A China Film Production Catastrophe

Guest post from Jonathan Poston M.E.

Up until now, this story has never been told in print, only lamented in subsequent international business courses I taught, and reminisced about in random “China-talk.”

It was a year of peaks and valleys like life tends to serve up, but at the start of 2008, I was surfing at the height of a 100 ft. wave. I had just moved to China to teach business communications at an American university’s international business school. I probably should have stopped there to simply enjoy the teaching experience and the rich culture forever modulating around me. But I didn’t.

I started taking kung fu (gong fu-功夫) from an amazing martial arts master, and just as I was getting into it, I was also thinking about offering an experiential extra credit project for my business students. Hey, what about producing a kung fu instructional video? But since I would be spending my own money for start up costs and the students should feel like they’re a part of something real, I decided I should run it like a business.

I enlisted six or seven (unpaid) student interns, a team of students, under professional direction, from a nearby film school, and a star kung fu master; with plans to recruit a musician to compose and play erhu music in the background. It was all quite ambitious since I personally had no experience with film.

I worked with another colleague, who happened to be a licensed international business lawyer, to draw up contracts for the students and talent. It basically said I would retain rights to the video to do with it as I wanted. In exchange students would get extra credit, snacks on the set, a real business internship-like experience (which didn’t exist in their business program), etc.. The first step was getting them to sign on. Then one of them knew the film school director and introduced me to him.

Negotiating with the film director with a Chinese business student translator seemed easy enough. They would do everything for less than 10,000 RMB, with only a five hundred or so deposit to begin. They agreed to drag their equipment up the mountain to a traditional kung fu training site I had found to film the video. They would also be making required edits and producing a master video cd from which I could make copies. The kung fu instructor would participate for around 1,000 RMB, with only a few hundred up front to start. It would be fairly inexpensive to find a music composer and integrate some cool erhu tunes it into the video too.

Everything was on target and we were all making pilgrimages up the mountain (no understatement as we had to literally haul the equipment up raggedly ladders and gnarly mountain paths for a half hour or more to reach the place).

Filming went smoothly for a while. Background logistics like subtitles, voice over translation in English, etc. were also part of the production mix. The kung fu expert tirelessly conducted his sequences at multiple speeds and relayed to the subtitle / translation voice-over copy writer how the moves worked and any other special meaning that should be imparted. Students directed everything: angle, costume, set props, spoken instruction, translation, keeping passing hikers a bay while the shoots were taking place, etc. etc. Everyone was getting really excited, and the energy just kept building.

Maybe everyone was getting a little too excited—perhaps, some thought: we’ll be famous. In fact, the set took on an air of “Hollywood.” It was like a billion dollar movie deal just landed out in the middle of the forest, and the ego charging our lofty set came in mammoth proportions. It’s easy to see how it would too: It was a behemoth project, and exceedingly complex for the amount of time we had (a semester), and everyone was working so hard. I was personally spending every bit of my free time on it, day and night.

It’s here that the house of cards began to shake…to be continued

Disclosure: The above story is told with as much accuracy as the author can recall. Names and places aren’t listed for privacy and security purposes.

Jonathan Poston M.E. is Chief Content Officer at FastPivot and Editor-in-Chief for “Learn Chinese Business” Blog. Mr. Poston also leads cross-cultural and business workshops around the world. Contact him by email (Jonathanposton@gmail.com) to book a seminar.

22 responses to “A China Film Production Catastrophe”

  1. Rod in China says:

    Riveting. Can’t wait for the second installment!

  2. Interesting personal account, looking forward to the next episode.

  3. Not Booking a Seminar says:

    “…a real business internship-like experience”

    Right…whatever that means. This has nothing to do with business and everything to do with exploitation. Sounds like the author is the one who’s about to be taken to school by students whom he didn’t think had enough common sense to demand fair compensation for what was all along a harebrained and unethical personal moneymaking scheme.

    Here are just a few red flags:

    1. Unethically leveraging control over students’ grades to co-opt them into participating in a personal “business project”

    Of course, any good student who cares about grades is going to feel compelled to participate in an extra credit opportunity, no matter how frivolous it may be. At the same time, those who do care about grades but do not participate will be at a disadvantage relative to those who do participate. It’s sad that a “teacher” entrusted with authority over students would utilize it in such an unethical way.

    2. “In exchange students would get…snacks on the set…”

    Ever heard the phrase, “They pay me peanuts?” It works for circus elephants, but when this payment method is applied to people, in this case literally, it’s called exploitation.

    3. “I worked with another colleague, who happened to be a licensed international business lawyer, to draw up contracts for the students and talent…The first step was getting them to sign on.”

    “…getting them to sign on.” The phrasing says it all. This wasn’t for students’ benefit, it was for the author’s personal interests. Oh, and the author’s colleague just “happened” to be a licensed international business lawyer? What a fantastic coincidence. The author obviously came to play, but not in a good way.

    4. “It was all quite ambitious since I personally had no experience with film.”

