Smells Like Independent Spirit? The 2014 TVF

As they sought to move away from the Sundance model and to extend their own event’s vivid corporate personality, major challenges faced the organizers of the 2014 TVF. These difficulties arose as a result of the event’s ambition to transform itself by expanding significantly for its seventh outing. For example, whereas in previous years the festival’s offline editions had accommodated between 2000 and 3000 visitors, the 2014 event, scheduled to take place in Shanghai between 24 and 26 May, was conceptualized as a much larger gathering with anticipated visitor flow of 20,000 people. Two dimensions of the considerable, and at times unanticipated, demands linked to this planned growth will be considered here.

First, transforming the festival for its 2014 iteration involved finding new ways of arranging Tudou’s brand identity, carrying it in the process further away from association with Sundance. Crucial in this respect was a broadening of the company’s rhetorical presentation of the concerns of its primary audience. As the TVF’s Project Director, Cyrus Luan, explained to us in an interview conducted in May 2014, previously the event had largely served the interests of nascent filmmakers. However, it had gradually come to realize that there are many young people in China today who do not necessarily aspire or intend to produce creative work. Instead, they desire simply to record their own lives—to express themselves, preferably in an entertaining manner—which they are happy to do anyway anyhow anywhere. There is thus a huge appetite among Chinese digital natives in their teens and twenties for developing their individual voices. Luan: “Making short films is no longer an activity among those who have a passion for film, it has become an activity among those who have a passion for something. For example, one makes a short film about motor racing or rock climbing because of his or her passion for the respective activity. All these filmmakers will come to our event this year.”

The online and offline versions of the 2014 festival had joint parts to play in helping this expanded audience navigate the multiple opportunities for it to invest in the key corporate message that “Everybody is a Director of Their Life.” In our discussions on the role of major industry festivals such as Beijing and Shanghai, as well as the abundance of independent events positioned in opposition to them, Luan argues that Chinese short films have yet to place themselves in the context of—or effectively operate within—a compelling public platform. He further maintains, however, that on these terms Tudou enjoys a powerful competitive advantage. As a leading online brand operating an annual physical celebration, it is able both to attract instant attention from enthusiastic audiences and capitalize on its increasingly visible real world presence.

At this point it is worth highlighting that while the Tudou festival is not based in one geographical location, it nevertheless benefits from being site specific on the Internet. (By contrast, Sundance’s profile is rooted solidly in the natural features of Park City.) Each year its online version surpasses the given period of the offline assembly. The posting and hosting of fresh content are processes that stretch across several months, with some material being made available before the festival takes place and the majority disseminated afterward. Moreover, the online festival is accessible to everybody and professedly democratic. Anyone can vote for their favorite videos and leave comments, and—as in the case of the bringing into existence of YouTube celebrities—the volume of interest subsequently propagated sometimes leads to career opportunities and even fame for those fortunate enough to upload especially noteworthy items.37 In all of these ways, online participatory viewing practices create a sense of buzz around audio-visual material embedded by Tudou in the branded atmosphere of its web site. By tapping into the Internet’s economies of spectatorship, the company focuses user fascination at the same time as it raises the value of its own commercial stock.

The offline festival, too, functions as an important mechanism for delivering audience preoccupations and original concepts to sponsor and media producer alike. In the words of Luan, it is “not a one-off event. It is a platform where talents will continue to emerge and new projects will be created.” For example, a number of studios, directors, writers, and advertisers were invited to attend the 2012 event, co-hosted (not coincidentally) with the China Film Group.38 In 2013, Tudou then served as producer of two short films based on videos that had won awards at this earlier festival. Similarly, in 2014, Tudou broadcast a web drama series, Midnight Taxi (wuye chuzuche)—directed by a winner of the 2013 TVF—which it had produced in collaboration with Amuse, the Japanese production company responsible for creating the television drama, Midnight Canteen (shinya shodoku), from which the new product was developed. (Amuse had also attended the Tudou event in 2013.) Indeed, at its 2013 awards ceremony Tudou announced new funding and upgraded revenue sharing schemes to “empower its UGC talents.”39 Deerway, DHL, and Ford were revealed to be among these new funders who would “commission branded content productions”: the anointed young users placed on to these schemes would then “receive extensive financial, technical, and marketing support” from Tudou.40 As Weidong Yang, President of Tudou, declared: “This festival represents the beginning of Tudou 2.0... The 2.0 strategy means that we will fully support our users as they work to get their voices heard on mainstream network media platforms.”41

The refinement of such innovative policies underlines that by 2014 Tudou’s festival had come to function as an ambitious commercial-minded enterprise connecting China’s young talent with diverse profit-driven stakeholders. Already in possession of its own combined exhibition and distribution platform—one, moreover, that self-supplies a steady stream of popular content—the event also began to expand its role of producer, or co-producer, of unique high quality titles to meet growing national and international demand. In other terms, the event is proving itself capable of finding novel ways to pursue its agenda of facilitating the professionalization of grassroots vernacular creativity.

