The Business Card Exchange Festival

The scenario that informs this third type of festival is that the West is not interested in China in itself but in China as an opportunity.

The stance of “an opportunity not to be missed” comes through most succinctly in legendary investor Jim Rogers’s appeal—“See their films!”— from A Bull in China (2007), the now classical book on investing in what is regarded as the world’s most lucrative market. Credit Suisse’s website claims that Rogers is so bullish he believes educating his daughters about China is the best thing he could do for them. He has bought them DVDs of Chinese films, and has even hired a Chinese nanny so they can master Mandarin. “The most sensible skill that I can give to somebody born in 2003 is a perfect command of Mandarin,” he is quoted as saying.21 Antony Boulton, one of Britain’s most successful fund managers, is not far behind. He moved to Hong Kong a few years back to run a new fund called China Special Situations.

It is this mindset that one needs to enter the vast Chinese market and position oneself to ensure an influx of revenues and profits that is behind the business card exchange festival. How is this different from the cultural diplomacy festival? Whereas the latter is designed around ideas of “soft power” and aims to project an image, this one is focused on removing obstructions for the flow not of films but of content (and not of cinema but of entertainment). It is a festival motivated by laissez-faire ideology, and even if it may be seen to flirt with the authorities, it does not want to be sponsored and therefore controlled by them. It is all about straight market talk and, as I have written elsewhere, it is about festivals that function as “clusters of creativity and commerce” that are meant to bridge “the film industry with politics and other spheres.”22

The people behind this type of event are the film industry’s big business players, typically Hollywood studios and distributors and some smaller but well positioned European and Asian companies. They also include newly minted Chinese film industry executives who realize they are holding the keys to this extremely desirable territory. Nothing much may have happened yet, but the essential business card exchange that is at the core of such events has been taking place for nearly a decade now.

For example, Cannes International Film Festival is the ultimate industry event of the year where market estimates, audience profiles, and market strategies are discussed. It now routinely holds Asian co-production summits and other events. Correspondingly, its North-American counterpart, Toronto International Film Festival, has established an Asian Film Summit, which charged participants an extra C$170 in addition to their C$595 festival passes in 2014. It is likely to create a good additional revenue stream for the festival. Chinese attendees are usually members of the new class of moneyed film industry executives, some rich enough to make it onto the Forbes list or the gossip pages of the Cannes chronicles.

However, there are several events in China that are more important, because it is here that the real gatekeepers entertain and check out avid Western guests on their own territory. The Qingdao International Film Festival, to be held for a first time in September 2016 and organized by tycoon Wang Jianlin’s Dalian Wanda Group in close collaboration with the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, may well prove to be the quintessential representative of this category. On the basis of information available at the time of writing, there is every reason to believe that, like the large film festivals in Shanghai and Beijing, the Qingdao festival will probably not become famous for the films. Situated in China, these events masquerade as film festivals organized for the audiences, with films, awards, and all usual attributes of an ordinary festival dedicated to the art of film. In fact, they function as gatekeepers to a lucrative market, where guests are networking, hoping to be one step ahead for the long anticipated moment when China will finally fully open up its vast marketplace for foreign film imports. As “business card exchange” festivals, both Shanghai and Beijing have an idiosyncratic configuration of stakeholders, with an emphasis on industry players and distributors. The festivals’ being “in love with power, prestige and glamour” is just a routine part of the corporate experience, paired with socialist-style cultural diplomacy and political deal-making.23

In regard to the festival in Shanghai, Chris Berry observes that in spite of the poor film selection and other paradoxes, “more guests attend from around the world every year, and more of those guests are repeats.”24 Of course, the Shanghai film festival is not about films. Interestingly, even if it features a market, it cannot yet be described as the main festival where one does business, as the deal-making here only started in 2010.25 Shanghai, however, is a place to exchange business cards, meet people, and establish connections early on; it is where Westerners can put their newly printed two-sided English-Chinese business card into the hands of business suited Chinese officials. This is where the “added value” of this festival occurs. The Shanghai Film Market even promotes itself with the slogan, “China’s ONLY film market [sic]”—even if it is still to demonstrate that it does any meaningful business.26 The returning guests at Shanghai would not be put off by the absence of worthy films, as they do not really come for the movies. Many of them do not even come anywhere near the screenings.

In fact, it is no surprise that often one can see more attention given to the parties and the fashion shows that take place at such festivals. Notions of brand-awareness and displays of opulence are more important than the films. The glamor events are indispensable to these film festivals. They are a shaping factor which must be recognized and discussed as such—not least because many of the stakeholders behind the festivals see it as yet another (and good) opportunity for promotion, fundraising, or pure celebration, as opposed to their interest in cinematic art.

A China-focused manifestation of the business card exchange festival is the China Image Film Festival (CIFF), which lists its location as Leicester Square in London and describes itself as “the most influential” and “the most anticipated Chinese theme event hosted abroad.” It has adopted the slogan of “impress the world,” as in “the most influential large-scale Chinese film festival in Europe—China Image, Impress the World.” It is noteworthy that after the fifth event in November 2013, most of the information on the festival seems to have disappeared from the Internet and the former website seems to be defunct at the time of writing in June 2014. The Wikipedia entry does not seem to have been updated beyond 2012. Another stated goal was “cultivating the overseas market”; “CIFF consistently features the best representative Chinese films of the year for overseas audience to experience and perceive.”27

I confess that, in my over ten years of studying festivals, I had never heard of this supposedly “largest Chinese movie feast in Europe,” until hearing Chinese film specialist Chris Berry mention it in 2013, and noting that the above claims have nothing to do with reality; they are all rhetoric designed for financial backers back home. Indeed, even if the festival’s stated goals are to provide the outstanding contemporary Chinese films with an international platform open to the world audience, it is yet another business card exchange platform using the pretext that it would help the Chinese film industry to cultivate the overseas market. China Image’s fifth edition in 2013 screened 20 films and distributed 20 awards. In its coverage of the event, China Daily quoted an Ivor Benjamin, chairman of Directors Guild of Great Britain, according to whom the festival “allows the British audience to see how people ‘live, love, work, fight and die on the strange and exotic land, China.’”28 In fact, the most that this festival does is give London-based film executives an opportunity to exchange business cards with Chinese bureaucratic figureheads (i.e., when the latter are not shopping at Harrods), in the context of hosting the Sino-Anglo Business and Finance Forum at the Houses of Lords, at the Industry Forum and at the closing and opening galas.

On the surface, all the festivals mentioned here are bona fide festivals that “tick all the boxes” for their respective type. However, they are also festivals that mainly service one particular kind of stakeholder, the film business executive, who is not here for the films. At such festivals, industry and political needs lie behind a fayade of public service rhetoric. However, it is not particularly difficult to see how the interests of the audiences (brought here to save face) are being neglected, in favor of setting up political and commercial alliances.

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