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Art house vs mainstream

By Zhou Tiedong ( China Daily ) Updated: 2016-06-01 06:31:50

The recent release of Song of the Phoenix, a long delayed art movie, in mainstream theaters in China has turned into a phenomenal social event. It is a two-year-old swan song by the late film director Wu Tianming, dubbed the Godfather of the Fifth Generation by the Chinese press.

The initial 1.88 percent screening rate in the mainstream theaters enraged "half of filmdom" and forced a well-known film producer to enact a "performance art" of kneeling and kowtowing before the camera to plead for more screenings. This had an effect as a result of sympathy from the theater owners. The box office takings zoomed from almost nil to tens of million.

The fact that the film opened with Hollywood blockbuster Captain America: Civil War on the same day, that it was the last movie by a veteran director who suddenly died before the film was even able to find a distributor, and that the tragic storyline of the film is somewhat isomorphous with the current situation of the Chinese film market added to the tragic solemnness of the event.

It also proves that the Chinese film market is still a monolithic whole, though there were a few breakthroughs in 2015 with the releases of such art house movies as Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Assassin, which could be seen as a turning point of the market trend.

This event could well be a reminder to the filmmakers, who would prefer themselves to be called "artists", that when they choose to engage in self expression and personal aspiration, they must have a clear-cut positioning before they start: for whom are the expression and aspiration meant?

If you want to reach an audience, you should know where your audience is and find the right channel to relay your message to them instead of forcing others to pay for your expression and aspiration that are not meant for them in the first place. It is unfair and unreasonable to blame the theaters and audience for not appreciating something that is not designed for them.

In any country, even in France, where art movies always enjoy a niche market, it is unwise for a small art movie to pit itself against a big commercial one.

Since the inauguration of the theater chain almost 20 years ago, why couldn't we establish an art house theater chain in China that could be devoted to the distribution and exhibition of art film? The answer is simply that we do not have an adequate number of "art movies" to sustain the existence of an art house theater chain.

Because of the quota on the import of foreign films, even Oscar winners barely make it to the Chinese theaters. How could a meager crop of domestic art films support an art house theater chain in a market where viewers can have full access to all sorts of film resources via the internet almost for free?

The writer is president of Beijing Novo United Films Co, Ltd.

(China Daily 05/30/2016 page17)

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