The story of the establishment and ongoing development of the TVF encompasses both similarities to and differences from the celebrated American jamboree held each year in Park City, Utah.
Before proceeding to the heart of our analysis, then, it is necessary to sketch a brief history of the origins and role of the SFF. It started life in 1978 as the US Film and Video Festival which became a Sundance Institute- sponsored event in 1985.7 In 1991, it was renamed the “Sundance Film Festival”—a key branding move for the Sundance Institute. The President and Founder of both the festival and its parent organization is the famous Hollywood actor Robert Redford whose many films include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (dir. George Roy Hill, 1969), from which the Sundance Group—the corporate umbrella under which the festival and the institute are held—took its name.
Since its inception the Sundance festival’s self-declared mission has been to showcase American independent film by building audiences for it.8 The Sundance Institute was initially established as a training workshop to help nascent directors make the transition to the next level of professional achievement. However, it was only after the institute took over the festival that “Sundance has been able to complete the circle and create a brand-name identity synonymous with independent film.”9
Expansion outward soon followed. In 1996, Redford established the Sundance Channel—a satellite and cable enterprise dedicated to independent film—with Showtime Networks Inc. and Universal Studios. It was sold to AMC Networks in 2008 before being renamed Sundance TV in 2014. Redford claimed at that year’s 30th SFF that “[w]e have nothing to do with distribution.”10 Nevertheless, in today’s (online) digital age, distribution cannot always be separated from exhibition, and the Sundance Channel is a vital carrier of the movies it promotes as well as an important corporate arm.11
As the tracing of this commercial path suggests, Sundance’s staging of its annual festival has proceeded in commercial synergy with its pursuit of related business opportunities. Ostensibly the Park City event is hosted in the name of creative talent; as Redford maintains, “[t]his festival is for independent film and it’s for and about you filmmakers. And it’s you that we are here to celebrate.”12 To be more exact, though, the Sundance festival is also for and about film distributors, publicists, agencies, and journalists and reviewers.13 To be still more exact: besides creating space where novice filmmakers can be incubated and their fledgling work screened, the event serves to facilitate distribution deal-making, acquisition, promotion, and talent spotting.14 At Sundance independent filmmaking circulates in the orbit of commerce.
The SFF’s physical location in Park City is important in this regard. Revelers descend on the ski resort for ten days in the middle of winter to form a temporary site specific community. Yet distributors and agencies also have to be there: to attend premiere screenings; to identify and compete for hot titles that are creating a sense of buzz; and to promote films which have already secured distribution deals. Unlike other major industry events such as Cannes and Berlin, Sundance does not have its own designated market, which means that business is obliged to be carried out anyway anyhow anywhere, in places like movie theaters, restaurants, hotel rooms, and parties. Because art is not spatially or hierarchically segregated from money, creativity and commerce cohabit.
Park City’s mythic reputation as a space where artistic straw can be spun into gold is legion in accounts of US and international cinema. For example, indicators of success are often drawn more sharply in the case of Sundance than other festivals, with commentators dwelling on whether this or that independent title secured a distribution deal, how much that deal was worth, and the amount of profit captured subsequently on commercial release. Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989) and its director Steven Soderbergh are key names in the story of how Sundance has managed to generate the levels of interest it now commands as “the place where films came from nowhere and turned into these huge things.”15 The movie created a stir among critics during the 1989 festival and also won its Audience Award. Soderbergh then became one of the most sought after directors in the USA after it took the Palme d’Or at Cannes. When released into theaters by Miramax, Sex, Lies, and Videotape became “the first film truly to cross over from obscure and low budget... into a mainstream hit.”16
Two aspects of the brief history sketched above should be emphasized. First, in light of Sundance’s core orientation, it is doubtful that this so-called bastion of US independent cinema should be identified as non-Hollywood or otherwise as outside of or beyond commercial considerations.17 Business runs as rampant at Sundance as it does at Cannes, Shanghai, or Venice.18 Second, the SFF functions as a key platform for Sundance’s corporate image. For over 20 years, the Sundance Group, via the Sundance Institute, has built its market identity and consumer loyalties largely around the delivery of its own branded festival.
