Quality of Chinese film text to be enhanced

Author:JIANG LING and YUAN HUAYUAN Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-07-21

In the Resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) on the Major Achievements and Historical Experience of the Party over the Past Century, adopted at the Sixth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee, it declared “Putting social benefits first while also stressing economic returns, the Party has advanced all-around development of cultural programs and industries. Art and literature are flourishing, and public cultural services have improved, providing people with richer cultural nourishment.”

The film industry is a crucial part of China’s cultural industry, and an important means of providing people’s aesthetic entertainment needs, and intellectual and cultural needs. In recent years, the domestic film box office has continued to rise, setting new records. Films such as “Operation Red Sea,” “Dying to Survive,” and “The Battle at Lake Changjin” have won widespread praise from domestic audiences, showcasing Chinese cinema’s prosperous development. As more and more high-quality foreign movies are imported amid the ever-growing aesthetic entertainment needs of Chinese audiences, domestic films with weak content innovation and low quality can no longer stand their ground. Screenwriters’ cultural pursuits, and other content producers’ goals should prioritize quality content, honor the spirit of craftsmanship, finely carve every detail, and polish real quality products.

Booming film industry

Since the 18th CPC National Congress, China’s film industry has been booming, with the box office setting new records and various ranking steadily climbing in the world.

By the end of 2021, the number of screens exceeded 80,000, ranking first in the world and nearly double that of North America. Between 2012 and 2019, the annual box office rose from 17.07 billion yuan to nearly 64.2 billion yuan, narrowing the gap with North America year by year. From 2020 to 2021, the box office declined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2021, Chinese films total box office reached 47.258 billion yuan, ranking first in the world, and film production ranked third in the world.

Over the past five years, China produced more than 4,000 films, second only to the United States and India. A retrospective on Chinese films made in the past three years would reveal that the box office, and the quality of film text has improved significantly, but compared with European and American films, there is still room for improvement. Since 2018, Chinese films such as “Operation Red Sea,” “Detective Chintang 2,” “Dying to Survive,” “Hello Mr. Billionaire,” and “Detective Chintang 3” have performed well at the box office, but overall, their film text is not highly rated. Despite the narrowing gap between the Chinese and American box offices, audience ratings for the quality of Chinese film text are generally lower than those of American films.

As defined in A Dictionary of Film Studies, film text is “the internal structure and organization of any one film; or simply a film wherever it is conceptualized as a system of meanings.”

It must be pointed out that we cannot use box office totals and this growth, the share of domestic films’ box office in total box office revenues, and the number of domestic films within the top 10 box office ranking, to evaluate the text quality of Chinese films, because this data only shows the growth of domestic film quantities, and the huge population of mainland China has given the domestic film box office an incremental flexibility.

Word of mouth has a significant impact on China’s sustained box office growth, but there is no significant positive correlation between word of mouth and box office revenues. Generally speaking, China’s sustained box office numbers are highly affected by word of mouth, whereas its impact on the total box office is nominal. Reputable directors and famous actors have the most influence on box offices. To say the least, the quality of the text content of a film cannot be measured solely by the box office.

Reasons for poor quality movies

The movie market is unpredictable, but the art of storytelling is attainable. The innovation of film text largely depends on the quality of scripts, and there are few domestic scripts that tell good stories. That said, Chinese scriptwriters should not take the blame alone, various stakeholders related to the industry have their share of responsibility. At present, the main reasons for the lack of original creativity in domestic films are as follows.

First, the lack of innovative thinking and broad horizons leads to monotonous content, stereotypical plots, homogenized stories in genre films, plot imitation, plagiarism, and infringement. Second, the artistic adaptation and expression of real-life themes are insufficient. In addition to “Dying to Survive” and a few other films, vivid realistic tales are rarely seen in film. Third, some practitioners are keen on marketing and box office performance. Focusing on the commercial value rather than cultural, artistic, and aesthetic value leads to few filmmakers devoting themselves to quality storytelling and artistic expression.

At the same time, the development of high-quality IP is insufficient, including subpar innovation of old and new classic texts, this results in the phenomenon of shoddily made follow-ups and remakes. For example, after the success of “Drawing Sword,” quite a few copycats appeared, totally devoid of good performances and artistic expressions.

