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A China Film Production Catastrophe: Part 2

In this article, Jonathan Poston finishes the story he started last time about how his kung fu film project collapsed without him ever seeing it coming…

…the lead student (and there is almost always one in every group—the outspoken, respected one) came to my office to let me know that the students felt uncomfortable with the contracts they had signed. Granted they were pages long, covering everything that the attorney said they should for me to feel comfortable that I owned all rights. I told the lead student (whom I’ll call film supervisor) that was managing the other students and coordinating the film team, to just find some other students who were interested, and let anyone go who was disagreeable to the terms of the deal.

Here’s where Chinese culture gets tricky to understand. The leader in any group will vigorously avoid naming and replacing friends and group members, for fear of causing them to “lose face.” Furthermore there was a resistance to move on the contract, period. They wanted me to tear up the contracts and just let them write a single sentence saying I could do anything I wanted with the film. The trust was beginning to erode. And furthermore I was informed that the film director gave me one price for the video if it never became famous, but if it did, I would owe him 100,000k or some other ridiculously high sum. Students said it was best if they met with their attorneys. Parents were calling the school and demanding resolution. The associate dean finally summoned me to his office and ordered that I terminate the whole project.

I was absolutely floored by how quickly everything degenerated. I was having the time of my life and spending my own money to make some great things possible. I wasn’t being uptight about the film quality and hadn’t really even thought about how I could even market a product like this when I returned to the U.S.A. to recoup my money.

I told my students we had to quit the project. The film supervisor was visibly shaken and told me he would just go on without me, which was infuriating, until a colleague explained how “face” worked in that situation too. Like I was told, they didn’t end up continuing with the project. I got a little of the money back from the film school, but lost the rest.

When I left China soon after that, I came away understanding more than I ever thought I would about how Chinese cultural differences in leadership, contracts, team interaction, expectations, communication, etc. could adversely affect any Western business project. Afterwards I opened myself to viewing it all as a hard lesson, which ended up paying off the next time I visited China. Today, I work with Chinese professionals on a number of business fronts, and have always found that first “amateur” experience useful in working with Chinese business people. The Chinese words, 危机 (wei ji), danger and opportunity, are united to mean crises—such symbolism isn’t lost on motivational speakers who frequently use the adage to remind us that there is room to improve and develop amid misfortune, or as we in the U.S. like to say: Make lemonade when life hands you lemons.

Cultural lessons are always challenging, since it typically means embracing compromise much more than one would ever need to do back home. But beyond the difficulties lies great opportunity, cultural enrichments, and lifelong friendships.

Disclosure: 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 ( ) to book a seminar.

China’s film failures

While China may be releasing a huge quantity of films, and producing a number of new TV shows, to most foreigners living here, there is still a dearth of entertainment (sorry CCTV). Despite efforts to promote “soft power”, China still seems unable to attract followings on par with Japanese anime or Bollywood films. So today we’ll be looking at the factors limiting China’s cultural potency.

As I’ve discussed before (How long until we’re all singing Beijing Opera?), I think one of the major challenges facing China’s efforts is that the gov’t/party seems to be closely involved with these projects, which is a negative to many in the US and Europe. This has been especially true of 2011’s highest grossing film, The Founding of the Party, which was explicitly a propaganda film. The sales though were largely to companies that redistributed tickets to their employees who were given the afternoon off for re-education (several people I spoke to used the two hours in the dark for bonus napping).

It seems that a first step that could be taken, is to simply allow greater freedom in the Chinese film industry, after all, Hollywood creates movies that inspire some of the same nationalist pride without gov’t interference.

Unfortunately, China seems to be moving in the opposite direction. Just this week it was announced that China’s American Idol-type show, Super Girl, would be cancelled. A number of reasons were cited, notably that it “did not conform to the healthy and positive orientation that TV programs should have”, and more interestingly the show producers “received notification from the administration that we cannot make selective TV trials with mass involvement of individuals in the year 2012″ (gov’t speak for text message voting).

Even though the show enjoyed massive popularity, a new article in the state media claims that this was not the case. Considering it was one of the few Chinese TV shows that I had heard enough about from students that I actually recognized the name, it’s hard to believe otherwise. This hints at the second major problem facing China’s entertainment industry, success is often punished. Both Avatar and the Hong Kong film, Let the Bullets Fly, were later subjected to reduced screenings once sensors started worrying about their influence. After all, Super Girl isn’t the only pop talent show on Chinese TV, just the most popular one.

The final problem is that the gov’t continues to promote historical films that have little meaning to audiences outside of China (and often little relevance within, as evidenced by declining ticket sales). This included a film about Beijing Opera shortly before the Olympics, and current efforts to tell the tale of Tang Dynasty concubine, Yang Guifei (don’t worry, there won’t be anything risque).

I get the idea that if you asked the typical American if they had seen any Chinese films the conversation would go something like this:

Them: “Oh yeah, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was pretty awesome.”

Me: “That was a Taiwan/Hong Kong co-operation.”

Them: “Well I’ve seen pretty much every Jackie Chan and Bruce Li film.”

Me: “Those were made in Hong Kong.”

Them: “Dang, uh…Memoirs of a Geisha?”

Me: “That was a Hollywood film about Japan with Chinese actresses, so that’s kind of close.”

Them: “Have I seen any Chinese films? This is ridiculous.”

The gov’t seems to be ignoring the fact that kung fu movies abroad have only had limited success (e.g. Hero, House of Flying Daggers). China seems to be clinging tightly to this failed film formula. However I think American audiences would rush to see a film that dealt with modern China in an honest way, something of a Chinese Slumdog Millionaire (but please don’t just copy it).

Until the gov’t allows films to portray a China that actually exists with real people, doing everyday things, or even just allow teenagers to vote for their favorite singer, China is going to have a hard time spreading their soft power beyond the movie theaters they fill with free tickets.