The Future of Microfilms

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Video on Youku (Photo credit: Gauravonomics)

Hutong West
Near Hollywood Beach

1037 hrs.

I read today with great interest Louise Watt’s superb AP story about microfilms, a new medium emerging at the intersection of online video, mobile media, and digital filmmaking. Louise explains how microfilms are growing in popularity in China.

What Watt touches, and fortunately does dwell upon, is how microfilms are still quite experimental in the PRC. Beyond the artistic sense, that means that there are no laws, regulations, or administrative rules in China that officially recognize microfilms as a medium, or that provide an official framework for their creation, distribution, and consumption. In most of the world, this would mean nothing. In China, it establishes the arc along which microfilms are set to develop. Or not develop.

A Different Media Market

By definition in China, the media is controlled by the Party. As such, media implicitly plays a different role in Chinese society than it does elsewhere: it performs the function that the Party sees fit.

And media is seen by the Party, first and foremost, as a tool of social administration: a means of communication between the Party, via the government, to the people, designed to support the Party’s goal of sustaining social harmony and support for the Party. Only after that is it seen as a means of conveying entertainment to the people, or as an industry to employ people and generate economic activity.

The mainstream media – newspapers, magazines, books, recordings, live performances, radio, film, and broadcast television – all began in post-revolutionary China in organizations controlled by the state. State control was axiomatic, and the Party created – and later, vetted – all content.

But when new media began emerging to challenge the state’s media monopoly – starting with cable and satellite, but soon moving on to the Web, games, blogs, and social media – the state made it clear that it saw these as subject to its monopoly, whether by licensing or by direct control. It seems unlikely, therefore, that microfilms will escape official notice and regulation.

The Coming Reckoning

So how will this roll out for microfilms? There are two likely outcomes. On the one hand, if the organs of the State Council and the Party Publicity Committee approach them as an undifferentiated part of the mass of videos finding their way online in China, microfilms will ride along with whatever the future is for online video as a whole.

But if those government and party offices for whatever reason decide to see microfilms as a separate development – especially if they become a real, vibrant threat to the growth of China’s mainline film industry, or if they become an outlet for political angst – then microfilms will be treated as a new medium, and they will face turbulent times.

In China, the government tends to go through four stages in the journey to legitimizing a new medium. This is not a formal process as much as it is a modus operandi, but it has been remarkably consistent over the past two decades.

Ignorance – First, the government will decline to pay official attention the microfilm phenomenon. It will, instead, take a stance where it officially ignores the media, all while watching it out of the corner of the eye. This tacit approval allows the government to wait, watch, and bide its time before stepping in.

Reaction – Finally, when somebody makes and distributes a microfilm that crosses an invisible political line and causes an uproar, the government will be left with no choice but to step in and take action. The move will be to slam on the brakes, possibly making the production and/or distribution of such films illegal, and ordering sites like Youku and Tudou to cease production and distribution.

Experimentation – When the government acknowledges the benefits of microfilms (assuming that it sees them,) it will begin a gradual process of experimentation. That might developing a licensing regime and framework that will ensure the films support – or, at least, do not operate in direct opposition to – the state. Alternately, the government could mandate that all microfilms are only distributed through government-approved sites. In the worst case, it would restrict the production of all such films to state-owned entities. Either way, the process will forge a sustainable framework under which microfilms can be made in China.

Accommodation – Once the framework is in place, the government enters a phase of fine-tuning that system, opening it up to more participants, or to less, or under different conditions.

Softening the Blow

It is important to remember that at any of these stages, there is room to influence the process, to soften the government’s approach. The degree to which this is successful depends on the unity of the participants in the process, and the level of self-regulation (read “self-censorship”) the parties are ready to engage in.

For many media – blogs, microblogs, and other user generated content – the process of reckoning with these developments saw the government turn to the platform owners to control the content. The platform owners, in turn, subjected users to rules that would see their content deleted and accounts closed if they posted political or prurient content. That allowed for a relatively easy solution.

If the distribution of microfilms remains limited to sites like Tudou and Youku, the government may not see a need for much further regulation – the authorities already have clear understandings in place with the online video sites, and keeping track of the few dozen microfilms each week is a simple matter.

But the prospect of getting a large group of producers and directors of these films to sign up to a means of self-regulation seems slim, and if distribution goes outside of those channels that the government can control – if peer-to-peer sharing kicks into high gear, for example, the regulation will have to happen at the source. And the government will have to make its controls draconian to enforce control on people making movies with phones, handhelds, and laptops.

Media will Serve

The Party’s broader policy direction of late does not seem to augur a greater opening to ideas and an independent media industry, even though the past twenty years have proven to China’s leaders that absolute control in an age of user generated media is practically impossible.

But when the government needs to use media – including its policies on its use – as a means to sustain social stability, regulators see it as their duty to ensure that media serves the needs of the state. As flexible as the medium may be – and microfilms are an exercise in flexibility of topic, format, creation, and distribution – the government has proven itself increasingly deft in crafting regulatory regimes that permit new media to operate on the Party’s terms.

At some point, microfilms will face a reaction. What filmmakers have to do is decide whether they want to avoid that reaction – or provoke it – as a pathway to a stable, legitimized future, or to another kind of future entirely.

David Feng

I actually took part in the production of microfilms (Wei Dian Ying) in China — it was at the Wuxi East Railway Station (or as Shanghai Rail adamantly calls it, “East Wuxi Station”), and it had me teaching rail crew basic English. I was amazed at how professional the equipment was… it was a “full” camera (not even the portable one we have back at home). Never mind the mic cover was stolen from Jiangsu TV (as if to make it appear “more professional”).

I had no idea what that (as in: microfilm) could be. My first instant reaction was: does a particular film have to be 140 seconds or shorter to qualify? Kind of reminded me about those 12-second clips that were all the rage about five years ago.

Onwards: If microfilms can serve to create quality documentaries, then that might be a different thing. The authorities are in essence DYING for locally made documentaries that are not, well, supposedly “of low taste”. But you’re right: one viral video of a microfilm showing, say, a PX riot, and we might see new regulations governing the medium very quickly. Anything used to “oppress the CCP” will beget oppression from the authorities.