Mon, Feb 18, 2019 - Page 8 News List

China entertainment endures ‘bitter winter’ after crackdowns

A nationwide push for more party-approved material across media, music and entertainment has combined with a clampdown on spiraling screen-star salaries to cloud the outlook

By Kelly Wang  /  AFP, DONGYANG

Tourists last month explore a vast film set replica of Beijing’s Forbidden City at Hengdian World Studios in China’s Dongyang.

Photo: AFP

Chinese film and television are reeling from what industry insiders call a “bitterly cold winter” of sharper government scrutiny that is expected to lead to more Communist Party-friendly content.

The entertainment sector had blossomed in recent years, with official encouragement by a government keen to replace foreign content with homegrown fare and develop the industry as a global “soft power” asset.

But a nationwide push for more party-approved material across media, music and entertainment has combined with a clampdown on spiraling screen-star salaries to cloud the outlook.

“(It’s been a) cold winter, a bitterly cold winter,” said Yu Zheng (于正), screenwriter and producer of the hugely popular series Story of Yanxi Palace (延禧攻略).

The period drama set amid Qing dynasty court intrigue drew 18 billion views on Chinese platform iQIYI and was the most Googled TV show in the world last year, due in part to popularity among the Chinese diaspora.

CLOUDY FUTURE

The program, since concluded, was filmed at Hengdian World Studios in the eastern province of Zhejiang.

Widely considered “China’s Hollywood,” the sprawling studio complex has around a dozen film sets including faux versions of Beijing’s Forbidden City and, soon, Shanghai’s Bund riverfront.

Around 70 percent of China’s film and television shows are shot there, Chinese newspaper Economic Observer reported in 2017.

But studio chairman Sang Xiaoqing (桑小慶) said that Hengdian is bracing for a slowdown, particularly after tax authorities late last year targeted A-list actress Fan Bingbing (范冰冰) in a crackdown on alleged widespread tax dodging and exorbitant pay for big-name stars.

“Judging from the current situation, (the entertainment industry) will be in the process of slow recovery in 2019,” Sang said.

“Some crew have postponed their shooting plans and some have even canceled. The business operations of film and television companies were also impacted by the strengthened tax reform.”

Sang said he expects to see a shift to more films or TV programs focused on the revolution that brought the Communists to power in 1949, particularly as this October will mark the event’s 70th anniversary.

Krypt Chen, a Shanghai-based media analyst, said: “[Government] scrutiny has been stricter year after year since 2016. It was already quite harsh last year and may be even stricter this year.”

China’s film industry earned a record of nearly 61 billion yuan (US$9.1 billion) in box-office revenue last year, up nine percent from 2017, state-run Xinhua news agency reported, though growth slowed from the previous year.

Radio and TV revenue, meanwhile, rose 20 percent in 2017.

But the tightened scrutiny has Chinese studios feeling the heat.

Entertainment giant Huayi Brothers Media Corporation’s share price was almost halved last year, and Hengdian stock shed more than 20 percent.

President Xi Jinping (習近平) is waging a campaign to sanitize media content, which has resulted in a crackdown on art forms like rap, while even tattoos are believed to have been banned from television.

INVESTMENT BUBBLE?

Historical shows like Yanxi Palace had seemed safe as they don’t deal with contentious contemporary issues.

But a commentary by Beijing Daily, an official Communist Party newspaper, last month touched off a debate by criticizing period dramas for glamorizing lavish imperial lifestyles and palace intrigue instead of promoting “the core values of socialism.”

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