Star power

Updated: 2013-03-09 08:09

By Raymond Zhou (China Daily)

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Star power

Star power

Chinese movie stars have demonstrated their entrepreneurial spirit by operating their independent or affiliated workshops and going beyond a simple star turn in front of the camera.

While the debate rages on whether a movie project should be director-oriented or producer-oriented, Chinese stars are becoming more dexterous in handling both sides of the camera. Some, like Xu Zheng, have taken on the role of the director, with great success, and more are appearing in the credits of the lower-profile but no less crucial producer.

It may not be an exaggeration that China's movie and television industries - its scripted entertainment - look poised to be star-driven. One sign of the power shift is the mushrooming of so-called "star workshops".

In the old days, a star performer, no matter how big, must be an employee of a State-owned studio or theater company. Just as in Hollywood's studio era, movie stars were assigned roles and were occasionally loaned to other studios. Nowadays, unbeknownst to the public, many of them still belong to State-owned entities, but only nominally. Ge You is still counted as a member of a performing troupe affiliated with the National Trade Union, and he fulfilled his duty by headlining a stage comedy, which, mainly due to his star wattage, played to sold-out houses in a countrywide tour.

Normally, they pay a token "management" fee to the company in exchange for the standard package of benefits, which is negligible to them, plus the sense of security of being part of something backed by the State.

In the past two decades, talent agencies have sprung up in China, often as a subsidiary of a large production or distribution company. Standalone agencies such as the Chinese branch of CAA have not fared well because their most valuable service -putting together various resources into a package - is not in demand in China. Chinese movie studios would not go out and buy such a package. There are only a limited number of studios and they control more resources than agencies. People want to be closer to the power center rather than going through a third party that cannot make the crucial decisions.

The same dynamic now applies to the stars and their affiliated studios, mostly privately owned and representing the most energetic of the business. As fame and power accrue to stars, they demand more creative and management control over their projects. They do not want to be treated the way they are in a State-owned studio. A few years ago, some of them began to establish workshops that allow them to operate with more independence.

Such an operation essentially turns an ad hoc entourage into a more formal business. The agent, the manager, the publicist, the chauffeur, the accountant, among others, can now work in tandem and with the single purpose of promoting the career of their boss. Some even have staffers who sift cyberspace and confront anyone who dares badmouth their employer. Such image-shaping efforts can be heavy-handed and backfire, but most of the time they create a positive environment - some deceptively so - that can impress potential audiences and investors.

However, studio-affiliated star workshops can run into conflicts of interest. When a plum role comes up and the studio that will produce it has two equally well-known stars, it does not matter whether they have their own workshops. The one not offered the role will be offended.

Unless that project is made possible by one of the stars.

In China, there is so much hot money chasing film and TV projects that investors tend to be ignorant of generally accepted practices of the industry. The less they know about the inner workings of the business, the more they'll be focused on the things they know - and they know how big a star is.

That makes the Chinese system fundamentally different from that of Hollywood. Because most investors in China cannot tell a great story or a quality script from a mundane one, all they do is throw money at known quantities, and that has been driving up star salaries at an utterly insane pace. Much more so than Hollywood - even though salaries for Chinese stars still lag behind those for Hollywood A-listers.

It also makes it possible for China's top entertainers to completely sever ties with large studios, State-owned or private, and become the masters of their houses. They are now not only their own agents, but can even represent other talents. They can spearhead projects in addition to headlining them. Huang Xiaoming turned around a dead project, which became An Inaccurate Memoir. It would not have been possible without his involvement, as the director is a young man with little clout and the studio that produced it was half-hearted about it.

However, star workshops rarely include funding for their movies or TV drama series. Their expertise is to play matchmaker between those looking for projects and those who need finance. Some even assume roles exclusively behind the scenes, producing the projects without starring in them. Many also cover their overhead expenses by having people with deeper pockets either sharing an equity or sponsoring the workshop.

Stars tend to cite the limited shelf life of an acting career as the main reason for the move. "Every year brings a new crop of young actors. An ordinary actor is a commodity, just like some vegetables at a farmers market," says Huang Xiaoming, one of the leading actors of his generation. Now, he can have scripts tailor-made for him. As a matter of fact, some superstars participate in drama series with their own writers and directors, essentially cementing their function as the driving force that makes or breaks a project.

Therefore, it is more an offensive than a defensive move on the part of celebrities who want to give full play to their artistic or business potential. Some of the workshops are virtual mini-studios with the capacity to conceive, develop and produce feature films or TV shows. Others branch out into related businesses. For example, Ren Quan's operation includes the production of live events, complete with food catering. Alec Su has extended into book publishing.

While most such workshops employ half a dozen to a dozen people, Fan Bingbing's has a staff of over 30, reputedly the largest of its kind. When it posted a for-hire ad for one position in late 2012, more than 1,000 applicants sent in resumes. The compensation and benefits are commensurate with the market, but the star allure is uniquely its own.

According to one insider who asks for anonymity, Fan's operation could be having an annual turnover of 100 million yuan ($16 million) or more. Accurate figures are hard to obtain, though. Forbes lists Fan as the third-highest earner for 2012 among all Chinese-language entertainers, with 101 million yuan in income. But Fan once explained that her income is counted as that of her workshop.

The rise of star power has parallels in Hollywood. But charm alone is not enough to take the place of foresight and acumen, which George Clooney has displayed in abundance. By producing pictures like Syriana, Michael Clayton, The Ides of March and Argo, the latest Oscar winner for Best Picture, and writing and directing Good Night, and Good Luck, he has proven to be as powerful a force behind the screen as on screen. That kind of talent takes more than experience, connections and fame. It takes genius.

It remains to be seen whether marquee names in China can parlay their newfound wealth and influence into the Clooney-caliber luster of a far-ranging career.

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(China Daily 03/09/2013 page11)