A Film Festival with Chinese Characteristics: Categorizing the Beijing International Film Festival’s Main Features

BJIFF’s scale and grandiosity recall strategies adopted during the 2008 Beijing Olympics to guarantee the latter event extensive media visibility. Yet while the Olympics were conceived to project a certain image of China to the world—and, as Julia Lovell has pointed out, “China’s reassertion of a globally dominant position”13—what image does the BJIFF project, and to whom?

Mark Peranson classifies festivals as either business or audience oriented, although many events combine the two models. The business festival is defined as an ever-expanding, high-budget event with a large number of guests, a major competition, and relevant market presence, while the audience festival is mainly concerned with local attendance and has a smaller business presence.14 In the light of its evolution, what ends does BJIFF serve? For whom is it ultimately conceived? The bombastic opening and closing ceremonies provide an interesting point of entry for such a discussion, for they highlight how the festival fits neither of Peranson’s two categories. Although its large budget, the film market, and the participation of some prominent international guests suggest a business orientation, the sites used for the ceremonies testify principally to BJIFF’s connection to central government. These sites moved from the Convention Center located in the Olympic area, which was used in 2011 and 2012, to the Temple of Heaven in 2013, the Beijing National Opera House in 2014, and finally in 2015 and 2016,the Yanqi Lake area, which had hosted the international Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit a year previously.15 This use of Beijing landmarks with high political and symbolic significance—in addition to their visual impact— highlighted the centrality of the city to BJIFF, rather than pointing to the services a business festival might provide. Yet such an emphasis is better perceived from a local or regional perspective rather than a global one. In fact, while the visual feast of the 2008 Olympic opening ceremony was broadcast round the world, the glamorous red carpets of the BJIFF opening ceremony attract mainly Chinese TV viewers and circulate principally through Chinese-speaking territories. Therefore, the sites chosen for the impressive opening and closing ceremonies suggest a state-driven strategy to foster the visibility and appeal of BJIFF for domestic promotional purposes, rather than to attract international attention.

Although BJIFF does incorporate certain business festival features, such as the Beijing Film Market, meeting platforms for developing film projects, and a series of co-production and film financing forums, I would suggest that the participation of accredited film professionals in the festival remains fairly limited. This statement might appear contrary when juxtaposed with informal attendance figures issued by 2015. The online Beijing Film Market profile reported an attendance of “7,000 domestic and international professionals from the film industry, representing over 1,000 groups” for the 2014 market.16 In contrast, the Hong Kong FILMART 2015 announced a “record number of more than 7,100 buyers having taken part in the 19th edition of the event, the largest of its kind in Asia.”17 However, the Beijing Film Market 2014 report specifies that “[a] total of 248 domestic and foreign film companies and related organizations attended the Exhibition segment of [the] Market, including 125 international exhibitors.”18 The latter also includes a significant number of companies from Hong Kong and Taiwan involved in Chinese co-productions. Despite the apparently similar figures, the Hong Kong FILMART remains by far the larger market. This is due to factors ranging from the state quotas imposed on the import of international film titles into the PRC, to censorship regulations, to the limited opportunities to export Chinese titles abroad. The timing of BJIFF, which takes place only few weeks after the Hong Kong FILMART, also limits its attractiveness to film professionals.19

These issues notwithstanding, BJIFF has in the past attracted prominent international guests in relation to particular business agreements or international deals. These include James Cameron in 2012, Keanu Reeves and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy in 2013, and Oliver Stone and Luc Besson in 2014 and 2015, respectively (see Fig. 3.3). The participation

Jury President Luc Besson and Jury member Peter Chan at the BJIFF opening ceremony, 2015 (Photo

Fig. 3.3 Jury President Luc Besson and Jury member Peter Chan at the BJIFF opening ceremony, 2015 (Photo: author)

of James Cameron and Fox Studio CEOs was linked to the signing of the cooperation agreements with Chinese film groups, such as the Tianjin North Film Group and the Shandong Film Studio, for the collaborative development and expansion of 3D technologies in China; James Cameron’s Cameron Pace Group (CPG) is one of the world’s leading 3D technology companies.20 Keanu Reeves promoted his directorial debut and Chinese coproduction Man of Tai Chi, unveiling the film trailer at a press conference held during the festival. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in attendance in 2015, praised the growth of the Chinese film market in his speech at the festival’s opening ceremony.21 Schwarzenegger’s participation anticipated the imminent Chinese release of his film, Terminator: Genesis.

Such a Sino-foreign market orientation is also identifiable in BJIFF’s trade magazine The Chinese Market, published in English and Chinese, which launched on the occasion of the festival’s second year. Unlike Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which cover the global film business, this Chinese trade publication mainly highlights the activities of domestic companies, announcing the growth of the Chinese market to an overseas audience while also drawing attention to major industry agreements, mostly signed by American studios with Chinese companies.22 Instead of focusing on private deals like other film market platforms, the Beijing Film Market gives visibility to such Sino-foreign agreements while providing a platform to support connections with China for established partners or newcomers. This also explains the attendance of companies with ongoing interests in China-based activities, in particular Taiwanese and Hong Kong companies, but also a growing number of European representatives. As several film professionals commented to me during the Hong Kong FILMART in 2015, BJIFF allows those interested in doing business in China the occasion to “show their face” rather than providing actual business opportunities.

