As Xi Jinping prepares to accept a groundbreaking third term as China’s leader, his country faces headwinds on several fronts: declining economic growth, deteriorating geopolitical relations with the West and an uncertain exit strategy from the pandemic, among others. challenges. The Chinese film industry is no exception. Looking at trends under his recent reign to date — which will seemingly be extended indefinitely at a high-profile Communist Party meeting in Beijing this week — insiders and industry observers believe Xi’s ever-tightening grip on power in Beijing only bodes ominously for the creative and commercial development of the country’s once-powerful film industry.
As of Monday, China’s total box office for 2022 was $3.88 billion to date, down 33 percent from its equivalent point in 2021, and down nearly 50 percent from 2019, the last year prior to the pandemic, data from Artisan Gateway shows. During China’s recent national holiday weekend (September 31 – October 2), usually one of the biggest gains of the year, total ticket sales reached $88 million, down 67 from the 2021 holiday total of $271 million. This year’s top-performing patriotic blockbuster was: Coming home with a $59 million opening, far from war epic The Battle of Lake Changjin‘s National Day debut of $203 million in 2021.
Analysts point to several factors behind the sharp drop in revenues: Beijing’s draconian “dynamic zero Covid” policy, which has led to regular shutdowns and eroded consumer activity; tightening of censorship controls, which has narrowed China’s commercial film production to a reliance on propagandistic war films; a sharp drop in imports of high-earning Hollywood titles; and, in response to all these factors, declining investment in content and infrastructure by both private and state-backed Chinese companies.
In his keynote report delivered on Sunday at the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi made it clear that he would not deviate from any of the political priorities that have led to such dramatic changes in China’s film industry. In the section of his speech devoted to culture, which broadly covers issues of content creation and consumption, as well as the development of soft power in China, Xi spoke first about prioritizing “social benefits” – that is, the usual cocktail of communist party control, core socialist values and social stability at all costs – and second, “produce economic returns”.
“That’s very clear in terms of priorities,” said Stanley Rosen, a professor at USC who specializes in the Chinese film industry. “We used to say that the Chinese film regulators were trying to achieve two things: maintain a 50 to 60 percent market share for domestic Chinese films and make sure the market in general grew steadily, with the aim of making China the largest national box office in the world. . Now it is clearly more important than anything else to control the domestic market as much as possible for Chinese films that have the right ‘social benefits’.”
Just as Xi now seems willing to accept slower GDP growth as the cost of meeting his ideological goals, Beijing’s film regulators seem willing to shrink the domestic film industry — both creatively and commercially — if that’s the price to pay. to keep all content propagandistically on message.
Chinese cinema’s participation in top-level international film festivals has fallen to just a few titles, most of them short films, over the course of 2022. about contemporary Chinese social experience with art and nuance.
The lyrical rural drama of Chinese art house director Li Ruijun Return to fabric was arguably the only Chinese film to receive international critical acclaim in 2022, premiering in February in the main competition of the Berlin International Film Festival. A hypnotic portrait of China’s disappearing traditional agricultural lifestyle, the film was described by The Hollywood Reporter‘s lead critic in a glowing review as “a lyrical slice of Chinese neorealism” and “a delicate pastoral study of love and sorrow.” Made with a small cost of about $275,000, Return to fabric became a sleeper hit at the Chinese box office, earning over $14 million as word of its touching story and modest limited release spread. But on September 26, the film was unceremoniously removed from all Chinese cinemas and streaming platforms as the run-up to the National Congress picked up steam. The film had become a target of nationalist media and online trolls who accused the film of portraying China as retarded and humiliating the country on the global stage.
During previous political cycles, Chinese analysts had expected a gradual tightening of control in the run-up to major political events such as the National Congress, followed by periods of relative easing and liberalization. Few, however, believe that logic holds up today as Xi’s reign extends into his norm-breaking third term.
“I think this signal is very unfriendly to the creative environment, especially to directors like me who are concerned about the underclass,” said Chinese filmmaker Zhang Xiaosha in a recent interview with the South China morning mail. “I’ve actually been very pessimistic about the movie environment over the past few years, and only more so since then Return to fabric was banned.”
The number of Hollywood films released in China has been limited to just 17 titles so far this year, compared to 26 during the same period in 2019. Regulators have also chosen to release many small American films rather than many. more affordable studio films, with politically the probable motive (neither Ton Gun: Maverick nor Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, the two biggest American films of this year, were released in China). Xi’s harsh talk of competition with the West amid “stormy seas” offered little encouragement for larger amounts of American pop culture soon to make their way to the Middle Kingdom. And the Biden administration’s recent announcement of sweeping new export bans on advanced semiconductors to China is sure to further exacerbate trade tensions, further discouraging Beijing film regulators from allowing additional Hollywood products to appear on Chinese screens, insiders say.
Xi also crushed hopes on Sunday that China could wind down its dynamic zero-covid policy — and the economic disruptions it continues to wreak — in the wake of the National Congress. Xi celebrated the policy’s success in saving lives, while making no mention of the Chinese public’s growing frustration, isolation and financial difficulties as ommicron variants become increasingly difficult to grasp. “We expect the dynamic zero policy to continue and policy changes to be driven by progress,” said Rance Pow, president of Chinese box office analytics firm Artisan Gateway.