Chinese directors find greater freedom online making micro movies

Attracted by the freedom of the internet, mainland directors are increasingly channelling their energy into creating micro movies for online viewing. But the censors are never far behind, writes Adrian Wan

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 January, 2014, 9:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 10 January, 2014, 9:11am

By the time Zhang Yuan managed to release Beijing Flickers in the Chinese capital in November, his latest big-screen feature had been in the can for more than a year.

The director used to be something of an enfant terrible in mainland cinema. Zhang made his name more than 20 years ago with neo-realist works such as East Palace, West Palace (which dealt with homosexual life) and Beijing Bastards (a portrait of marginalised rockers). He shifted to more conventional themes in later years, perhaps partly as a response to the eight-year ban that authorities imposed on him. So Beijing Flickers, a poetic examination of disaffected youth today, marked something of a return to form for the sixth-generation filmmaker.

After the premiere at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival and screenings in London and New York, however, Zhang's film was held up by the authorities. Such occupational hazards are why the 51-year-old director is increasingly channelling his energy into online productions, particularly for viewing on mobile devices.

"The kinds of films being viewed on video websites and how people access them have gone through great changes," Zhang says in his sunlit, tea-scented apartment in Beijing. "The internet offers greater freedom for creative minds as online videos don't have to go through the same censorship mechanism as films do."

The internet offers greater freedom for creative minds as online videos don’t have to go through the same censorship mechanism as films do

Tapping into China's rapid internet expansion, filmmakers of all stripes have utilised the online space to get creative or tackle topics that are unlikely to appear on big screens.

The result is a swelling river of micro movies, as short films are called on the mainland, produced by businesses as well as independent directors. Industry observers say about 4,000 micro movies were released in 2012, with the bulk of content appearing on the country's top three video sharing sites - Youku Tudou, Iqiyi (which is owned by Baidu) and Sohu.

To millions of viewers, these online productions are a welcome relief from the dull and turgid entertainment dished up daily by various state media. But a government-affiliated industry group, anxious that a free-for-all approach in micro movies may spill into other spheres, is planning to take steps to "guide them back on the right track".

Zhang, an early convert to micro movies, sees the future in mobile platforms. "Viewers like to watch videos on their mobile phones. There's such a huge demand for them. So what artists and filmmakers should do is serve them," he says.

Two micro productions he released last year - A Bed Affair and Romantic Encounter - have garnered more than 500 million views between them, about a fifth of which were accessed on mobile devices, he says.

His revenue from these micro productions, however, isn't linked to the number of times they are accessed or the advertising revenue that they brought to video hosting sites. Instead, he gets payment from a bedroom supplies company in return for product placement.

In fact, major brands are increasingly funding micro movies and employing filmmakers who pepper the productions with logos and slogans. But Zhang hopes to change that. He believes films can be made solely and viably for the internet with income being linked to the number of clicks they receive.

So for his next feature, the Nanjing native plans to make internet audiences pay to view. If Zhang succeeds, this would allow him to avoid a common problem of the current sponsorship model, which has spawned a slew of micro movies that are much like advertisements.

Some directors of micro movies go out of their way to catch the attention of busy commuters by either tackling controversial topics such as LGBT issues or, more typically, featuring scantily clad women.

In fact, half of the top 10 micro movies on Baidu are about women in the modelling industry or sex trade. At the top of the list is Hidden Rules, a film about a group of businessmen scheming to take advantage of models keen to get better roles in a movie. The life of mistresses and their sugar daddies is another overworked theme.

Responding to a rise in what they described as vulgar and violent content, broadcasting and internet regulators told video hosting websites in 2012 that they must prescreen all material before posting it online - the only step the state has taken so far to tighten control of online videos.

The websites will be held responsible for all videos posted, although the directive issued jointly by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television and the State Internet Information Office did not specify standards or mention penalties.

For now, however, the internet remains an outlet for filmmakers that largely bypasses problems of state censorship and domination by major studios.

In what is seen as the first step towards reining in online content, a commission under the China Television Artists Association plans to roll out several initiatives to keep filmmakers on the right track.

(The association is an industry group under the semi-official China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, headed by former culture minister Sun Jiazheng)

Some directors "try too hard to catch people's attention that they have little artistic value", says Wang Yonghua, a deputy secretary of the commission.

Although it does not have regulatory powers, the commission will pool funding from major companies to invest in 500 "model-setting" micro movies, he says.

So while filmmakers who want to make racy micro movies will, in theory, be given the latitude to do so and to post the content online (as long as the material is lawful, he adds), they may find it increasingly difficult to raise funds from companies because business would be deterred from investing in movies that the government may object to.

The commission will also consider offering two annual awards - one national, another Asian - to give recognition to quality micro productions.

"The problem with micro movies is the only thing that producers care about is the click rate, or the number of views they get, so usually the less that actresses wear, the more clicks they are going to have," Wang says.

"It is necessary to give filmmakers some guidance because there are too many micro movies revolving around the same topic - sex.

"Sex can't possibly make up 100 per cent of the daily life of a couple, right? Likewise, we shouldn't let a single topic dominate our micro movies."

Wang says discussions are ongoing on ways to regulate micro productions but it is unlikely to take a form of censorship akin to that for movies because it will not help nurture filmmakers. There will be no attempt to stamp out politically or religiously sensitive content, he insists.

In an interview in November, Sohu chief executive Charles Zhang said he does not expect regulators to roll out censorship for online videos "because the government sees the good things of video sites and how their development is benefiting the whole of China".

Online videos are "more interesting and creative" because there is more freedom on the internet. In contrast, television stations in each province have their own agenda and sets of requirements to meet, he said.

However, while film director, scholar and gay activist Cui Zi'en is sceptical that the commission's move will be effective, he also does not view it as a sign that the authorities are testing the waters before embarking on a fully fledged censorship initiative. Filmmakers and websites already demonstrate great self-restraint, he says.

"Many micro movies that appear to be erotic or racy turn out to be something else," Cui says. "It's one of the producers' tactics to get people to click on their posters. If you do go inside and watch the movies, you'll realise they aren't racy at all."

As might be expected, Zhang Yuan argues for filmmakers to be allowed to enjoy relatively greater freedom online.

"Before the government imposes any censorship, we were already censoring ourselves through the writing, shooting and editing process," he says. "Can't the authorities see what we are doing is only entertainment?

"In a Hollywood film, a flood might wash away the White House. Which mainland director would dare to create the same scenario for its Chinese equivalent?" he asks. "Nobody."

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