China takes on Hollywood with film studies tie-ups

Illustration: Victo Ngaio for Variety

A rise in film studies collaborations between Chinese institutions and universities in Britain, America and Europe is part of China’s policy to become a post-manufacturing economy.

In particular, China’s eastern provinces are tapping universities to provide training, research and joint film studies courses with foreign universities to provide a skills base for a rising ‘Hollywood of the East’ in and around Shanghai.

China’s 13th five-year plan launched in 2015 includes cultural industries as a ‘pillar’ of the economy and an important part of the country’s economic restructuring. This is not just mere talk – in the film sector around 20 new cinema houses were opening every day last year, according to official statistics.

“The government wants the Chinese film market to be growing substantially every year so that it becomes the number one film market in the world – more than America which is number one,” says Stanley Rosen, a professor at the University of Southern California or USC’s US-China Institute, who researches China and film. It is also part of China’s ambition to project its ‘soft power’ globally.

So far it has not been very successful “because of constraints on making films”, Rosen says.

There is a huge skills gap with film studios crying out for creative and technical talent to make the films.

“With the expanding Chinese film market there is a realisation that they don’t have enough skilled creative people for the amount of films that they want to produce,” says Alan Baker, associate dean for international projects at the USC School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles, which has a number of collaborations with Chinese institutions as part of its overall strategy to increase links with the Asia Pacific.

“Most of our [overseas] programmes over the past few years have been in China because they seem to be the most ambitious in starting film programmes, and training new writers, directors, producers and other kinds of creative crew,” Baker told University World News. “We are approached via email almost every week by an institution in China about starting a programme.”

Funding stream

USC is selective about its overseas collaborations to protect the reputation of the university. But Baker admits that Chinese funding for the school to help develop programmes can provide a significant revenue stream.

“The Chinese government is spending well over US$10 billion a year on ‘soft power’ – if you can help promote Chinese ‘soft power’ or the ‘Chinese brand’ worldwide, you can get a lot of money,” Rosen points out. Chinese universities are always looking to partner with reputable foreign universities which increases the credibility of courses and makes it easier to attract students. “Chinese universities are looking for credibility and expertise in these partnerships,” he says.

Zhang Weimin, dean of Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Cultural and Creative Industry, which is collaborating with the USC Marshall School of Business on the business side of Hollywood film, says “cultural and creative industries have become more important in China now. In Shanghai, film-making is the first priority.”

“China wants a vibrant film and entertainment industry because it is moving towards a consumer-driven economic model,” says Mike Gow of Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s new School of Film and Television Arts in Suzhou, two hours' drive from Shanghai.

New courses in film and cultural studies “is a response to a very positive attitude towards developing talents who can work in the creative industries”, Gow says. “It is a recognised path in Chinese higher education that if there is a big push in the economic sector, the provinces start to push higher education courses.”

Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University or XJTLU last year signed an agreement with Gold Finance Group, a Chinese company which also funds films, to establish the new film and television school with a huge investment in facilities and studios in Suzhou. As part of this, XJTLU is setting up a new joint degree course with the United Kingdom’s Liverpool University in the coming academic year. “Chinese students want the British degree,” Gow said.

Xi Youmin, XJTLU’s executive president, said last July: “The XJTLU-GF School of Film and Television Arts will make full use of XJTLU’s international education experience, as well as Gold Finance Group’s global market and industry resources to provide China’s flourishing cultural industry with international-standard talents and intelligence.”

‘Third space’

“Universities are a third space” between industry and creative talent says Julian Stringer, incoming head of Nottingham University’s Institute for Screen Industries Research in the UK which runs an MA in film, television and screen industries, and has major links with UK and Chinese media groups. ”We have positioned the institute as a bridge between the UK, China and Hollywood,” he says.

Nottingham University, which also has a branch campus in Ningbo in Zhejiang, one of China’s provinces strongly pushing film and cultural studies, has set up professional development programmes for Chinese professionals involved in the film industry, combining university teaching with dialogue with industry and involving international film experts from outside the UK and China, including France, Germany, the United States, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The programme has so far hosted 27 film professionals from 25 Chinese universities, and has established a network of 30 British and Chinese institutions in a pilot project funded by the UK government’s China Prosperity Fund.

The UK universities are able to provide industry research valuable to the Chinese government at the central and provincial levels. “That enables us to give a big picture of the trends. If you produce only technical people you easily become obsolete,” said Min Rose, deputy director of Knowledge Exchange Asia at the University of Nottingham.

She notes that many film courses in China are often no longer relevant because of changes in technology. “Some 40% has to be got rid of,” says Rose.

Every year according to official statistics 300,000 film and arts graduates can’t find jobs, yet she notes that “there is a mismatch at the high-end”, adding: “The UK strength is content. We have a UK-wide pool of film talent.”

Report on skills

As part of its collaboration, in March Nottingham University completed a report for China’s Ministry of Education on the skills gap in China’s film industry and the changes required in curricula in higher education institutions.

Based on a survey of 28 Chinese higher education institutions and leading film companies in China, the report found screenwriting to be top of the list of skills China needs, but in a sector expanding so fast, “at every level there is a shortage”, Rose says, but particularly in storytelling, marketing and fundraising, where it seeks foreign expertise.

There is also interest in China-UK film festivals using links made via universities, something the Chinese have pursued in other collaborations.

USC film school instructors have professional experience of Hollywood, which is key for the Chinese, who also want to tap into their networks and in particular get more Chinese films shown at international film festivals.

USC’s film studies department has collaborations with ShanghaiTech University, set up two years ago to deliver special programmes in screenwriting, directing and producing. The third screenwriting class will be held this summer, with USC sending instructors to China to deliver courses via interpreters. USC has also been holding special workshops in California for students from the Beijing Film Academy.

Broader view

“We are trying to encourage them to broaden their viewpoints and create stories which don’t just appeal to a small audience,” Baker says.

”In Hollywood films, the leading characters are often anti-heroes, but in China you cannot insult the military, you cannot insult the police. China has to look good. They have a lot of censorship restrictions,” USC’s Rosen says of the creative challenge.

There had been a lot of publicity in the past two years of Chinese companies bidding to buy into big US film companies. “But now a lot of these deals are falling through. There is political backlash both in China and the US" against China ‘buying up’ Hollywood, Rosen says, referring to sensitivities within the US that Chinese ownership might force Hollywood film-makers to make more “China-friendly” films.

So now “they want to learn from Western film so that in the long run they can replace it,” Rosen says.

“China wants to produce more first-class films that have an opportunity to expand beyond China’s borders and they want to see if they could have instruction that could provide understanding and references to the Hollywood film market,” Baker says.

“This is not to say they want to copy Hollywood, but they might want to borrow some of the tools – better screenplays, and higher quality production-value films.”