China: Moving Mountains

  • Negotiating the Chinese film industry is tough, even for Hollywood types, but the world’s second-biggest economy promises big wins if you can play the game. In part one, John Sunyer looks at how big foreign films can be big business – but locally produced fare might be catching upHengdian-Cinema
    Words John Sunyer
    Illustration Alexander Wells

    Not so long ago, Liu Dezhi would head to the village square on weekends when he wanted to see a film. In this rural area of Hengdian, nearby to a gritty manufacturing hub and 300km south of Shanghai, itinerant cinema operators would unfurl a canvas screen, plug in some speakers and screen a grainy film in the open air. “We had to bring our own chairs if we wanted to sit,” says Liu, a 41-year-old factory worker and film buff. “You couldn’t hear the dialogue because of the stray dogs barking by your feet. Still, for years I rarely missed a screening.”

  • Today, Liu and his friends get their fix at the local state-of-the-art multiplex outfitted with plush seating, 3D screens and popcorn imported from America. When he’s not watching films, Liu stars in them by working as an extra at Hengdian World Studios. Once a barren patch of farmland, Hengdian is now the world’s largest film production studio, better known as “the Hollywood of the East”, “China’s Hollywood”, or more succinctly, “Chinawood”.

    Hengdian’s success has come on the back of China’s booming film industry. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT), China’s box office took $2.74bn last year, second only to America.

    The number of cinema screens in China has doubled in five years, to nearly 11,000 – again, second only to America, according to a recent report published by Ernst & Young. The same report notes that China will build a further 25,000 screens in the next five years, and that the country’s film and entertainment industry will grow by 17 per cent a year until 2015. Five years later, China’s box-office revenues may overtake America’s.

    Increasingly, Hollywood studios are coming to China for co-productions looking to cash in on both US and Chinese markets. Scenes in The Mummy 3 and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan were filmed at Hengdian, while Walt Disney recently announced its first partnership with DMG Entertainment in Beijing to produce Iron Man 3, starring Robert Downey JR. Kungfu

    At 2,500 acres, Hengdian is larger than the lots of Universal and Paramount Studios in Californa combined. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was shot here, along with Zhang Yimou’s Hero and another thousand Chinese movies and TV shows. This, plus the seven million tourists who visit the studio each year, earns the Hengdian Group an annual turnover of around $1bn.

    “We’ve already overtaken Hollywood in terms of the number of films we make,” Xu Wenrong says. “Because of my country’s thirst for cinema, I can only see the gap widening.”

  • Hengdian-Farmer
    Xu, now 78, is the founder of Hengdian. The one-time farmer made his multi-million dollar fortune selling textiles and chemicals before building Hengdian’s first film set in 1996. Local villagers complain that Xu has damaged the local landscape, occasionally blowing up mountains to create more space to build film sets. “Yes, this is true,” Xu says proudly. “Like all successful entrepreneurs, I don’t let anything get in the way of a good business opportunity.”

    It may not mean anything to the generation of Chinese who grew up in the 1980s and only know a wealthy and powerful nation, but the rate at which production studios and modern cinemas are being constructed, not only in wealthy urban centres but also in industrial outposts, is beyond huge for those of a certain age. One extra on a kung fumovie, Yang Zhong, 47, says he’d been working as an extra in Henghdian for six years. He recalled the days when the Chinese film industry was so uninspiring it led to audiences abandoning the cinema altogether. On a rare trip to Shanghai in the early 1990s, he bought a ticket for a new film, but after he’d taken his seat the clerk told him it wouldn’t be screened. “Only one ticket had been sold,” says Yang. “If I wanted to watch the movie, I would need three people in the audience.”

    To walk around Hengdian is to visit a strange, camera-ready version of Chinese history. On the day I visited a few years ago, a kung-fu brawl in a teahouse was spilling out on to the streets of 1920s Shanghai. Some of China’s architectural landmarks decorate the studio, including the vast full-scale model of the Forbidden City.

    Hengdian has seen its population grow from 15,000 to 100,000 in the past ten years. New residents lured by the glamour of show business have earned a nickname: hengpiao, or “Hengdian drifters”. Initially, many of them were nearby farm and factory workers who happily traded their jobs for a gig on set.

    Most of the 40 or so film crews at Hengidan each day are involved in low budget productions. The most lucrative work for extras are on films set during the Qing dynasty, another extra, Xi Xinzhu, explained, because cast members are required to have closely cropped hair in imitation of the ruling class they are playing. “Men can make up to 50 yuan [$8] extra if they shave their heads; women can make thousands,” he said, wearing a long gown with dragons elaborately embroidered with gold coloured thread.

  • Of the 893 films produced in China last year, according to SARFT, 745 were action films. Patrick Frater, the chief executive of Film Business Asia, says: “The domestic film industry needs to be more competitive and get out of its comfort zone. If the big Chinese studios want to start winning Oscars – and they certainly do – they will need to achieve success not only in China but also abroad. The main way they can achieve this is to embark on more co-productions.”

    Still, Hengdian’s owner remains upbeat. “So long as we make the films, the people will come,” Xu says. “2013 is going to be a big year for Chinese cinema.”

    Moving Mountains, part one of our Chinese film industry feature, appears in Port issue 9