With this goal in sight, the online and offline events work in synergy. Marijke de Valck suggests that it is important for online festivals to also secure offline locations—which may function as venues for face-to-face interactions and the holding of “rituals and ceremonies,” such as awards galas, that “add value and attract media attention”—because it is “festival space” that “generates exclusivity and thus raises the prestige and news value of programmed films.”42 To be sure, its awards ceremony is the central event and main attraction of the offline iteration of the TVF as this particular activity both accrues high status and draws media attention. Equally, though—and somewhat unusually for a prominent media festival—the online version remains the driver that controls audience experiences of the offline space and determines aspects of the awards ceremony. Historically, the SFF may be, in Daniel Dayan’s words, a “written festival” (“a Niagara of printed paper. [h]uge amounts of texts were pouring out every day”), but Tudou is utterly paperless.43 The festival’s script—its organization and schedule—is only available online: no program or timetable is circulated offline. Here Tudou once again differentiates itself from Sundance by playing to its strengths as an online corporate brand. As one of the giants of China’s new media economy, it prefers its annual jamboree to be narrated by online participatory posts rather than through printed materials like festival dailies.

The second major challenge facing the 2014 TVF—which also arose as a result of planned expansion and the concomitant rearrangement of its brand identity—concerns location and event management. The enhanced ambitions pursued at this time necessitated that crucial decisions be made regarding matters of capacity. In order to explain the relevance of these, it is helpful to glance back briefly at the event’s organization in earlier years.

The sense of intimate communality offered before 2014 to visitors to the offline Tudou festival both resembles and is distinguishable from the site specific dynamics created annually by Sundance in Utah. The company’s strategy of ensuring that user memories remain mobile, that they are not tied to just one physical geography, serves two purposes. First, it channels energies into Tudou’s web site, the online brand. Second, it also highlights that each chosen environment is nevertheless important to the branded festival experience. As Luan explains, Tudou “used to hold the festival in remote corners and in the wilderness.” For example, in 2012 it took place at the Chengde Mountain Resort area 250 kilometers northeast of Beijing (the Qing Dynasty’s Summer Place); in 2013, it was held at the foot of the Great Wall (Badaling Water Pass Great Wall.) Traveling to such places heightens feelings of exclusivity and shared acquaintance among festival participants, just as it does each year in the isolated terrain of Park City.44

The venue chosen to host the 2014 festival was very different, however. The event would now be held in the most recognizably urban of modern surroundings. The Tudou organizers characterize this favored location, the Shanghai Himalayas Museum (formerly the Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art) as “a space of possibilities,” and they provide a number of reasons for its selection.45 Because of the increased anticipated footfall, the 2014 environment had to be significant larger than on previous occasions. In addition, Tudou wanted a venue that utilizes both indoor and outdoor spaces, that could create a suitably artistic atmosphere embodying the “spirit” of the festival, and that would make everyone feel comfortable. In short, this particular place appears to have been picked because it provides a tangible manifestation of the company’s hybrid online/offline philosophy as well as a protective nest for the incubation of new creative endeavors. Also relevant is the fusion of rural and urban connotations in the design of the Shanghai Himalayas Museum—based as it is on a remote and wild mountain system that has been symbolically transplanted to the heart of the most futuristic of cities—and the fact that it is situated in the middle of Pudong, China’s burgeoning financial district and cauldron of economic growth.

Ironically, a particularly trying aspect of the various challenges facing the 2014 edition of the TVF lay outside of corporate control. Just two weeks before its scheduled opening, the event was abruptly postponed in an act of apparent force majeure, the organizers citing as the cause heightened security in Shanghai at the time of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s state visit to China.46 Other possible reasons also suggest themselves though. The announcement came not long before the (highly sensitive) 25th anniversary of the events that took place in and around Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 4 June 1989. Then, too, it was made shortly after Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and a private equity firm co-founded by its executive chair, Jack Ma, agreed to buy a ?1.22 billion stake in Youku Tudou, thus massively raising the company’s financial portfolio while rendering the future of the discrete Tudou and Youku labels highly unstable.

The precise motivation for the postponement of the 2014 TVF may never be known. At any rate and for whatever reason, the event was rescheduled for 16-17 August and moved to the Aviator’s Park at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo site.47 Once again, this new venue combines indoor and outdoor spaces (the former especially important considering the city’s sweltering summer weather). Once again, it is a large modern facility recently constructed in Pudong, the country’s commercial core.

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