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UPDATED: September 19, 2011 NO. 38 SEPTEMBER 22, 2011
Learning From Low Budgets
Chinese filmmakers turn small-budget productions into box-office successes

Ning Hao, director of the film Crazy Stone (CFP)

Many viewers said they went to see the movie with low expectations, but were surprised by the story and the way it was told, and considered it the best low-budget movie they had seen this year.

"No supermarket will sell just one shampoo brand, and likewise theaters should figure out a proper proportion for films of various genres," said Ding Junjie, Vice Director of the Academic Board of the Communication University of China. "The true prosperity of China's movie industry will rely on whether China has an established group of professionals for small- and medium-budget productions."

What investors value

The Piano in a Factory set an example for Chinese moviemakers to make good films with small budgets.

Zhang Xianliang, a writer who founded the China West Film in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, pointed out only a few of the 100 classic movies of the 20th century chosen by Americans are mega productions.

"The future of low-budget films is promising because low-budget productions usually have higher returns on investments, although they cannot match blockbusters in box office," said Zhang.

Two low-budget movies directed by Chinese director Xie Jin (1923-2008) in 1980s, Herdsman and Hibiscus Town, were box office successes too. Herdsman, a 1982 production adapted from Zhang's novel only cost 1 million yuan ($150,000); Hibiscus Town, made in 1986, cost 4 million yuan ($620,000). The latter, with the average ticket price at less than one yuan ($0.15) at that time, yielded more than 100 million yuan ($15 million) at the box office.

"The two movies addressed contemporary Chinese issues, depicted the 'cultural revolution,' and reflected common ethics and aesthetics of one generation, which is why they resonated with millions of audience members," said Zhang. "Whatever the investment, we have to produce films that are both visually pleasant and emotionally striking."

Crazy Stone, released in 2006, is another example of success for Chinese low-budget films. Produced with less than 3 million yuan ($460,000), the film earned 30 million yuan ($4.61 million).

"Like a carpenter about to make a chair or a desk, a director should exactly decide what kind of film he is going to make before he starts shooting it," said Ning Hao, director of Crazy Stone. "My concern during the Crazy Stone production was how to make my 'chair' as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for the audience."

Behind the success of Crazy Stone was an investor who had an eye for good screenplays and gifted directors.

At a film investment fair in March 2005, Ning and his film script aroused the interests of Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau. Lau has his own studio for film investment, production and distribution. He decided to invest and advised Ning to localize the story. As a result, Ning chose Chongqing.

"Investors need to be farsighted and have the right mindset when they decide to invest in a film," said Wu Jun, General Manager of the Guangzhou Branch of GF Fund Management Co. Ltd. "No one knows whether an investment will be profitable at the beginning and I think Lau is quite aware of it. Even if he won't reap huge from the investment, it's good to support a promising director to grow."

But that's not to say Lau didn't care about the profitability of his investment. "The most valuable part of Ning is his persistence in carrying out his ideas despite difficulties, in addition to his innate sense of humor and artistic gift," said Wu.

Several years ago, CFG launched an investment program to support production of young film directors.

"Returns from investments were not encouraging, but the situation has improved after Ning Hao, and Lu Chuan, director of City of Life and Death, and other established young directors were included to court more confidence from investors and producers in the program," said a CFG manager Zhao Zuohai. "One problem that still plagues us is how to get box-office recognition for young directors' works and therefore yield returns for producers," said Zhao.

Marketing efforts

"Equal importance should be paid to marketing, the finishing touch to ensure box-office success for a movie," said Wang Dayong, President of CashFlower Culture Communication Co. Ltd., the marketing agent of The Piano in a Factory. "We largely attribute the movie's improved box-office performance several weeks later to effective word-of-mouth marketing."

Unlike blockbusters, low-budget films cannot secure contracts of most theaters nationwide. That's why Crazy Stone selected some cinemas in Beijing and Shanghai, expecting the effects of word-of-mouth marketing—high acclaim from the audiences attracted more curious viewers to the theaters.

It's also important to find an ideal screening time and avoid competing for viewers with blockbusters, said senior film distributor Gao Jun.

The Golden Rooster Awards

Established by the China Film Association in May 1981, the Golden Rooster Awards are China's most prestigious film awards, the equivalent to the Academy Awards. Award winners are chosen by a jury of actors, directors and critics. The awards consist of 19 prizes for films, actors, directors and other professionals. Special and honorary awards are also given.

Originally, Golden Roosters were only available to mainland nominees of China, but the awards opened up the acting categories to actors from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere in 2005.

The Hundred Flowers Film Awards

The Hundred Flowers Awards were initiated in 1962, sponsored by the Popular Cinema magazine, which has the greatest circulation of any entertainment-focused magazine in China. The annual awards are decided by the number of votes submitted by the general public.

The awards are called the mass awards as they only represent the views of ordinary moviegoers. Every year, the Popular Cinema magazine issues ballots to its readers and the awards are produced according to the number of votes that each film gets. The awards consist of seven awards in five categories, namely best film, best actor and actress, best supporting actor and actress, and three awards in the best film category.

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