China’s burgeoning talent agent industry requires some restraint

By Tong Weijing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/26 19:48:39

Hunting season

February is the peak season for art school enrollment in China, which also becomes a kind of hunting season for local talent agents. At this moment, hundreds of acting companies nationwide are simultaneously focused on the top three professional performing arts schools, the Central Academy of Drama (CAD), Beijing Film Academy (BFA) and Shanghai Theatre Academy (STA). Undergraduate admissions are a golden opportunity for these "fishermen" to net new faces, Wenhui Daily recently reported.

"Almost all freshmen sign with a talent agency," and not only just those students majoring in acting, but also students in dance, opera, musical, hosting and other majors. In schools, students spend more time meeting with agencies than studying, several professors at STA told reporters from Wenhui Daily.

Normally, students will sign a contract with the acting company, which lists their payment and other rights. Then they are supposed to perform in online and offline shows and also outside shooting required by the company.

A recent article published by Wenhui Daily focuses on the above phenomenon centered on students in STA, which has drawn a wide range of social concerns. To what extent have these acting companies been infiltrating schools? What impact will the "signing before schooling" have on the cultivation of acting talent? How do these academic acting professors view on this phenomenon?

Now, it is hard for those agents waiting at admission spots to find high-quality new faces. Exceptionally nice-looking students are targeted by various acting companies as early as pre-test art training schools ahead of official enrollment. Wherever there is acting or a related major, students are booked up.

It has brought about a lot of criticism from acting professors and experts on this irrational and crazy talent hunt.

"Though signing or not is a personal choice, I vehemently say no to it," said Wang Luoyong, known as the first Chinese on Broadway, also the center director of the musical department in STA, "There are countless bad examples. Some profit-oriented acting companies not only damage the respect of students for artistic standard, but destroy their good attitudes toward studying."

Once signed, students have to fulfill their obligations under the contract, including performing dramas, shooting advertisements and other commercial performance determined by the company. However, as a student, it will be hard to recognize those potential pitfalls in the clauses.

For instance, some unscrupulous agencies often use the trick of installment payments to cheat students; when the performance ends, students cannot get the rest of the money. Faced with this situation, few students can speak up and confront the companies.

"It is a significant cost to engage in a lawsuit and safeguard their rights. Hiding gimmicks in a contract and other unfair treatments are hidden rules in this industry," said STA professor Li Zhenlin, who speaks up about injustice in these so-called talent hunt for students.

Students are easy to fall into those traps set by various companies, due to their naivety and lack of social experience. Some agencies even make students' heads spin and don't let them talk about the details of their work with their teachers. What's worse, they will be signed for five or even 10 years, and it will be a significant chunk of money to rescind the contract.

"Basically, students have become slaves to those unscrupulous agencies, but they are unaware of and even enjoy that," Wang added. This lures students into putting their financial interests and the temptation of fame ahead of their studies, and teachers knock on students' doors one after another, earnestly "begging" them to come to class, Wang said.

Liu Tianchi, an acting teacher in CAD, ranted and pounded on the table, "Half of my students are outside shooting and not attending classes."

First-generation agents

Talent agents in China are not a new thing. He Yan, dean of the acting department at STA, told reporters that his students Li Bingbing and Ren Quan, who are popular celebrities, were thrust into the limelight with the help of Wang Jinghua, the first generation of cultural agent.

"Those professional and responsible agents are a blessing for actors and actresses. They take good care of you and, more importantly, provide insightful opinions for your career development."

Since then, numerous acting agencies have sprung up throughout the country. He perceived that there are a significant number of unprofessional and unscrupulous agencies which are profit-centered and use students as a wealth-producing tool, ignoring and not knowing how to plan their future.

Jiang Zheng from GY Media, who has been doing artistic agenting for years, told reporters that there are indeed many cheaters asking students and their families to continuously pay upfront fees in the name of training. "Actually, quite a few students among them do not have the potential to be actors or actresses."

There are roughly 200 talent agencies in Chinese mainland. "They adopt nearly the same competing strategy - rapid acquisitions - in other words, occupy the resources of new faces as early as possible."

An anonymous industry insider revealed that this talent hunt for new faces resembles the battle for IP two years ago when only a few companies simultaneously wanted to snap up the best resources first. This phenomenon indicates China's market is still in its early immature phase.

"They cast a wide net to occupy tens and even hundreds of freshmen. How can they take good care of everyone in the same time? It is, in fact, a game that exchanges business value. Worst of all, many of those agents are just driven by money without any experience or expertise in showbiz industry."

Changes in the industry

With the maturity of the internet, online variety shows have significantly increased the demand for rising stars. For example, 87 artist agencies across China sent all together 1,908 new faces to the recent popular variety show Idol Producer.

The star-making mode has changed as well. "The flow theory" has been an unanimous and tacit hidden rule in this industry, which means they only take appearance as the sole criterion to select talents.

An anonymous student from STA told reporters that she is often required by her agent to appear on all kinds of variety shows. "You just need to show up, get caught on camera, then you will probably become popular and a superstar," she said.

However, this simple, crude star-producing mode also accelerates the period between wax and wane of a star. Once audiences are no longer interested in those new faces, just like the destiny of those IP, what path should these new talents choose next?

"A specious actor without professional competence cannot go far," Huang Changyong, dean of STA said. His school is actively planning to work out strategies and set up rules strictly controlling the time students spend outside shooting or doing commercial performances, to guarantee the good quality of both teaching and learning.

Meanwhile, the school might also make a three-party agreement to safeguard the interest of its students to the greatest extent. "I hope students can realize those pitfalls in this situation and focus more on their study in school," Huang added.

The article was translated by Hu Xuka based on the Chinese version on Wenhui Daily.

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT

Photos:Yang Hui and Chen Xia/GT




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