Independent cinema in the Chinese film industry

Song, Tingting (2010) Independent cinema in the Chinese film industry. PhD thesis, Queensland University of Technology.


Chinese independent cinema has developed for more than twenty years. Two sorts of independent cinema exist in China. One is underground cinema, which is produced without official approvals and cannot be circulated in China, and the other are the films which are legally produced by small private film companies and circulated in the domestic film market. This sort of ‘within-system’ independent cinema has played a significant role in the development of Chinese cinema in terms of culture, economics and ideology. In contrast to the amount of comment on underground filmmaking in China, the significance of ‘within-system’ independent cinema has been underestimated by most scholars.

This thesis is a study of how political management has determined the development of Chinese independent cinema and how Chinese independent cinema has developed during its various historical trajectories. This study takes media economics as the research approach, and its major methods utilise archive analysis and interviews.

The thesis begins with a general review of the definition and business of American independent cinema. Then, after a literature review of Chinese independent cinema, it identifies significant gaps in previous studies and reviews issues of traditional definition and suggests a new definition.

After several case studies on the changes in the most famous Chinese directors’ careers, the thesis shows that state studios and private film companies are two essential domestic backers for filmmaking in China. After that, the body of the thesis provides an examination of the development of ‘within-system’ independent cinema. Specifically, three factors: government intervention, the majors’ performance (state studios and, later, the conglomerates) and the market conduct of independent cinema at various points in their trajectories are studied.

The key findings of the study are as follows: First, most scholars have overlooked the existence and the significance of within-system Chinese independent cinema. Drawing on an American definition of the independent sector, this thesis proposes a definition of the sector in China: namely, any film that has not been financed, produced, and/or distributed by majors. The thesis also notes important contradictions in applying this definition: i.e. film-making is still dependent on policies that frame industry development. The thesis recognises that major tensions apply to filmmaking in China, which significantly differentiates the Chinese independents from those in the US.

Second, the development of Chinese independent cinema is the result the rise of the private sector and the decline of the state studio system. As state studios encountered difficulties the private sector moved forward; consequently the environment improved for independent cinema.

Third, before 2003, the film industry in China had little commercialisation. The government controlled independent cinema by means of license and censorship. State studios produced main melody films and Hollywood attracted most of the audiences. Many independent filmmakers focused on commercial films, thus contributing to film commercialisation.

Fourth, after 2003, the film industry became increasingly fragmented. The government created distribution and exhibition opportunities for main melody films; conglomerates collaborated with Hong Kong players; Hong Kong co-productions and Hollywood occupied the film market; and small private film companies produced main melody films in order to earn meagre profits.

The original contribution of the thesis is to advance the study of Chinese independent cinema. The study suggests a reasonable and practical definition of Chinese independent cinema. It shows how the Chinese government authorities have implemented economic measures to gain ideological control in the film industry. Finally, this the first study on Chinese independent cinema applying a synthesis of economic, political and historical perspectives.

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ID Code: 43448
Item Type: QUT Thesis (PhD)
Supervisor: Keane, Michael & Zhang, Weihong
Keywords: independent cinema, the Chinese film industry, out-of-system independents, within-system independents, economic reform, state studios, private film companies, main melody films, commercial films
Divisions: Current > QUT Faculties and Divisions > Creative Industries Faculty
Institution: Queensland University of Technology
Deposited On: 20 Jul 2011 06:20
Last Modified: 20 Jul 2011 06:20

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