If the business-related aspects of BJIFF serve a function, then, they do so indirectly. On the one hand, they allow business agreements that have already been signed but not announced to be publicly celebrated with a great deal of ceremony. On the other hand, they offer certain international players the opportunity to visit China and explore its market potential. This protocol has no equivalent in Western film festivals. Instead, it recalls the Chinese tradition of foreign relations. As Ren Xiao has noted, China’s foreign relationships, which were shaped over centuries, were in the past maintained on the basis of tributary visits and rituals that often had a symbolic rather than substantive character.23 I would suggest that, given the close links between the festival and the central government, BJIFF performs a similar function, providing a diplomatic channel through which all Chinese and international film industry players can show respect for, and pay a certain kind of tributary visit to, central state institutions. This is confirmed by the regular participation during the festival of official representatives of major European film festivals and governmental agencies such as Unifrance, the French state institution for the support of French cinema abroad. In fact, Unifrance has regularly held a French Night and a French Film Panorama in collaboration with BJIFF. Furthermore, France is the only country to regularly organize events in the BJIFF program. It is no coincidence that more French film titles are distributed in China than those of any overseas film industry besides Hollywood; the latter usually dominates the annual Chinese quota for foreign films imports.

If BJIFF was prompted by the flourishing of the Chinese film market to adopt the business festival model from the start, this model has since rapidly developed into its own kind of festival. The same could be said when comparing BJIFF to Peranson’s audience festival model. Part of such a festival’s glamor includes the cheering crowds welcoming their favorite celebrities. Although the striking visual impact of BJIFF’s opening and closing ceremonies, with their never-ending parade of Chinese stars, might be read as a response to the city audience, the festival’s red carpets have often taken place in strictly controlled areas with only a small and select crowd in attendance. In 2012, for example, when most of the events took place near the Olympic Stadium, the entire area was closed to the public for the whole duration of BJIFF, and only accredited guests could access it. In 2015, the opening and closing ceremonies’ glamorous red carpets took place in Huairou district, an almost two- hour drive north of Beijing. While all guests were driven there by the festival, the road leading to the APEC venue was restricted to authorized vehicles only. Such policies have often resulted in an atmosphere that, for a film festival, is unusual and rather surreal, with huge venues and imposing ceremonies but no real audience.24 In limiting access to filmgoers in this manner, at a time when the film business is booming and with the Chinese star-system being confirmed as an essential component of this business, BJIFF is departing not only from the audience festival model, but also from the mixed audience-business festival model practiced by Berlin and Busan.25

The lack of a central festival site also contributes to BJIFF’s distinctive nature. For the 2015 edition, screenings took place in over 20 theaters located in different parts of the city, making it difficult to identify the festival with a specific area. Even though the festival management offices and the guest center were situated centrally, in the Beijing Hotel and the Palace Hotel near Tiananmen Square, these locations were only used for forums and public functions and not as screening venues. In consequence, the potential for contact between invited film guests and the city audience was minimized. The presence of the festival in Beijing was advertised online, and through a large off-line campaign involving street banners and posters in subway stations and trains. And yet, in spite of the emphasis on the film selection process and the quality of the festival line-up, the overall visibility of the films in the city remained marginal. Ticketing policies, screening venues, and the sheer size of the capital have all restricted BJIFF’s potential development into a city festival along the lines of Toronto or Vienna.26 As Skadi Loist has noted, regardless of their size, city festivals are often funded by municipal authorities and contribute “to a culturally diverse repertoire for the urban population and function as an image generator.”27 The difficulties in reaching the city audience, however, were particularly evident during BJIFF’s 2015 edition, despite a program that featured a wide range of recent international film titles. While film-related blogs and online comments were generally positive about festival screenings, it was clearly difficult to purchase tickets, as most of the films were sold out. The regular online ticketing system was available for bookings, with prices ranging from a reasonable 40 to 60 Chinese Yuan per ticket. Although most films had three screenings, in line with Venice, Cannes, and other major festivals, this meant that potential audience numbers were very limited relative to the size of the city. Moreover, as most of these film titles had previously screened at other festivals, international media interest remained minimal, while the Chinese media was mostly driven to ceremonies, red carpets, and screenings with Chinese stars or international guests. As Variety reporter Patrick Frater noted, “The festival seems to remain more a platform for flashy grandstanding than for matters of cultural substance.” 28

BJIFF’s management and marketing strategies also discourage any clear-cut classification of the festival. These strategies include promotional events at other major international festivals. Such events are an opportunity for BJIFF’s managers and CCP representatives to visit and observe long-established international film events, while networking with major festival directors and programmers. These occasions, which often take the form of cocktail parties or public functions, have certainly served as opportunities for festival diplomacy. They have also provided the opportunity to gather authoritative overseas endorsements, such as the collection of letters to the young Beijing festival signed by overseas festival directors which, in 2014, was turned into BJIFF’s communication strategy. This series of letters included one signed by Venice festival director Alberto Barbera, written on the occasion of the visit of BJIFF delegates to the festival in 2013. This was published on the festival homepage along with a letter signed by Marco Muller (at that time director of the Rome International Film Festival), and one by Russian director Nikita Mikhalkov.29 Finally, the fact that BJIFF does not feature a prominent artistic director is also noteworthy. The Organizing Committee Office has a large staff, yet its activities, including the selection of titles, are presented as collective, and are handled by a long list of state-appointed directors.

All these features testify both to the hybrid nature of the BJIFF and to its ambitious goals, domestic and international. However, as with the Chinese film industry more generally, the conditions under which the festival takes place are subject to rapid change: BJIFF must therefore respond to both the political climate and the needs of the ever-changing film market. One way to address this analytically is by adopting a contingency approach—a method used when studying global market management techniques which pays particular attention to the specific temporal and geographical contexts of the institution analyzed. Through this framework, we can assess the political and managerial strategies used to position BJIFF at the center of China’s domestic film activities at a moment when the Chinese market is increasingly attracting international interest.

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