Growing calls to create space for art-house filmmakers

Although China is seeing massive growth in box-office receipts in recent years, the world's second-largest movie market needs "space" for art-house filmmakers, says award-winning director Lu Chuan.

Lu's comments came as he and Toronto International Film Festival CEO Piers Handling held a conversation about the Chinese movie industry's "current state and future challenges" on Tuesday night at the Canadian embassy in Beijing.

"It's the best time for Chinese filmmakers, but also the worst time for art-house directors," says Lu, known to global audiences for his Nanjing massacre-themed movie City of Life and Death.

Lu says the box office has recently become the "only standard" to judge a successful film, which resulted in the shrinking of independent movies.

Typically, big-budget commercial tentpoles garner up to 30 percent of the country's 32,000 screens in around 6,000 cinemas on their opening days. But the number of screens available for art-house titles is much smaller. Some small-budget movies are only screened for one day.

Even international film festival-circuit favorites such as Wang Xiaoshuai and Jia Zhangke see their movies treated unfairly, according to domestic media reports.

Last year, Wang's Red Amnesia was squeezed by Guo Jingming's Tiny Times 4, getting only 1 percent of screenings, while Jia's Mountains May Depart fell quickly from 10 to 1.5 percent of screen time after its first week.

"The art-house films with their aesthetics and personal stories should be a must-have part of the Chinese movie industry," says Lu.

China's box-office receipts soared to a record 44.1 billion yuan ($6.68 billion) in 2015, up nearly 50 percent year on year. And the latest figures show that China has surpassed the United States to top the world's box-office charts in February.

Meanwhile, as China anticipates overtaking the US to become the world's largest movie market in 2017, international film festivals are still the major portal for art-house filmmakers in the country.

But Handling, who has observed Chinese filmmakers for decades, regards this as a global phenomenon.

With regard to China's film industry, Handling says that most of the changes in China's movie market have been brought about by the country's economic development in the past years.

"The conditions are perfect for the Chinese film industry to take off. And modernization and the building of new cinemas in the past years have boosted the film industry," he says.

"China also has very talented filmmakers and the rest of the world is seeking more cooperation with them."

Xie Fei, a top director, says that film festivals have always been a key supplement to the major market.

"Some cinematic masterpieces, such as Citizen Kane and Spring in a Small Town, received poor market responses when they were released. But they are still remembered as classics thanks to the festivals."

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