It is in these terms that Sundance may be called a paradigmatic and pioneering example of the “corporate audio-visual festival.” The vast majority of film festivals held around the world are not creatures of private industry. Instead, they are more commonly funded and organized by a (variously constituted) coalition of state or local government, city or provincial administrators, transnational corporations, regional businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and other social actors drawn from a combination of the public and private spheres. The degree to which commercial enterprises directly involve themselves in the running of a festival differs in each individual case; while the most common form of engagement is sponsorship, companies do sometimes play the role of movie producer in collaboration with specific events.19 However, it is still relatively rare for a listed business to make itself responsible for conducting its own branded festival as a central commercial activity. The corporate audio-visual festival can therefore be defined as an event that is resourced and organized by a commercial company with the ambition of promoting its own core interests through linked channels of communication (which may or may not include celluloid film).
Aside from being China’s mirror image of the SFF, the TVF provides the second preeminent example of an emerging model of the corporate audio-visual festival taking shape in today’s global mediascape. Its story constitutes in many ways a parallel journey to its US counterpart, albeit with crucial dissimilarities. Some of its relevant milestones also predate the establishment of the festival’s inaugural edition in China in 2008. Let us therefore now turn to the historical background to the establishment of this more recent yet already highly significant cultural forum.
One beginning of the Tudou success narrative occurs in February 2005 when US company YouTube founded its web site and quickly reshaped the international media landscape. YouTube has of course gone on to exert a powerful worldwide influence on the practices of digital broadcasting, advertising, distribution, and production.20 Yet the company has always found it difficult to penetrate the China market because access to its site from within the country has habitually been blocked.21 In the face of a lack of competition from this powerful global leader, domestic internet businesses such as Tudou (launched in April 2005) and Youku (launched in December 2006)—and subsequently Youku Tudou—leapt eagerly into the rapidly expanding and potentially vastly profitable spaces of Chinese e-commerce.
These developments took place during a period of major transition within China’s economy and media culture. The rise of Tudou and the launch of its festival in 2008 coincided with the moment when the “informal media economy” of online video streaming and sharing was being transformed into the “formal media economy” controlled by the state and copyright law.22 In that year, for instance, this bustling sector was reshuffled with the promulgation by SARFT, or the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (now the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film, and Television, or SAPPRFT), and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of the Administrative Provisions on Internet Audio-Visual Program Service—the main purpose of which was to tighten state control over all forms of online activity while reducing opportunities for copyright infringement, especially of overseas content.23 As a result, a number of China’s video streaming and sharing web sites were shut down and only companies which could meet the stipulations of the Provisions
were considered for licenses. Tudou and Youku not only survived this moment of dramatic reformation but have continued to grow as online business titans ever since, due in no small degree to their ability to operate under the protection—and regulation—of the PRC government.24
Following its initial startup as an informal blog hosting site, Tudou’s official launch paved the way for its rapid ascent as one of China’s largest video streaming outfits.25 The company’s strengths lie in its superior use of bandwidth and in hosting innovative and high quality user-generated content (UGC) videos which attract fashion-conscious and technology- savvy “digital natives” in their teens and twenties.26 Its 2012 merger with Youku—which has strengths in commerce and production—continued the time-honored business tradition of rivals joining forces to forge a winning combination while consolidating Tudou’s capacity to “lead the next phase of online video development in China.”27
Tudou’s business model is to appeal to young audiences by building attractive relevant content around successful foreign blueprints: in short, taking the best from elsewhere and combining it with effective local practice. Since 2008, the company has signed contracts with leading global players, such as Sony, TV Tokyo, Hong Kong TVB, and numerous Korean television channels, among others, for exclusive rights to broadcast their films and programs in China. Similarly, Youku has signed its own contracts with Chinese production companies as well as with Hong Kong and Korean television channels: it has also been described as a “mainstream online-video provider” of US movies and TV dramas thanks to its exclusive deals with Hollywood studios Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox and the NBC network.28 The range of commercially attractive audio-visual material offered (separately and in combination) by Tudou and Youku is therefore comprehensive. It includes domestic, regional, and global media programs, UGC videos and an increasing number of in-house productions.