    Generally, a teacher should have some authority or expertise in class-related projects and assignments. Otherwise, what, exactly, is one able to teach students? Oh right, the “business” of lugging cameras up mountains and “keeping passing hikers at bay.”

    In short, this is a shame and an embarrassment on all levels. This is not legitimate business in China, or anywhere else in the world.

    • Kev says:

      Get a reality check, you pretentious idiot. When I was a uni student in Australia, I lived on noodles and bread. Uni students are supposed to do things “just for the experience”. This is what happens in every country. You are just being some form of high and mighty “shame on you” loser who can’t think beyond today. Kudo’s for Tom who is trying to do something interesting with his students and getting them excited about a business venture.

      • Not Booking a Seminar says:

        Amazing rebuttal, name-calling and all. Here’s a reality check for you: Tom did not write this post. Carry on.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      I think your critique would be more insightful if this weren’t a course, NBAS. On the other hand, I don’t really understand the point of it being run like a business. Perhaps this is the way things are done in this kind of class. Also, I think we’re a little short on info to come to your conclusions. Perhaps there will be more in future instalments. Personally, I’m waiting for someone to fall off of one of those rickety ladders.

    • Kev says:

      NBAS, I totally apologise. I should have ensured all my statements were factual and not preconceived. My congratulations should, of course, be to Jon. Would that we all could be so perfect as you NBAS as you seem to know everying.

    • staff29501 says:

      Not booking a seminar, I posted this response on part II, and I think it addresses your concerns as well:

      Note that the “professionals” in the project were paid based on their rates. Students volunteered, as an extra credit assignment. They stood to gain in experience, and I in the possibility that I would leave China with a souvenir amateur-made video that I could later potentially sell to recoup my loses. Highly unlikely I would ever gain–If you know anything about retail, people don’t get rich or even “make” a dime like that (you might have had a case if I were having them dig ditches for a gold mine, but that wasn’t the case). And even then, perhaps some universities do make them dig for free, as long as it’s relevant to their study. How else will they learn? And believe me, when you’re teaching someone to do something, they don’t “add value” to the company…business lose money to take on interns (in exchange for other unseen value, like the perception of giving back to the community, early identification of good employees).

      Also consider the current higher ed. apprenticeship models out there…i.e. many students going into nursing programs,etc. have to volunteer countless hours just to be consider for programs, not to mention what they’ll pay for tuition and in more volunteer hours during their internships. Etc. etc.

      The cooperative model is a nice idea, in a perfect world. I like the idea, but who really wants to manage these projects beyond semester end when profit is virtually unheard of? “Hey, students I’ll put some money down on this, and one of you take charge of managing it for the foreseeable future.” Come on now.

      And let’s flip that scenario: Many of my students’ families had unbelievable amounts of money (arms dealers, communication moguls, etc.). Perhaps they could fund projects like this and pay an adjunct what they’re really worth. I, on my return from China, was applying for jobs as a pizza delivery driver, burger flipper, etc. (at the height of the crises) because absolutely nothing else was available. And that didn’t even work out. Thankfully, I did end up getting another adjunct position before finding a real “full time” job, but it only paid $1200 for an entire semester. Do you know how much work goes into teaching a class (and ironically a business class)? So, I think adjuncts are making around $2 an hour in the U.S.A. I would appreciate it if you could protest on some higher education forums.

      Before I say, “Please. Go rant somewhere else,” I’d like to get off my own soapbox and remind myself that it’s important to speak your mind, and to champion labor issues. There is major exploitation happening out there that needs to be corrected. And I’ll definitely think twice before entering this kind of grey area again. In fact, I dare say I’ll never do it again. But I learned a lot, as did the students, and I believe that though it ended this way, it was more beneficial to us all in the long run.

      I guess I should post this on Part I as well, since I noticed similar sentiments there.


  4. Sean says:

    This is heading for the biggest disaster since Mao asked everyone to work together without having a gun pointed at their head. But I await with baited breath much like I do when visiting the WC.

  5. Danchan says:

    To be continued? This was not a standalone part in a series, it was half a post.

  6. Bob says:

    Not booking,

    You are pretty quick on the trigger. I know Tom personally and he is a dedicated teacher trying to create an opportunity for creative thinkers to experience something new. He was not marketing this for personal gain. He paid all the freight and it certainly wasn’t the act of a sleazy, greedy banker or political hack. I have seldom met a more principled individual than the writer of this article.


  7. staff29501 says:

    Everyone: Glad the article proved interesting, and I in turn learned quite a bit from your comments. Thanks for commenting.