IP is short for intellectual property, and as a matter of fact, it became a localized concept in China dating back to 2013. Different from its common usage in the West, IP in the Chinese context refers to creative intellectual property that attracts wide attention, has a huge impact, and can be reproduced or recreated.

Not to mention the widely criticized “star effect” and unfair salary distributions. Many famous actors can’t brag about their acting skills, but they still can take away a relatively high proportion of the whole film’s production cost. The result is a sharp income contrast between scriptwriters, general content producers, and directors, producers, and stars. Low returns on their work discourages scriptwriters, making high-quality original works hard to find. Plus, commercialism drives directors, stars, and investors to pursue monetary gains, and this artificially weakens the quality of the original screenplay. Therefore, to encourage script storytelling and artistic processes, IP value and content must lead, and the spirit of innovation must be highlighted to improve the quality of storytelling in film.

Main strategies

The analysis of innovative film content has multiple dimensions for domestic films. From the perspective of Robert McKee’s story theory, we should focus on script creation, cultural innovation, and artistic presentation of the story. From the perspective of IP theory and innovation diffusion theory, the creation of an innovation environment and incentives are also crucial to improving domestic films’ innovation ability.

First of all, we need to carry out a thorough examination on the group of scriptwriters and the script development system. Taking scriptwriters and scripts as the core, a comprehensive analysis of the elements that could contribute to high-quality content creation is needed. On top of these, the corresponding strategies to improve the scriptwriter’s writing and film text are proposed.

Going forward, we must raise the entry threshold and the voice of scriptwriters, enhance the effect of IP protection, perfect education and training systems, and encourage the creativity and innovation of scriptwriters. Technological progress, represented by internet and digital technologies, has brought about changes to content production, and online literature’s script transformation is uncertain. We must make sure scriptwriters’ hard work and copyrights are effectively protected by law. The script development system and relevant measures should be in place to deter those eager for quick success and instant profits. Screenwriters need to bear in mind that only an enhancement of their cultural and artistic accomplishments and creative abilities in the aspects of film type exploration, themed stories, content creation techniques, narrative perspectives, expressions, and literary symbolic skills can their work truly stand the test of time.

At the government level, targeted measures are needed to optimize content approval, procedures, and copyright protection. In November 2016, the Film Industry Promotion Law of the People’s Republic of China was adopted at the 24th Session of the Standing Committee of the 12th National People’s Congress. It made clear provisions on the definition of the concept of film, film creation, shooting, distribution, and projection at the national level, as well as policy guarantees for the film industry. In film censorship, it stipulated that a film should be assessed by no less than five experts, who offer their opinions.

In copyright protection, the government also introduced the corresponding measure: setting up expert evaluation teams to assess imitation, reproduction, piracy, copying and other infringements.

At the market level, a balance between scriptwriters, content production, distribution, and projection should be struck. Content creation needs to shift from pleasing audiences’ beliefs, values, and emotions to guiding audiences’ values and consumption orientation. Content creation should not be completely subject to downstream pressure, but should lead market trends with high-quality works. The content quality standards are now blurred, so it is necessary to build a multi-evaluation system. Fierce competition in the international market and the expectation that the audience will break the “protective balance” of domestic films, make it urgent to improve the quality of Chinese films.

With the deepening of China’s opening up to the outside world, more and more foreign film products, especially Hollywood films, have entered China’s cinema. It cannot be overlooked that in terms of film content quality and production technology, China’s film industry still lags behind. If Chinese films want to truly go global, we must have the courage and determination to improve content creation quality.

For audiences, it is necessary to objectively and rationally evaluate movie content, write reviews and comments about a movie sincerely, and create a good social environment for content creation. We should all respect the work of film creators, and avoid using acid, caustic, abusive, and sarcastic words in reviews. We need to consciously resist the manipulation of the film reviews, including excessive promotion or derogatory malicious reviews.


Jiang Ling is from the China Institute of Urban Governance at Shanghai Jiaotong University; Yuan Huayuan is from the School of Media and Communication at Shanghai Jiaotong University.


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