SIFF: Municipal Reputation

Like its Hong Kong counterpart, SIFF was a local initiative with high input from the city government. The event was launched as a biennial event in 1993.31 It was announced that it would become an annual event in 2001,32 and although many published sources repeat this “fact,” in actuality it went annual for the first time with the 7th edition in 2004, as Ran Ma points out.33 SIFF has always been a project of the city’s state- owned enterprises. Initially, it belonged to the Shanghai Film Group, which was then folded into a larger conglomerate, the Shanghai Media and Entertainment Group.34

Also like HKIFF, it translated the dominant international film festival model of the time into the local context. But, where that was the programmer-driven and audience-oriented festival for HKIFF in the 1970s, for SIFF in the 1990s, it was the director-driven model and the business festival. These priorities are clear in its programming practices. As analyzed in detail by Ran Ma in her chapter for this volume, SIFF has diverged from international practice by never having named individual programmers who curate and present selections to audiences. Indeed, the public face of SIFF has not been its programmers but its managing director. And, as one would expect of a business festival, it has a market (launched in 2007), prizes (the Golden Goblet) and a forum aimed more at professionals than the public.

A striking feature of SIFF from the early days to now is its determination to manifest the usual characteristics of an international business film festival, even though it has been operating in a context not so hospitable to such a venture. All the major models of the international film festival laid out by de Valck and Peranson originated in liberal capitalist cultures, mostly with strong civil societies. This made it fairly easy to adopt them in Hong Kong, where similar circumstances have pertained, although, significantly, not electoral democracy. But SIFF operates in a very different one-party socialist system that combines the legacy of an ideologically led command economy with a newly adopted but thriving market economy. Nevertheless, the festival has gone to great lengths to “connect with the international gauge.” How has SIFF translated the international model into the Shanghai context? What adaptations has it had to make? And why has it been so determined to take on the form of the international model no matter how difficult the fit? I will take each of these questions in order, showing how the translation has occurred before arguing why it has followed this particular pattern.

During my 2007 visit, I asked then Vice-Director of the SIFF Forum, Shen Yang, what was distinctive about SIFF. She answered, “What’s special about SIFF is its A-list status.” Indeed, SIFF is the only festival in continental Asia recognized by the Federation Internationale des Associations de Producteurs de Film (FIAPF) as an A-list festival. For SIFF, I suggest, A-list status confirms that they have successfully connected “with the international gauge.” Shen explained that FIAPF “require that the festival contents be comprehensive.” Further demonstrating SIFF’s determination to conform to international standards, she elaborated, “So, we have four main areas of activity: screenings, competitions, forums, and the market.”35

Although SIFF follows the FIAPF model, it does so in ways that manifest significant local adaptation. Taking the market first, most film festival markets focus on distributors acquiring rights to titles in certain territories. However, SIFF Mart is constrained by Chinese circumstances when it comes to rights trading. The PRC retains an import quota of 34 films a year on a revenue-sharing basis, and the China Film Group in Beijing retains a near monopoly on imports, so foreign producers have few opportunities to sell rights at SIFF.36 On the other hand, a Chinese producer with a hot film sells its rights at Cannes, Berlin and other leading international markets. According to Stephen Cremin, SIFF Mart remains SIFF’s “Achilles’ heel”: “Locally it only competes to be less useless than the Beijing Film Market but it cannot compete with the singular regional success of Hong Kong FILMART.”37

However, the SIFF Mart includes under its umbrella not only the market itself but also the SIFF Project, formerly known as the China and the Co-Production Film Pitch and Catch sessions. Like HAF in Hong Kong, this event aims to match projects with funders. These additional components have turned SIFF Mart into a site for a broader range of film industry deals than is usually included in other film markets. According to official figures cited by Ruby Cheung, these measures have met with success, and SIFF Mart is attracting more visitors every year, with more deals being signed as the Chinese film market becomes ever more important.38 In other words, Cremin’s critique might be correct in regard to rights trading, but SIFF Mart has broadened out the international “film market” idea to become a hub for all kinds of Chinese-foreign film deals in an era when the Chinese film market is booming.

