liberation. Yu said the company "managed to conquer the difficulties" of 2018 and is making celebrating China's 70th anniversary "our key focus." Concluded Zeng Maojun, president of Wanda Film Group: "This year’s National Day will see a lot of excellent movies."