“China’s Sundance” and Corporate Culture: Creating Space for Young Talent at the Tudou Video Festival

Nikki J.Y. Lee and Julian Stringer

Festival-watchers intrigued by the recent proliferation of events in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) may be forgiven for thinking that two dominant models of Chinese film festivals currently exist. On the one hand, there are major industry showcases, such as the Beijing International Film Festival and the Shanghai International Film Festival. On the other hand, there are a plethora of independent festivals positioned in opposition to these more commercially oriented extravaganzas. Questions of whether these two models are based upon pre-existing Western sources, and the extent to which they translate prior concepts and practices into Chinese cultural environments, are considered in depth by numerous contributors to the present volume.

This chapter focuses, by contrast, on an important annual event of growing significance which has placed itself in between these two models of Chinese film festivals: the Tudou Video Festival (TVF).1 In terms of

N.J.Y. Lee (*)

Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK J. Stringer

University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK © The Author(s) 2017

C. Berry, L. Robinson (eds.), Chinese Film Festivals, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-55016-3_7

ambition, planning, organization, and scale, Tudou is unique in that it looks toward the Chinese semi-professional and non-professional film and media scenes while also keeping one eye firmly on corporate opportunities and commercial ventures. (As we discuss below, the semantics of its choice of the word “video” is also relevant.) More than this, it is a hybrid entity in other ways as well: presented in both offline and online forms, it is organized in a different geographical location each year. For these reasons, Tudou challenges emerging narratives of Chinese film festivals while raising compelling new issues of cross-cultural adoption and adaptation.

Perhaps precisely because it is something of an anomaly, the TVF has to date garnered little scholarly attention in English. Certainly, its history has yet to be properly chronicled and its import grasped. In providing the first extended analysis of this major audio-visual forum, our intentions are to investigate how an innovative alternative model of the “film festival” is being developed in China today and to reflect on the implications of this for debates about what such events might become in the twenty-first century.

The TVF was established in 2008 with the ambition to become one of the country’s leading cultural events. Organized by new media giant Tudou—which merged with its rival Youku in March 2012 to become Youku Tudou, one of the world’s largest online video sites (and which is often compared with YouTube)—it drew from the outset upon the vast technological resources, commercial infrastructure, and networked activities of its parent company, becoming in the process the flagship symbol of the Tudou brand.2

To help focus and attain this lofty ambition, the early stated aim of the TVF was to become China’s equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival (SFF)—in other words, a dynamic and prestigious space dedicated to the discovery and cultivation of grassroots creative talent.3 However, the ways in which it has sought to meet this remit have changed and evolved across the festival’s seven year history, in line with a range of complex agendas and shifting historical circumstances which both resemble and diverge from the multiple factors which have themselves driven Sundance.

In assessing how the TVF has enlisted the ostensible model of the SFF, it is helpful first to draw upon recent scholarship on the rise of China’s media consumer society. Jonathan Sullivan in his work on contemporary microblogging and Sherman So and J. Christopher Westland in their analysis of the development of uses of the Internet in the country raise the question of whether domestic Chinese brands or services should be viewed as mere

“clones” or “copies” of Western brands or companies, if not as out and out “fakes.” (This is in part to counter Western-centric binarisms which consider whatever is perceived to be “Western” as an original or genuine archetype.) In this reading, “Chinese internet businesses have built their basic operations according to successful foreign blueprints.”4 Moreover, “a hybrid model—something that combines international best practice with local adaptations” appears to work particularly well in China.5 On these terms, the TVF benchmarks the SFF as a global gold standard, but it does not aspire merely to replicate it: the growth of high-profile Chinese media industries is propelled by pragmatic modification of international templates as much as by slavish acceptance. Instead, Tudou—one of the leading emerging brands from the fast-growing film and media market in what is currently the world’s second largest economy—imaginatively transforms Sundance as it guides its own festival on its journey toward national prominence and international visibility.

Why does the TVF, taking its cue from its star-honoring US counterpart, strive to create space for the incubation of young creative Chinese talent?6 To engage with this question, we will outline the historical trajectory of the Tudou event before considering its most recent edition (2014), which we attended. In the process, we propose use of a new critical concept—namely, “the corporate audio-visual festival”—to illustrate a hitherto unacknowledged cultural phenomenon of which Tudou and Sundance are paradigmatic as well as pioneering examples.

 
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