  8. Kev says:

    Labor issues in China are quite a dillema. On one hand employers constantly rip of employees by underpaying them and making them work large amounts of unpaid overtime. On the other hand, many Chinese will do the least amount of work possible even when paid good salaries and will boast that they do very litle work for good salaries. The “xin yan” or “wily” approach is a constant battle between worker and employer. In many Chinese businesses, when the boss leaves the room the staff go to sleep. Business owners need to micromanage everything because if they are not present it equates to a kind of solipsism – if they are not there, nothing occurs.
    So who do you condemn? The employer who pays terrible wages and makes employees do unpaid overtime or the employee that will do the same lackadaisical job for twice the money and only work when supervised.
    I use this as a discussion topic with some advanced students and refuse to forward my own opinion.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      @Kev, I’m reminded of a situation in a company I worked in about 10 years ago. A state owned entity, it has slowly undergone rationalization and a degrading of employees remuneration. When the first big shock hit, a blanket 30% reduction in salary was announced for both permanent and temporary employees. A rebellion started to brew amongst the employees, but nothing really happened in the end as most of them were “contract” workers despite having many years at the company. They lost on this count, but what emerged was very much a “work to rule” type atmosphere where people had seemed more than willing to work overtime in the past. The changes were said to be necessary that profitability was down, but I doubt that this was the case. In fact, the company was being converted to some form of shareholder entity, indicated over the years through the visible signs of wealth in the leadership ranks of the company. Of course the former leaders are now the de facto owners. Some might say that this demonstrates corruption in the company, but I don’t think so. Rather, I think it is a recognizable global trend in which state assets have been privatized at the cost of employers and to the benefit of the managerial ranks.

  9. Pudding says:

    I don’t know about other places within China, I can only assume, or make an educated guess that they are close to what I am about to share, but I’ve been at factories, where I kid you not, the workers run the show.

    First, I see both sides of the story, the bosses angle, and the workers problems.

    It’s brutal out there. I really feel like, at least at my current place of employment, that workers have A LOT of rights. Or power, or whatever. In the States depending on where you are and the laws therein you can fire someone for just about anything. Barring racist, etc, reasons. Here, I get the impression that you can’t fire anyone. Huge settlements, headaches, strikes, etc. It’s easier to keep paying them and have them sleep all day then fire them have to pay severance, go through all that BS, etc. At least where I am at. In other parts of China I don’t know.

    Strikes every week about pay, then demand more. Then not work. Then work, then refuse overtime. Man I long for the day I work in a place where the workers have no rights. Wait, that sounded bad, uh, I don’t mean slave labor, and I’m all for giving workers rights, but at some point it’s going to get counter productive.

    Office workers wanting increases in salaries of 30%. I mean, uh, all the more power to you, but that would be a bad thing. The entire office would then want 30% more. I guess they were shooting high? Then the company might not be able to survive, then we would all be out of a job. So, go find another job, I guess. You sleep all day anyway.

    We had a guy that we couldn’t fire so we made up a department for him and put him in charge of it. Even then he has effed up things, important things. He basically for the last two years has done nothing. I’m being 100% honest. Nothing. But we still pay him and he bought a new Honda City a few months ago. I think he is in with the boss, actually he has to be. Anyway, sleeping employees, employees doing nothing, doing work incorrectly when they are trained and know what is expected, and then strike over their pay being too low. Add a new process, have to increase pay, then they go back to work, then they say it’s too hard and strike again and want more pay.

    Where does it end. I can’t personally fathom being a factory owner or business owner in China. It just too hard to deal with Chinese employees in my opinion. It’s not that I’m an unreasonable guy, or a tyrant, but I expect work done and if it’s not done I would fire your as*. But seems to me that can’t happen here. However I’ve heard of other places down south where it does happen. Perhaps I work at the minority of such cases.

    Then I know that some bosses don’t pay anything, pay late, etc. They exploit the workers, or other things. But to the workers I say get another job. But then again there might not be any other jobs in that area. So protect the workers that need it, empower others to exploit the law that protects the weak. Round and round.

    Anyway.. what do I know. Just calling it like I see it everyday.

    Perhaps that would make a good blog post. Do workers have too many rights in China?

    • staff29501 says:

      Always two sides to every story, right? I think fleshing your comment out into a blog would make for great reading and discussion. Would be interested in putting it on http://www.LearnChineseBusiness.com if you don’t do it here or on yours.

      • Pudding says:

        I guess that I should of also made clear that these workers make above the local average wage from what knowledge I have. The office workers make the local average wage. The factory workers are piece workers with the minimum day rate. They all drive cars and one or two have Buicks. They are not slave labor, can leave anytime they choose. They are not being exploited. Maybe salary is paid sometimes late but not always. And to be honest, they barely work. But it seems that it’s not enough and they act like they are being trampled on and they work for peanuts.

        So who’s exploiting who..

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        You have a “local” point right up until the last sentence, Pudding. I’ve heard these kinds of stories from many foreign acquaintances in China, some of whom were doing very well, others of whom didn’t seem to be able to get anything going. Still, we would be in a better position to evaluate your claims if you removed a filter or two, specifically the “local average wage” contention. Some real numbers would be helpful, then we can all make an informed decision about exactly how fair things are in this situation. Just out of curiosity, is your own average remuneration on par with some average that might be comparable? Do these workers have you confined to a cage?

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