The Imagination Menace

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas thinks the biggest problem in the movie business today is the corporations that are running it. “You’re selling creativity. Raw creativity from talented people. Now, the problem has always been the studios,” Lucas told CBS anchor Charlie Rose during an interview at Chicago Ideas Week earlier this year.

A long time ago, in movie studios everywhere… producers and directors ruled the production lots and the guys who ran the studios were more visionaries than accountants. In today’s Hollywood, the ongoing see-saw between the creatives and the bean counters has swung decidedly in the favor of the bean counters.

New Republic’s David Denby puts it this way. “When the film industry degenerates from art into the business, when capital flooded into the film industry, it began to differentiate. By the 1980s, as the studios became just one part—and not always a very profitable part—of enormous conglomerates, the head of the motion picture division was mainly responsible for a revenue stream that would please board members, share-holders, and stock analysts. Looking around him, he saw divisions of his conglomerate that have a greater profit ratio than his own—video games, for instance. Imitating these commercially successful forms would not hurt him among the people he needs to please. Under such a pressure, style quickly fades away.”

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Deadline.com columnist, Mike Fleming Jr. was even more harsh as he compared the current studio system to the Detroit auto industry in the 70s, “when the Big Three automakers owned the game, they stopped innovating and watched it all get swept away by more inventive import-car makers. They (the competition) generated user-friendly cars that got better gas mileage and cost less than American counterparts. You only have to look at the current blight in Detroit to see how that worked out.”

Now Hollywood’s  dreamland that used to produce highly personalized and creative films has become a commercial film factory that is controlled by the six largest studios who, in turn, are run by the kinds of suits that Lucas has a problem with. “Although the beginning of the studios, the entrepreneurs who ran the studios were sort of creative guys. They would just take books and turn them into movies and do things like that. Suddenly all these corporations were coming in. They didn’t know anything about the movie business.” Lucas said. “The studios change everything all the time. And, unfortunately, they don’t have any imagination and they don’t have any talent.”

Attack of the Middle Kingdom

Chinese industry players, producers, directors and consumers are looking closely at Hollywood for insights and examples in growing the domestic film and TV industries. At the same time, they are keen on creating content that is unique and appealing to Chinese audiences, distinctive from Hollywood movies. From the other side, there are clear benefits for American studios working directly in China – it’s the world’s second largest (and fastest-growing) box office.

The problem is that the new normal in Hollywood is not going to work in China. Chinese cinema-goers are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and as a result are demanding better movies. Not just in terms of production value and shooting quality but also for plots, cultural elements and style. And as big-budget Hollywood films hit China in increasing numbers, audiences are already growing tired of the glut of certain kinds of movies.

However, China’s film industry is starting to look more like Hollywood when it comes to corporations moving in. Nowadays there’s a seemingly endless number of Chinese conglomerates that are eager to sign a deal with any Hollywood company they can find – although only a few movies have actually been made.

Considering the relative immaturity of the China industry, the director is central to creative production and Chinese auteurs have won many awards at international film festivals. But many of these same movies have not done well at the box office. Some players are gradually going to the other extreme —“Producer centralism ”. Lu Tao, a famous Chinese producer known for CONFESSION OF PAIN, IP MAN and PAINTED SKIN, insists that, “The film should be treated as a commodity, from product market positioning, determine the product form, planning of product packaging, the organization of production, and then to sales and capital returns, is a full commercial production and sales process.”

A New Hope?

Chinese and Hollywood studios are both looking to achieve a “win-win” where both art and business are taken into consideration.  For some, it’s about going back to the Golden Age mentality of putting the stories first and the promotional tie-ins second. Others may look to double-down on their marketing driven path.

In any case, producers need to be both artists and businesspeople – managing budgets and investor demands on one hand and the creativity and sensitivities of the artists and audiences on the other. When they get it right, we get magical movie experiences. But when they get it wrong, we get GREEN LANTERN or THE LONE RANGER. Only time will tell how the vast Chinese film industry handles this age-old dilemma.