The SIFF Forum has also grown rapidly to become much more than a series of press conferences about films in the festival, as is often the focus elsewhere. Taking advantage of the numerous guests attending SIFF Mart, it runs sessions on all manner of local and international aspects of film culture and business. In 2013, for example, SIFF Forum included a “President Lecture” panel on the future of cinematic language with film directors Tom Hooper and Zhang Yuan. Hooper, director of The King’s Speech (2010), was president of the jury that year and also had a retrospective of his films in the festival. But, in addition to this more conventional forum activity, SIFF Forum 2013 included innumerable business-related panels. Tsui Hark spoke about a topic dear to the hearts of Chinese commercial filmmakers; “Creating Content for a Worldwide Audience.” A mixed group of eight financiers and producers addressed “Classifying Equity and Debt Resources and Investment Allocation in China and Abroad,” and other men in suits discussed selecting films to invest in: co-financing and co-production; China’s relationship with Hollywood; the role of “big data” in shaping film projects; and a variety of questions about the current characteristics of Chinese film production and the film market.39

This broadening and proliferation of activities associated with the market and forum independently from the screenings in the festival is not unusual for a business festival. In the case of SIFF, it can also be interpreted as compensating for the perceived weakness of the other two areas of FIAPF expectation: screening and competition. Ran Ma discusses the characteristics of SIFF’s programming in detail in her chapter here, and I have also addressed these issues in some detail in my reports on two editions of the festival.40

To summarize those analyses, SIFF’s programming is limited by the combination of FIAPF’s requirements for A-list festivals and the conditions that pertain inside China. The translation of the international standard into the Chinese context has combined to produce a limiting result. FIAPF requires that all competition films in A-list festivals have not entered any competition anywhere else. As a newer festival, SIFF is at a disadvantage, and unable to attract the best films for its competition. As for conditions inside China, when I interviewed them, both Shen Yang of the SIFF Forum and Managing Director Tang Lijun insisted that SIFF is censorship-free.41 But self-censorship is another matter, and the event does not push the envelope. Indeed, one possible advantage of programming by committee is that no individual can be held responsible should the authorities be unhappy.

Talking to international visitors in 2007 and 2009 confirmed my impression that almost none of them came to see the movies, and that pattern has not changed. As for the local cinephile community, Kavkalu, the self-proclaimed “independent critic” (duli pinglun)—a title few would dare assume today—made his disappointment clear in a series of blogposts in 2006, before tragically dying in a car accident soon after. After the closing ceremonies, he lambasted the festival. Among other things, he accused the organizers of undermining public confidence in the awards by changing the screening schedule and making it impossible for reporters to see most of the films. He went on to demand, “Who on earth picked the 17 films in competition? The quality was all over the place.”42

While many films cannot be screened at SIFF, broadening the SIFF Mart and SIFF Forum enables the festival to create a space for people associated with film culture and business who do not have films at the festival. But it also begs the question of why SIFF has been so determined to adopt not only the international film festival models of the moment—the director-driven and business models—but also the most regulation-bound one, the FIAPF A-list model. Why set up a film market in a situation where so little rights trading can be done? Why set up an A-list competition when, as a newcomer festival in a culturally and politically conservative environment, it risks becoming a “best of the worst” competition?

To answer these questions, we need to turn to the stakeholder configuration and the local context. In contrast to HKIFF, Kavkalu’s complaints suggest local cinephiles may be a lower priority at SIFF. However, the committee mode of programming does provide roles for a wide range of local film culture figures, just as the proliferation of forum panels and SIFF Mart activities has provided opportunities for a wide range of film industry organizations to participate. But participation does not necessary make someone a stakeholder—even if, as with Kavkalu, they clearly feel they have a stake in SIFF. A stakeholder has the power to shape the festival. In the case of SIFF, the municipal government was the primary and perhaps the only real stakeholder, as indicated by its establishment within local state-owned media organizations. Furthermore, although Shanghai used to be China’s film capital before and for quite a long time after the 1949 Revolution, today the industry has clustered in Beijing and film is not one of Shanghai’s leading creative industries. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the festival was set up primarily to promote the Shanghai film industry.

