Strategic Reputation Management: The Beijing International Film Festival as a Reputational Festival

Alex Fischer’s use of management theory to analyze the “film festival environment” encourages an understanding of film festivals as flexible and multidimensional. According to Fischer, “There is more to organising a film festival than simply screening films.”30 In line with the contingency approach, festivals should be considered complex sets of functions and activities that respond to changing conditions,which are influenced by external forces such as the political and cultural environments, as well as by the needs of their stakeholders. Here, I adopt Taewon Suh and Lyn Amine’s definition of the term stakeholder to denote “individuals or organizations with a specific and continuing interest in [a] company and who may gain or suffer directly from involvement with the company, its services, employees or corporate actions.”31 Such a multidimensional approach proves useful when discussing BJIFF, as it prompts us to consider the many different contexts—local, national, and international—in which the festival’s management operates. In particular, strategic reputation management as a framework is helpful in making sense of an event that is managed by the state and connected to the national film industry, but is also aimed at establishing its position on the international film festival circuit.

Strategic reputation management draws on theories of communication, strategic management, and marketing.32 In her introduction to the concept, Sabrina Helm points out that corporate reputation “evolves as a result of consistent behaviour that eventually creates trust,” in contrast to the idea of corporate image, which is a construct, “an immediate mental picture that individuals conceive of an organization.”33 According to Kerstin Liehr-Gobbers and Christopher Storck, “Reputation is the collective perception of a company or institution through its stakeholders. It is the result of an exchange of personal and conveyed experiences between the organization, its stakeholders and third parties over time.”34 What Suh and Amine term “reputational capital” is useful because it draws our attention to the stakeholders in an event or organization. A positive reputation impacts on different sets of group interests and activities, while offering the potential for profit.35 An organization with considerable reputational capital is thus close to the idea of the “super-brand”: a company that is highly esteemed, and which therefore generates high levels of confidence, trust, and support among its stakeholders.36

Thanks to their long history and established reputation, Venice, Cannes, and Berlin function as the film festival super-brands. Much like global companies, the three major international film festivals have been able to maintain their reputations despite periodic setbacks. In turn, these reputations have made them the global standard for a successful international film festival. The significance of the three major European festivals in the PRC has never wavered; only the impact of Hollywood’s Academy Awards is comparable. But if Cannes, Venice, and Berlin continue to attract global stakeholders, this is less because of the somewhat variable quality of their programming, and more because they present profitable marketing opportunities. In addition to the prestige they offer to filmmakers, actors, and film-related guests, each of these festivals is also an effective platform through which to increase the market value of film products. Films shown at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin may attract better distribution deals; filmmakers and producers can increase their reputation by presenting their work at these major events; sponsors and funding bodies can benefit from festival communication and journalists and editors can benefit from hearing about contracts and deals signed during the festivals. This system serves and maintains the reputation of the festivals while ben- efitting the broad range of their stakeholders.

Approached through this framework, it becomes clear that BJIFF positions itself vis-a-vis the international film festival circuit, and in particular the major festivals, as a way to increase its reputational capital. Although BJIFF’s prestige is unlikely to equal that of long-established festivals overnight, a stronger position in the film festival circuit would make the event more attractive to domestic and international film companies, professionals, and business-related bodies. This is particularly true at present, for a number of inter-related reasons. First, the positive performance of the Chinese film market continues to attract international players interested in exploring this market in different ways. Second, the growing number of Chinese blockbusters makes any platform for promotional campaigns attractive for local companies. Finally, such platforms are even more essential for the Chinese film industry at a moment when top-tier festivals can offer visibility to only a very small number of high- budget or commercial Chinese productions annually, due to the limited number of titles they can program.37

The various features and strategies of BJIFF’s festival management can therefore all be read as a way of accumulating reputational capital, whether by arranging bombastic events, collecting endorsements from established festivals overseas or appointing an international general advisor for the film program. Understood in terms of reputation management, for example, the festival director has a role similar to that of a company’s CEO and plays an important role in both the process of networking and marketing. From this perspective, BJIFF’s management, with its collective emphasis, has historically lacked a key player. As Ariston Anderson notes, Marco Muller’s appointment in 2015 could be read as a way to rectify this.38 The former director of several international film festivals, including Venice, Muller was appointed as a “general advisor” (shouxiguwen) whom BJIFF would consult over the selection of film titles.39 Muller praised the censors for allowing him to contribute 20 international titles to the festival program, but his contribution to the management and programming of the fifth edition of BJIFF remained limited and did not continue for the edition 2016.40 However, Muller ensured the festival much better visibility in terms of international media coverage, and his extensive network of contacts in the global film industry could well represent a way for BJIFF to gradually accumulate reputational capital.

Once achieved, reputational capital can then be traded in for trust, legitimization of power or international recognition. In the case of BJIFF, the latter would help confirm Beijing’s role as the center of the booming Chinese industry. Moreover, establishing a position for BJIFF among the major festivals would also offer a suitable promotional platform for domestic film releases. State and local institutions could also promote themselves as supporters of domestic cinema. Therefore, when looking at BJIFF’s stakeholders—those who ultimately benefit from its reputation—its major interest groups are the Beijing authorities and domestic companies. This creates a system that translates the model of Venice, Cannes, and Berlin for the Chinese industry, which is otherwise heading toward a Chinese-Hollywood model. It also puts front and center state strategies to channel a specific type of domestic cinema which can boost the growth of the film market. As Ragan Rhyne has suggested in her analysis of stakeholders in the film festival circuit, “Film festivals are of relevance well beyond the study of the circulation of cinema and cinephile communities” and can channel “diverse interests towards the goals of nation-states and global capital.”41 As the growth of the film sector continues with the expansion of screens across third-tier Chinese cities, BJIFF could also support the growth of the national film audience. Its red carpets, and its emphasis on glamor and film stars rather than film art, fit well with the current trends in the Chinese industry and resonate with the slogan of the three Ms: “Masters, Mass, Market.”

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