Is Shanghai’s Film Industry in Terminal Decline?

The city was once renowned worldwide as the ‘Eastern Hollywood,’ so why do its studios lie empty today?

From left to right, the portraits of Ruan Lingyu, Butterfly Wu, and Chow Hsuan, the most prominent Chinese film stars of the 1930s and 1940s, are displayed at Jiangning Imperial Silk Manufacturing Museum in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, May 1, 2013. Liu Birong/IC

This article is the first in a series about the history of filmmaking in Shanghai.

The Shanghai International Film Festival is in full swing, welcoming filmmakers and moviegoers from across the world. Yet in the last few years, the festival’s continued presence has posed a slightly embarrassing question to the city’s residents: Will Shanghai’s film industry rise again?

These days, Beijing is considered the Hollywood of China. As China’s political and cultural center, Beijing is home to the nation’s most renowned celebrities and movie moguls. But if we look back to the 1920s or ’30s, it was an entirely different story. As the largest city in East Asia at the time, Shanghai had a flourishing film industry, to the point that the city was thought of not only as the capital of film in China, but also as an Eastern Hollywood.

The history of Shanghai’s film industry can be traced back to June 1896, when the first-ever screening of what locals called “Western shadow plays” was held in a private garden called Xuyuan, located in what is now Hongkou District in the northern part of the city. Twelve years later, China’s first movie theater, the Hongkou Moving Shadow Play Theater, opened for business.

In 1909, an American filmmaker of Russian descent named Benjamin Brodsky founded China’s first foreign-owned film company, the Asia Film Company, in Shanghai. Later, the Mingxing Film Company, founded in 1922, became the longest-running and most influential privately owned film company in the history of Chinese film, churning out first silent movies, then talkies, for the city’s moviegoing masses.

Although many filmmakers fled to Hong Kong after the Communist Revolution in 1949, Shanghai was nonetheless able to preserve its status as the irreplaceable core of China’s film industry, thanks to its well-established sector and moviegoing culture. Classic Chinese films from the 1980s, such as “Evening Rain,” Legend of Tianyun Mountain, and The Herdsman were all conceived in Shanghai. In recognition of the city’s contribution to global cinema, the Shanghai International Film Festival, which was held for the first time in 1993, is the first international film festival in China to have been given A-list status by the International Federation of Film Producers Associations.

However, around the beginning of the 1990s, Shanghainese films lost the luster that they had acquired in previous years. Once the shining pearl of the Chinese film industry, Shanghai is no longer the main producer of the nation’s leading films and filmmakers; instead, it now finds itself on the periphery of a movement led by Beijing. Despite a wave of industry reforms beginning in 2002, Shanghai films have yet to return to their former glory.

What has happened to Shanghai’s once-illustrious film industry? First of all, the rapid spread of privately owned television sets in China during the 1990s — and particularly the advent of cable television in 1992 — allowed Shanghai families to watch a variety of shows in the comfort of their own homes, which meant they naturally spent less time going to the movies.

In response to the subsequent slump in box office earnings, the Chinese movie market began to implement a series of reforms. The state-sponsored CCTV film channel, whose official satellite broadcast began in January 1996, was emblematic of the industry reform of the time, which sought to merge television and film. The changing culture around TV and movie consumption was perhaps best summed up in CCTV’s simple slogan: “Turn on the TV, and watch a film.”

Around this time, the Chinese film industry also rolled out a series of market-oriented reforms, one of which involved marketizing state-run production companies. The abrupt lurch from a planned economy to a market-based economy meant that Central Motion Pictures, the government’s moviemaking behemoth, no longer had a monopoly on the purchase and distribution of films produced by the country’s state-owned studios.

As regulation of film distribution became lighter and lighter, the dynamic among the three main players in China’s film industry also changed. Production levels at the Changchun Film Group slowly fell behind the pack; the Beijing Film Studio became a subsidiary of Central Motion Pictures, and the Shanghai Film Studio continued with the old model of state-run operation. It was precisely at this difficult juncture that many of the talented directors, cinematographers, and actors upon whom Shanghai’s film industry was so reliant chose to sever ties with the city and move north to Beijing.

The Beijing Film Studio’s growth despite the unstable economic conditions of the 1990s contrasted starkly with Shanghai’s downturn. Unfortunately for the latter, Beijing had two formidable advantages. The first of these was power. At the time, budding filmmakers had to navigate a maze of complex bureaucratic procedures, such as submitting films to an organization known today as the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television — China’s movie censors — for examination and approval. During the rise of privately owned film and television companies in the latter half of the ’90s, many of the companies that would go on to form the vanguard of Chinese cinema, such as Huayi Brothers, Polybona Films, and New Pictures, all set up their headquarters in the capital as a means of reducing the costs involved in the mandatory examination process.

The second advantage was talent. The Beijing Film Academy was, and remains, at the forefront of film and arts education in China, and it continues to provide a steady supply of talented filmmakers for the nation’s producers, virtually all of whom are based in Beijing. Meanwhile, by the turn of the millennium, Shanghai’s film industry lacked fresh talent, while a number of its veterans also chose to retire. With no new actors and filmmakers to replace the previous generation, the city has been left devoid of opportunities to make great movies.

Compounding this decline is the fact that Shanghai’s film industry has also missed out on key opportunities for technological innovation. In October last year, the Shanghai Film Group’s technology plant shut down its film-processing line. The director of the plant, Chen Guanping, had stated that — at the company’s peak — there would be eight production lines and over a hundred employees working at the same time. In truth, the firm’s technical experts had predicted as early as 2005 that digital technology would eventually replace rolls of photographic film.

At that time, however, experts expected the transition to be gradual. But then, the age of digital film took the world by storm. From 2012 onward, the group’s film-processing activities were in free fall. Four years later, the few production lines still in operation finally ground to a complete halt.

— This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.