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November 27, 2011

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Cradle of film industry rocks

IT might be hard, if not impossible, for any film to attract an audience of 600 million in a single country.

But for China's Changchun Film Group Corp (CFGC) in Jilin Province, pulling in audiences of that size was simple in the state-sponsored glory days of the late 1970s.

Founded in 1945, the Changchun Film Studio, later known as the CFGC after adopting a corporate structure, is widely regarded as the cradle of modern Chinese film. The studio influenced generations of audiences with the country's first feature-length film "Qiao" ("Bridge) in 1949 and many other acclaimed works.

In 1979, the studio's small-budget spy thriller "Bao Mi Ju De Qiang Sheng" ("Gunshots from the Administration for the Protection of State Secrets") arguably the country's first non-propaganda film following the disastrous "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), attracted 600 million spiritually starved film-goers.

In Beijing cinemas, the film, depicting a Communist "mole" inside an enemy department in an effort to liberate Shanghai, was screened around the clock to meet viewers' demand, according to historical records.

However, the grandeur did not last for long.

With the country's market reforms in full swing in the 1990s, many talented film makers and actors swarmed to booming cities such as Beijing and Shanghai to work on privately invested projects that promised more funding and freedom, leaving state-owned studios to manage on their own.

"There were times when we could barely afford to make one film in a whole year," says senior film producer Xu Zhiwen, 58, who has been working at the Changchun Film Group for 40 years.

According to Xu, the studio scraped by in the 1990s, releasing only three or four films each year and taking losses for six consecutive years.

In 1998, the film group became the first studio to be restructured from an entirely government-funded institution to a corporate one. Absorbing independent film talent and social investment, the group set up 16 subsidiary companies, earning more than 1 million yuan (then US$120,000) in 1999.

Before 1997, it suffered a cumulative loss of 30 million yuan.

In 2004, the group became part of a nationwide trial reform program in the cultural industry. Employees were shifted around and given assignments based on their skills.

Social insurance was offered. While the program relieved economic burdens and boosted creativity, a number of redundant employees were also let go or offered early retirement and higher pensions.

"I was seriously against the reform back then. I felt the company was just trying to get rid of people," Xu recalls, saying he even made posters to encourage people to join the opposition to the restructuring and efficiency moves.

However, opposition weakened as business revived, allowing employes to earn higher salaries and retirees to get bigger pensions, Xu says.

"Dou Niu" ("Cow") in 2009 was one of the company's post-reform masterpieces. The film was about a peasant ordered to protect his village's dairy cow during a harsh winter before the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949.

The film received seven nominations at the Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan and premiered in the Orizzonti or Horizons category at the 66th Venice Film Festival.

This year, the group offered "1911," a historical epic directed by Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan and dedicated to the centennial anniversary of the 1911 Revolution that ended 2,000 years of imperial rule in China.

According to Xu, the company has started developing side businesses in addition to filmmaking, including film channels, movie theme parks and a production center for rural films aimed at the country's large population of rural residents.

The company also re-employed retired film workers in 2008, allowing Xu to resume his producer role in the company's rural film production center, which has already made more than 100 films.

Xu has been busy selecting scripts and shooting films.

"It feels good to relive the old days," he adds.

According to Xu, the Changchun Film Group is now investing in better scripts and paying talented directors to shoot more projects. If a film does well at the box office or wins awards, the film crew can receive bonuses.

"My passion for film making is essential, but the government's incentive policies also increase my enthusiasm for work," Xu says.

Xu predicts more opportunities lie ahead, since China's leadership declared at a major Party meeting last month that cultural development would be a priority.

The output of China's culture industries is expected to account for 5 percent of China's GDP in 2016, making the cultural industry a pillar of the national economy.

The percentage in 2010 was 2.78 percent.

In order to meet the goal, China needs to improve reform of government-run, for-profit cultural organizations by introducing a modern, market-oriented corporate system, according to Minister of Culture Cai Wu.

"The goal of reform is to nurture qualified market entities from government-run commercial cultural organizations and establish a modern and influential cultural industry system," Cai says.

Xu, for his part, hopes to witness another "glorious" period for China's film industry.

"I've seen the highs. I've seen the lows," he says. "Now I want to make films for another 10 years."


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