What were the city government’s motivations for establishing SIFF just one year after Deng’s Southern Tour further entrenched the “reform and opening up” process? Shanghai responded by seeking to rebuild its reputation as a global city, after decades of relative isolation during the Mao era. In these circumstances, the establishment of an international film festival can be seen as the acquisition of one in a range of elements signifying world city status. The Shanghai Stock Exchange opened in 1990.43 The city’s Metro system opened its first line in 1993.44 During the same period the previously underdeveloped east side of the Huangpu River flowing through the city became the forest of skyscrapers known today as Pudong.45 The first Shanghai Open tennis tournament was held in 1996, and it now hosts the only one of the nine annual ATP Masters events held outside Europe and North America.46 1996 was also the year that the Shanghai Biennial art exhibition was first held.47 After building a German-designed track especially for the event, Shanghai began hosting the Chinese Grand Prix in the Formula One championship in 2004.48 The list goes further.

If SIFF’s initial purpose was to contribute toward Shanghai’s reclamation of its world city status, then the festival is another example of what Elena Pollacchi in her chapter here calls the “reputational festival”—one whose primary purpose is a form of public relations. Pollacchi argues BJIFF provides a spotlight for the Chinese film industry, which, although burgeoning, lacks sufficient glamor opportunities. Although SIFF also provides glamor opportunities for the industry, its main purpose has been to boost Shanghai itself as a world city. This argument can be supported with how it has managed its red carpet events historically. As Pollacchi rightly points out, these red carpet events like the opening and closing ceremonies are the main opportunities for publicity, are often broadcast live on television, go on much longer than at comparative festivals elsewhere and often include all manner of people who would not otherwise be in town. Today, when the Chinese film market is a honeypot attracting filmmakers from all over the world, SIFF has no shortage of international guests. In 2013, the same year that Tom Hooper headed the jury, Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren graced the red carpet, amongst others. The next year, Natalie Portman appeared at the closing ceremony, and Nicole Kidman was in town with her film, Grace of Monaco (2014).

But earlier, when the world had not quite woken up to the Chinese film market, getting a leading international—meaning Hollywood or French— star onto the red carpet was still very important to SIFF. Sharon Stone was on the jury in 2007 as well as on every red carpet available. (She became less welcome in China one year later, when she suggested the Sichuan earthquake was “karma” for Tibet.49) The year previously, an “outstanding contribution” award helped to lure Catherine Deneuve, and in 2010, Isabelle Huppert picked up the same trophy, while Quincy Jones got a “lifetime achievement” gong. Just like the FIAPF A-list status, the presence of such stars both confirmed SIFF’s status as a festival conforming to the international film festival model at the same time as it carried the local signification that Shanghai was recognized by the global order as a world city. Today, with Shanghai’s world city status well-established and facing competition from BJIFF, SIFF faces new existential dilemmas as it tries to establish new local significance for its version of the international business festival model.

In conclusion, from the contrasting cases of SIFF and HKIFF, we can see that there is no general set of Chinese characteristics that get conferred on the international film festival model as it is translated into the Chinese-speaking world. However, at the same time, these cases show that localization does occur, and that it is an ongoing process. Even when the form of the international film festival as manifested in Chinese locations is immediately recognizable, just like other manifestations of global culture such as the international airport or the business convention, it is important to be aware of the local variations in and meanings attached to those internationally circulating features. And to understand those local manifestations, we need to pay attention to the stakeholder configuration, most commonly municipally based, that enacts the translation of the film festival model into the local context.

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