China’s Struggling Screenwriters Fear Being Cut by Alibaba Pictures Proposal

Last week, Alibaba Pictures vice president Xu Yuanxiang set off a firestorm of controversy  among China’s screenwriters when he proposed a new model for crowdsourcing film scripts online that potentially would bypass industry professionals altogether. The incident sheds light on the changing realities of filmmaking in a market in which Internet companies are playing an increasingly massive role.

Xu made his remarks (available in Chinese here) at a screenwriting conference in Tianjin hosted by Send Joy Media, a television and movie production firm that prides itself on its cultivation of writers and the quality of their scripts. Key themes at the conference included quality screenplay development and how to obtain and leverage intellectual property.

In a speech aimed at disrupting the status quo, Xu suggested that Alibaba Pictures would do away with the existing model of allowing a single professional writer to retain sole creative control all throughout a screenplay’s development cycle, advocating instead for a gaming-inspired model in which online authors, writers of fan fiction, and Internet forum managers would all “battle it out” in a competition to put forth a winning story.

“We will give a huge monetary award to the one who ultimately writes the best story, and a screenwriting guarantee for the main credit as the story’s creator,” Xu said. “Then we will seek out some professional screenwriters to work with.”

While Xu openly stated that screenwriters are indispensable in the process of filmmaking, the potential for a largely reduced role led many writers to voice their objections on Chinese social media, where they called for a boycott on working with Alibaba Pictures if the company adopted the proposed policy.

“Professional screenwriters should stay away from Alibaba Pictures, wish them a good trip and goodbye!” wrote Wang Hailin, one of China’s top movie writers and vice-chair of the China Film Literature Society.

Xu and his boss, CEO Zhang Qiang, a former China Film Group executive, quickly took to social media themselves to assuage the writers’ concerns. Xu wrote that he had not intended to undermine screenwriters’ importance, and clarified that only early-stage story discovery would be crowdsourced, with professional screenwriters brought in at a later stage.

Being a movie screenwriter in China is not a particularly glamorous profession. Creative freedom is hampered by the government’s strict yet opaque restrictions on the types of subject matter appropriate for Chinese audiences: heavy violence, ghost stories, and superstition are all but banned. Writers are pushed at once to develop patriotic content to promote nationalistic sentiments, “core socialist values,” and “correct views on history,” while simultaneously tasked with rivaling Hollywood’s power at the domestic box office and enhancing China’s soft power with films that will appeal to global audiences. They also are commanded to adhere to a broad media “self-discipline” pledge that threatens to blacklist those who engage in unwholesome behavior.

Unlike in the United States, where the Writers Guild of America specifies minimum pay for the industry and has the power to call strikes, China’s screenwriters are loosely organized and lack any substantive collective bargaining power. Many work as uncredited “hired guns” under veteran writers, and generally are considered to be underpaid relative to actors and directors, with contracts that typically keep how much they get paid confidential.

Television writers fare somewhat better due to the large and ongoing demand for TV content. To wit, in last year’s list of the 30 highest paid screenwriters in China, representing the very top of the industry, the vast majority were TV writers, with only three in the movie business. The top earner of them all was Gao Mantang, a 30-plus-year veteran of the television industry, who earned $3.5 million, while the top-earning film writer, Zou Mingzhi, adapter of the recent Zhang Yimou-directed Coming Home, made less than half that amount ($1.56 million). At the bottom of the top 30 was Lu Wei, who scripted Farewell My Concubine and To Live, with an income of roughly $550,000.

The problems go beyond money. At a seminar on screenwriting and the Chinese film industry held during the Beijing International Film Festival in April, some of China’s most successful writers noted that even they receive little respect. Shu Huan, author of the 2012 blockbuster comedy Lost in Thailand as well as this year’s hit follow-up Lost in Hong Kong, said that “officials and common people have always complained that Chinese screenwriters cannot tell good stories… [and] the Chinese film industry doesn’t pay much attention to screenplays.” At another industry event in November, Wang Hailin claimed that the lack of opportunity in film writing has shrunk the industry to the point where there are fewer than 20 “name” screenwriters working in China today.

While China soon will surpass the United States to become the world’s largest moviegoing market in terms of box office receipts, its film industry still has a long way to go before it matches Hollywood’s creative output. In 2014, there were 308 domestically produced films released in China, less than half the number of releases seen in the United States. India, with a population comparable to China’s, puts out well over a thousand feature films annually.

In recent years, Hollywood and China have made some efforts to bridge the creativity gap. In 2013 the Beijing city government held a competition for U.S.-based screenwriters to pitch their stories in China, which came with a $15,000 prize, and the American Film Institute runs a program funded by IDG Media to send its students to China for year-long residencies to “develop feature-length screenplays that open the doors to a greater understanding of Chinese history, culture and literature”

Meanwhile, the reality in China is that the Internet has already become a booming source of popular fiction, with large numbers of subscribers who are willing to pay more to see the stories they love brought to the big screen. The Alibaba Pictures proposal may have been designed to do more than disrupt the screenwriting business for its own sake, as the relative newcomer to the movie business engages in its own battle against more experienced Internet rivals that all are branching into film. Tencent, in particular, has long held China’s largest online platforms for literature and games, platforms which serve as fertile ground for the discovery of new material; while search giant Baidu has had more than five years to develop its online video streaming platform iQiyi into a serious creator of original content with a rapidly growing number of paid subscribers among its huge audience.

With its recent acquisition of Youku Tudou, Alibaba now can lay claim to a full-fledged online video platform to go with its movie studio and line-up of smaller media investments. The next step, of course, is meeting the demands for novel content. In Xu Yuanxiang’s own words, “screenwriters need not worry, because the heart of movies and TV shows is storytelling.”

—Pang-Chieh Ho contributed research for this article.