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China entertainment endures ‘bitter winter’ after crackdowns

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 spiralling screen-star salaries to cloud the outlook.

Hengdian World Studios in Dongyang.

In this photo taken on January 30, 2019, cast and crew of a Chinese TV series prepare to film a scene at Hengdian World Studios in Dongyang. Photo: Matthew Knight/AFP.

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

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 programme, 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 told AFP in an interview that Hengdian is bracing for a slowdown, particularly after tax authorities late last year targeted A-list actress Fan Bingbing 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.

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“Some crew have postponed their shooting plans and some have even cancelled. 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 programmes 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 ($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.

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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 is waging a campaign to sanitise 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 criticising period dramas for glamorising lavish imperial lifestyles and palace intrigue instead of promoting “the core values of socialism”.

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Since then, similar shows appear to have gone into hiatus.

“Yanxi” producer Yu said he felt his show was in line with Xi’s goals of promoting and exporting Chinese culture.

“I think criticism is ok. But please don’t cut (all period dramas) across the board,” he told AFP in a phone interview.

“China finally has a TV show that has been recognised by the world… Why can’t we bring out China’s good, luxurious things and let foreigners pay their respects?”

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Hengdian chairman Sang said optimistically the newspaper commentary could result in content with more “positive energy”, while Chen, the analyst, said this will mean more traditional values.

Sang said demand remains high and he expects to see a shift toward better-developed plots, finely tuned production quality, and less reliance on big-name stars.

“There was excessive, bubble-like, investment,” Sang said. “Now, as people become rational and have calmed down, many good companies will have the opportunity to distance themselves from competitors.”

China entertainment endures 'bitter winter' after crackdowns