Festivals: Scenarios and Stakeholder Configurations

Most of the festival interest in Chinese cinema and in Chinese film festivals and screenings is, in one way or another, determined by the current global ascent of China, which combines the promise of a booming market with strict censorship. In terms of potential, China today is comparable to Russia during the last years of the Soviet period, except that we are still to see which direction China will go. There are various possible scenarios, yet all the attention is, once again, driven by the prospect of opportunity and not impartial. All this is happening in a general context of relative weakening of the West in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. In this framework, newly empowered China is a force to be reckoned with. While the rhetoric is one that welcomes China’s arrival, the interest is in seeing China open up to the “free world,” whatever this concept may imply. As a result, the framework is one of selective translation, one in which the “free world” selectively chooses the narratives that come through.

Therefore, depending on the view about China’s “arrival” into the “free world,” I distinguish roughly three groups of Western-based stakeholders with vested interests in how this arrival is managed. These stakeholder groups are linked to three distinct categories of Western-based film festivals and screenings that have sprung up in reaction to the status quo.

The cultural diplomacy festival, the corrective festival, and the business card exchange festival each have a specific constellation of stakeholders. In all three cases, the films, while a necessary component, are not the only definitive factor, and often not the most important one. Each narrates and writes itself in a specific way, to borrow Daniel Dayan’s insightful comment, by seeking to address and influence different facets of public opinion.3

Who are the stakeholders and what is the stakeholder configuration? In the case of film festivals, these include sponsors, partners, board members, guests, audiences, venues (via their respective representatives), journalists, and so on. It is the specific stakeholder configuration—the relationships between these players—that largely determines what will be the selection of films, what the relative importance of the films in the context of the event will be, which filmmakers will be invited and featured, what concurrent events will happen, what the social program will be, the dress code, the accommodation and meals schedule for the event, the marketing, the media coverage sought, and so on. All these elements, taken together, give the festival a unique profile and create the festival’s “narrative.”

The cultural diplomacy film festival’s main stakeholders hail from what can be described as the cultural diplomacy set. The scenario that underwrites this festival is one that facilitates dialogue between cultures and presents the complexity of new China to attentive Western audiences at an opportune moment, thus enabling wider dialogue and mutual appreciation. No immediate economic or social goals are expressed in this scenario, but a general rapprochement is strongly implied. The typical board for such events would include politicians, high level officials who sit in for their respective organizations, established intellectuals who are at ease with the status quo in both China and the respective Western counterpart, as well as culturally inclined professionals (lawyers, accountants, and doctors). The board members are not paid, but regard what they are doing as a direct extension of their job. The driving force behind the event often includes immigrants who are successfully acculturated and who seek to create self-employment opportunities for themselves. The sponsors are the Chinese authorities (either directly financing the festival or just giving their blessing), and domestic organizations of some power and prestige. The partners are recognized institutions, such as high-profile cultural or political organizations, interest groups, and quangos. Sponsorships and partnerships are frequently donated “in kind” in the form of venues, access, clout, leverage, political influence, and connections—thus substantially enhancing the value of the event, which may be organized on a relatively modest budget. The venues are usually nice central locales, controlled by the cultural institutions involved. Audiences are regular patrons of such venues, extending to include successful immigrants. The program is diverse, often competently curated and generally reflecting a politically correct line with a smattering of tolerable nonconformity. The guests are usually high-profile likable intellectuals, not necessarily from the field of film but able to speak bigger truths beyond film (award-winning writers, spiritual leaders). Concurrent events are not necessarily linked to film, but feature Chinese culture at large. Accommodation and meals are at tested venues; the dress code is business casual, avoiding glamor but implying stability and respect. The social program for the guests includes cultural sightseeing and a wine reception with high-class catering and perhaps some relaxing music performed by immigrant (or sojourning) Chinese. Concurrent events include concerts, dance performances, or literary readings and are intended to please wider arts constituencies. The publicity is carefully planned and, with a limited budget, reaches out to well-targeted magazines and media that will run serious profiles of the event.

The second type, the corrective festival, has a different set of stakeholders. These are mainly intellectuals from academia, indie filmmaking, critics, and the liberal professions. There are almost no commercial sponsors; rather, assistance is sought from research bodies, including universities and museums, and avant-garde art organizations. Partnerships are entered on an ideological basis and have no commercial dimension. The committee (“board” is too corporate and therefore not used) is unpaid and comes together ad hoc, consisting of like-minded intellectuals of leftist and liberal persuasions. There is heavy reliance on volunteer labor. The venues are often auditoria or other free access community halls, rarely high-profile central spaces provided by arts organizations that represent cutting edge developments in global art. The screenings are free for the most part, and audiences largely consist of college students and intellectuals. The program features mainly indie films, and the invited guests consist mostly of indie filmmakers. The concurrent events are mainly debates on a chosen political issue, and are often of equal importance to the films (and sometimes outshine the films). Accommodation and meals are modest, there is no red carpet or flashlights, and the dress code is emphatically informal. The public social program is mainly limited to the discussions and debates and the party, if any, is intimate and austere (but often involving significant quantities of BYOB, “bring your own booze”). The marketing budget is next to nothing, publicity is of the DIY (“do-it-yourself”)-type and deploys guerrilla-marketing techniques. The media coverage consists of indie websites, word-of-mouth, and blogs. If there are press releases, they are likely to attract reaction mainly from local broadcast media and leftist newspapers if a special approach is made to them, usually through the personal contacts of the organizers. In terms of newsworthiness, such events are treated by the media as “softer than soft”—after all, the festival is not about some co-production treaty that may supposedly benefit “real people.” The narrative that underwrites this type of festival is that China is a duplicitous force that only appears to be opening up but in fact clings to severe censorship and human rights violations. As a result, the “hidden story” must be brought to light through showcasing corrective narratives found in the respective films.

The third type, the business card exchange film festival, roughly expresses the dream scenario of film industry executives in the West who salivate over the huge Chinese market (and their respective readiness to turn a blind eye on the shortcomings in China’s human rights record). The stakeholder configuration here is profoundly different: mainly corporate-savvy types are initiated into the festival. The board is comprised of influential moneyed and/or networked individuals. The sponsors are large corporations who have readily entered into partnership on the promise of significant returns. The audiences are large and mainstream, because the events take place at centrally located theatrical chains (who often also partner with the festival). The program revolves mainly around what may be perceived as entertainment or blockbuster films. The invitees may be directors but are more likely some glamorous (but uncontroversial) star, as well as industry executives whose names no one knows but who are given star treatment nonetheless. The concurrent events are mainly parties, photo-ops, or high-profile on-stage industry discussions, taking place at ostentatious venues and covered by heavy artillery mainstream news media, with cameras pointed at handshakes in the limelight. Accommodation is at top hotels and meals are at Michelin-starred restaurants (who may often be sponsors or partners). Glamor is of defining importance and the dress code is formal or high-fashion suitable for a photo-op, a required element of the event. The social program consists mainly of parties, as any talk on political issues or artistic matters is treated as boring. Professional PR agencies are often employed, and the publicity is through glossy brochures, dynamic websites, and precisely targeted press releases. The media coverage sought is high profile, and can more often than not be found within the fashion pages of newspapers or multinational lifestyle magazines.

In what follows, I will look at concrete examples of the three types of festivals, following through with Daniel Dayan’s approach to the festival as “collective performance,” defined by norms that are deployed and “translated into behavioral sequences” to scrutinize how a festival performs and talks about itself, as usually reflected in the rhetoric of the event, its promotion, program, guests, and coverage, as well as films.4

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