Musings on Cinema Sinica: Ending the Director-Centric Culture of Chollywood

The Silicon Hutong Corner
Starbucks China World Trade Centre
1355 hrs.

Over the last year, not a month has gone by when someone serious is not asking me about the future of Chinese cinema, and what is keeping the increasingly fecund industry from serious global commercial success.

There are a lot of reasons, but part of the reason I think is this rather illogical fascination with directors. Now, don’t get me wrong, directors are important. They are the guys who take a script, a slab of cash, and a bunch of people (cast and crew) they may or may not have had a lot of say about and are left with the task of turning it all into magic. Despite the relative power a director wields, the responsibility is immense.

But observers of Chinese cinema have developed this fascination about the director that borders on the obsessive, engaging in pseudo-esoteric discussions about comparative styles, the evolution of Chinese direction from one “generation” of directors to the next, etc.

Which is all fine, except that this focus on the director-as-artist-in-celluloid has led to a growing profusion of films that are…well…a tad self-indulgent.

Which is also fine, except when people don’t go to see those films (because they’re arty-farty, neo-Gallic, and not appealing to the masses who want escape for their money) and the government’s reaction is to slap restrictions on the foreign films because they’re being told that the foreigners are absorbing all the loose change in the market and not leaving anything for the locals.

Steve Schwankert (formerly Variety‘s man in Beijing, now AdAge’s man in Beijing) was talking to me today about how much he’s looking forward to seeing Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest after watching the trailer.

“[Producer Jerry] Bruckheimer is great at saying ‘we’re going to do this, it’s going to be lots of fun, and we’re going to make scads of money,” noted the Schwank. “I don’t want to see a movie that the director was hot for. I want him to make a movie that I’m hot for.”

Chinese directors, please note Steve’s formula for cinema success (and another Steve’s formula for computer and consumer electronics success): start with the user experience you want to deliver, then do the industrial design, then figure out the nuts and bolts. Because if you do that, you’re totally focused on pleasing the audience, not “creating a vision” or “making a statement” or “composing an opus.”

You want to make a picture that is any of these things, then fine. Take it to film festivals, win your trophies, sell it to Fox 2000, and run out the DVD and listen to the respectful way film school professors talk about your work.

But don’t do it and expect millions of Chinese to flock to the theaters to watch.

And really – don’t sit down, as some of you do, with the senior officials from the film bureau or SARFT or the Party Publicity Committee or the State Council Information Office and blame your non-performance at the box office on the foreigners. Get off your posterior and make flicks the Chinese people will flock to watch.

If you’re half as good as your press coverage suggests you are (and I give you the benefit of the doubt – China produces some excellent directors), you can kick Hollywood’s ass for less money than they spend on so-called “low budget” flicks.

And for us cinemaniacs, it’s high time to take the limelight off of the directors and start understanding that there are other human ingredients in a successful film, and figuring out who those folks are and calling attention to them. Who are the great producers? The great screenwriters? The brilliant cinematographers, art directors, costume designers?

Because the idea that a director does it alone is a myth. The great directors, from Speilberg on down, all have a chosen coterie of craftspeople they work with on every film, because they know that they need the whole team to make them great.

China’s directors – regardless of generation – would be well advised to emulate that, and to encourage (and compensate) great craftspeople, and if they can’t find them in China, bring them in from Hollywood to teach their craft to the locals.