Art directors shouldn’t have to beg for box office

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/5/17 19:53:01

Kneeling is a sign of submission. In China, this custom originated in court etiquette long before even Confucius. In ancient times, apprentices had to kneel down and thank their masters before they started learning a craft.

But it is modern times now. In any society that calls for independence and equality, kneeling is never a graceful act. We constantly see some beggars in the Beijing subway kneel down, humbling themselves when asking commuters to give money. Through shaming themselves, they shame the commuters who won't give for them. In a surprising move, Fang Li, producer of the art film Song of the Phoenix that was directed by the late Wu Tianming, and screened two years after his death in 2014, kneeled down in an online video, begging theater owners to give more show time for this critically-applauded film.

The film revolves around an elderly suona, or double-reed horn performer who tries to pass on the art form despite its vanishing popularity in modern China. I was prompted to watch this film and found Wu had explored this traditional art with the purest emotion.

Currently, China's movie ticket sales are second only to the US. However, the space available for art films does not expand along with the flourishing market. Rather, it has been squeezed out by blockbusters, both Chinese and American.

One week after Captain America: Civil War was released in the Chinese mainland on May 6, it had taken 800 million yuan ($122.6 million) at the box office, while Song of the Phoenix, released on the same day, got a far-from-satisfactory result despite its high ratings on some film-review websites. Only after Fang knelt down did the box office of the film turned for the better.

But Fang's behavior has raised controversy, as some insiders believed it set a bad example for the marketing of Chinese art films. What if other producers resort to more extreme means, without sticking to market rules, to chase after the box office?

Fang may have been sincere when he knelt down to invite moviegoers to watch his film, but this method cannot be copied. Chinese art films face the harsh reality that they have not gathered a fixed group of audience. The majority of Chinese moviegoers, between their 20s and 40s, will pay for fun or for 3D, but wouldn't take on the cumbersome task of cultural preservation. The most urgent thing filmmakers and distributors should do is figure out a marketing strategy for art films. They should let audience be willing to pay for the content of the film rather than watching it out of sympathy.

The authorities can set up special channels for the distribution of art films and support establishing art cinemas. They can also provide subsidies to these cinemas to leave room for the survival of art films.

Box office is vital, but not the sole criteria to evaluate a film, especially when the film takes on a solemn responsibility of passing on part of our cultural heritage. In the current film industry where entertainment comes first, any form of film should be given a chance to find an audience, in a dignified way.

Li Meng, a company employee based in Beijing

Posted in: Letters

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