As with the case of YouTube, Tudou’s impressive success as an online streaming site is inseparable in particular from the massive popularity of its UGC videos. The slogan of the Tudou brand is “Everybody is a Director of Their Life” (meigeren shi shenghuo de daoyan) or, more simply, “Direct Yourself.”29 This choice of words is an adoption and adaptation of YouTube’s famous slogan, “Broadcast Yourself,” which encourages the participatory cultures of ordinary people. Significantly for Tudou’s project of product differentiation, though, the encouragement to “Direct Yourself’ places relatively more emphasis on individual imagination as well as on the pursuit of a distinctive individual lifestyle. Moreover, the Mandarin Chinese word “tudou” translates to “potato,” and in enlisting this solanaceous plant for its icon the company playfully, and subtly, transforms negative associations of media fans as passive consumers (“couch potatoes”) into positive associations of active creativity (fan-consumers as “directors” or producers of their own lives). With this brand identity firmly in place, Tudou has gone on to become one of the main exhibition sites for China’s vibrant digital filmmaking scene—a key online platform where various types of short movies, documentaries, animation, and spoofs are uploaded, viewed, and shared. (The company stipulates that anyone who uploads or publishes works on its web site agrees to grant Tudou “a royalty-free, irrevocable, permanent, assignable, worldwide, and non-exclusive license to use all the said works and contents.”)30
Within the emergence of Tudou (and Youku Tudou) as a state- sanctioned online commercial powerhouse that plugs into China’s grassroots energies and aptitudes, the TVF occupies a privileged position as conveyor of the company’s mission and focus point of its corporate identity. As we have already indicated, the semantics of its choice of the word “video” is in this sense highly relevant. Unlike other Chinese media festivals which tend to tie their identities to the aura of film (even when the main format of submission is video)—for example, by advertising themselves either as yingzhan (exhibition of films) or dianyingjie (film festival)—the connotations of the term “video” highlight the possibilities of digital multimediality while suggesting a broader sense of “visual culture” and emphasizing that no content is to be presented on celluloid. As such, the festival’s Chinese name, Tudou Yingxiangjie, is designed to encompass a range of digital provision (including video) produced and circulated over the Internet and related social media. To date, the results of this branding exercise have been formidable. In recent years, the TVF has grown into a large scale online/offline hybrid with activities that range from concerts and parties to live streaming and the commissioning of original media productions. In 2012, under the strapline “Be Creative and Live,” the event attracted over 15,000 submissions, including a leading group of 200 video finalists who competed for 15 grand prizes.31 A year later, the festival received more than 18,000 entries, from which 200 finalists were selected for the 2013 prizes. Combined festival entries have at the time of writing generated more than 200 million views on the Tudou web site.32
In the interviews with us that form a vital part of our research for this chapter, the organizers of the TVF frame their identification with the SFF in terms of issues of independence and creativity. According to their understanding, Sundance fulfills a complementary function to Hollywood; it serves as an addition to the corporate US media system. From the very beginning, Tudou believed that it could come to play a comparable role in China by developing a viable annual event that similarly creates space for young talent. In pursuing this strategic ambition, one of the main attractions of Sundance for Tudou is that it is a well-established festival with a long history and a track record of success. It is a major platform where the outcomes of creative endeavor can achieve high exposure as well as wide circulation.
The TVF collaborated directly with Sundance for its fourth and fifth editions in 2011 and 2012, respectively.33 Tudou held a Sundance showcase and sent its award-winning videos to Park City.34 Representatives from Sundance, including Trevor Groth (Director of Programming) and Todd Luoto (Shorts Programmer), served as Tudou jurors and helped initiate a new category at the Chinese event—the Independent Spirit Award (duli jingshen jiang). Luoto points to some of the common characteristics: “It was great to see that Tudou is doing a lot of the same things that the Sundance Film Festival is all about... We give a platform to artists, we support expression, and we both passionately believe in the power of storytelling.”35 In describing the first video to win Tudou’s Independent Spirit Award, Sea and Tide, by Beijing Original Power, Luoto notes its “beautiful cinematography and excellent performances”—just the kind of supportive comment which, while perhaps offering lip-service from a foreign guest, helps initiate an emerging domain where experimental work by a younger generation can actively be encouraged.36
Obstacles to maintaining formal connections between Tudou and Sundance soon emerged in the form of cultural differences, disparity in production standards between the two events, and Tudou’s status as a predominantly online brand. As Tudou began to expand, its allegiance to the Sundance model started to fade. However, by this time, Park City had already served its purpose. The TVF’s reputation as a public platform for discovering young talent and showcasing it to commercial media industries was well on the way to being established. We now explore the i mplications of this situation as they played themselves out at the most recent iteration of the Tudou event, its 2014 edition.