How Shanghai Can Become a Moviemaking Powerhouse Once Again

A dearth of talent once cast the city into the filmmaking wilderness, but recently, the sprouts of renewed growth have appeared.

This article is the second in a series about the history of filmmaking in Shanghai. The first part can be found here.

Liu Haibo is the vice president of the Shanghai Vancouver Film School (SVFS) as well as a member of the Shanghai Film Development Fund Committee. He tells me that, for the last decade, fewer than 40 films have been produced per year in Shanghai. Half of these films are not general releases, and of those that are, only three to five are at all memorable.

As the former “Eastern Hollywood,” Shanghai is unlikely to abandon its efforts to make a comeback. At the end of November 2015, Shanghai’s municipal government issued regulations aiming to stimulate Shanghai’s film industry. These policies included the establishment of a special fund to support the development of new films, as well as the delimitation of an international film industrial park in Changning District, north of the city center. Through these policies, the authorities sought to encourage foreign and domestic entrepreneurs to register companies within the park, as well as provide funding and support for many aspects of film production in Shanghai.

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Shanghai has attempted to attract figures at the forefront of the global film industry, with Oriental DreamWorks opening an office in the city in 2012. However, policymakers have discovered that while it is possible in theory to bring new business to Shanghai through investment alone, those new businesses are nothing without a talented workforce.

Only now is Shanghai truly waking up to an important fact: The downturn of its film industry is the direct result of its failure to cultivate new generations of talented actors and filmmakers. The revival of Shanghai’s film business, therefore, depends first and foremost on the development of a new and extensive supply chain of talent.

At present, the vast majority of film and television courses at Chinese universities suffer from the same two shortcomings. First is the poor allocation of resources, as film studies is an equipment-heavy, expensive discipline. Second is the colleges’ lack of investment in talent — hardly any truly successful filmmakers are willing to visit campuses and give lectures.

These two issues have not only led to China’s lack of talented filmmakers but have also allowed the Beijing Film Academy to dominate the field of film studies. This is because the historical role that the academy has played in cultivating talent, and the extensive industry connections shared by its alumni, are able to bridge the wide gap between on-campus education and practical work experience. The academy’s leading role within film studies education, therefore, poses a virtually insurmountable challenge to other institutions hoping to build a reputation for themselves.

Therefore, as Liu explains, “Shanghai will need 20 or so years before it can produce its own equivalent of the Beijing Film Academy.” Yet a crucial step in the replenishment of Shanghai’s talent pool was the foundation of the SVFS, which officially opened its doors to students in September 2014. In keeping with the requirements of the Shanghai municipal government, the school’s curriculum is a faithful replication of Western film studies classes, and the faculty are all hired from overseas. Chinese teaching staff merely provide support for equipment use.

“While the leaders of Shanghai’s municipal government recognize that Chinese people prefer blending Western and Chinese methods — localization — they know it doesn’t make sense to adapt the classes before the term has even begun,” Liu explains. “They know that excessive adaptation defeats the whole point of having an overseas faculty. If the teachers were Chinese, then the courses would inevitably become the same as courses elsewhere in China.”

Liu wants to introduce the standards and norms of the North American film industry to China: for example, how they oversee the production of films, how their cinematographers and assistant directors work, and how North American film sets assign various roles. “In many of these respects,” Liu says, “you will find that the Chinese film industry is less standardized than North America’s, so it’s important to learn their way of doing things.”

However, SVFS graduates are only a drop in the ocean compared with the number of students across the nation who graduate with degrees in film and television each year. The school can only provide a small portion of the talent that Shanghai’s film industry needs. Perhaps, though, future alumni will become the foundation of Shanghai’s talent supply and go on to redefine Shanghai cinema.

Liu is very confident about the graduate prospects of SVFS students. “In the film business, there are two types of flowing assets, the first being money. Money flows from Hollywood to China and back again, and capital may be exchanged between Beijing and Shanghai. The second asset is artists,” he continues, name-dropping three of China’s foremost directors. “Directors are globe-trotters by trade. Zhang Yimou may go to North America to shoot a film, while Jia Zhangke and Chen Kaige may choose to shoot their films in Shanghai. That said, entire populations of industry professionals cannot be transplanted at will: They are tied down to an extent by their families.”

The answer, then, lies in replenishing Shanghai’s reserve of talented native filmmakers. Once Shanghai’s filmmakers account for a greater percentage of the nation’s total industry, Liu says, radical changes will begin to take place. “In the last two years, our school has provided Shanghai with a fleet of 150 to 200 internationally educated film professionals. Give me five years, and I will produce 100 talented filmmakers each year.”

These next three to five years are a crucial window of opportunity in the revitalization of Shanghai cinema. A number of the nation’s production studios — whether it be the nearby Hengdian World Studios or those in Qingdao, a city in eastern China’s Shandong province that is fast developing into an up-and-coming force in the Chinese film industry — are all vying to become the nation’s next big source of talent. If Shanghai doesn’t quickly lay the foundations for a new era of growth, what is left of its once-booming film industry may be completely extinguished.

— This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone