Grounded Dreams?

Hong Kong and Hollywood face the challenges of a globalizing movie economy.

Hortense Powdermaker’s analysis of a Hollywood movie industry driven by extreme uncertainty, anxiety, and crisis in Hollywood, the Dream Factory (1950), remains just as relevant to today’s industry marked by increasing post-Fordist production and globalization. The offshoring of production jobs from the dream factory means that people working in this historic place-based industry see their jobs go elsewhere and experience economic uncertainty. Meanwhile, in the much smaller but previously hailed “Hollywood of the East,” the declining Hong Kong film industry has seen reduced local employment, with Chinese co-productions offering limited opportunities across the border. These two film industries, which share a history of media labor and finance flows, also share a rise in precarious labor. Growing competition and collaboration with China for Hollywood and Hong Kong compounds the sociopolitical tensions of cultural production in a globalizing economy.

Over half a century after Powdermaker, I conducted multi-sited ethnographic research of the commercial film and television industries of Hollywood and Hong Kong. Between 2003 and 2007, I observed and interviewed a range of production personnel including actors, stunt workers, assistant directors, producers, camera operators, and make-up artists in both sites, and worked in Hollywood as an “extra” and intern.

Many of the film and television storylines in which media workers participate hinge on the threat of death especially in action, crime, disaster, horror, and science fiction genres. The specter of death has long been a popular plot device, as it is intended to raise the stakes for audiences. Stakes are raised for production personnel as well: I found that the work of bringing ideas and images about death and dying to life sometimes resulted in cast and crew members grappling with questions about mortality, loss, and the afterlife in their off-screen lives. Yet the space of the set is not removed from broader issues such as globalization. The theme of impending loss also found expression through threats of job scarcity for both southern California-based and Hong Kong-based production work. Out-of-state and cross-border dispersal of filming activities threatened to deflate the personal dreams of below-the-line workers.

A de-territorialized dream factory

One of Ten Year’s vignettes tells the tale of a taxi driver who is banned from picking up passengers from the airport or central business district because he speaks Cantonese, not Mandarin. Golden Scene

In Hollywood I repeatedly encountered comments about a sense of decline, specifically for production-related jobs. Aspiring media professionals who had moved to Hollywood faced the prospect of dwindling LA-based productions.

The prospect is not necessarily that a presumed “American” writerly sensibility will disappear if work is outsourced to China, as the picketing writers predicted (although that may yet happen), but that a domestic writerly sensibility is not the only game in town.
Hollywood accelerated its filming out of state and out of the country for economic, not aesthetic, reasons two decades ago. Referred to as “runaway production” by industry insiders, states such as Georgia and Louisiana, and countries including Canada offered tax credits and cash rebates to entice production companies and studios to shoot in those locations and to hire local crews. In 1997, “the majority of large‐budget studio features were produced in California, with many in LA. By 2013, most high‐value feature projects were made elsewhere” (FilmLA 2014). Runaway production also leads to a decline in Hollywood union labor and safety oversight. While California’s revised Tax Credit Program appeared to have returned some jobs to Los Angeles in 2016, it is unclear whether future state administrations will commit to renewing such subsidies.

Cue China

With production and post-production work increasingly offshored and outsourced, another sector of Hollywood was also confronting its position within the industry. During the 2007–8 Writers Guild of America strike, film and TV writers hit the picket lines, joined by representatives from the Screen Actors Guild.

Outside studios in West LA, Studio City, and Universal City, striking writers aired their grievances. Although the strike was about compensation for “new media” distribution, China loomed as another threat. One writer told me, “What we make, China can’t make.” Someone else insisted, “The conglomerates can’t outsource what we do to China.” Another complained of “the ills of globalization.” Most of the writers were white; a few claimed that they were middle class and that their families were experiencing an economic downturn. Some, like the independent filmmakers of Sherry Ortner’s Not Hollywood (2013), came of age under neoliberal economic policies and increasing income inequality.

These writers’ fears may yet come to fruition, but probably not in the way they expected. Amidst talk of competition and collaborations between Hollywood and China, Sony Pictures has recently announced its China Writers Initiative. Supported by China’s Film Bureau, Sony’s initiative states that writers from China will collaborate with Hollywood film and television executives and screenwriters not just for Hollywood/China co-productions, but for “Hollywood films” as well. The prospect is not necessarily that a presumed “American” writerly sensibility will disappear if work is outsourced to China, as the picketing writers predicted (although that may yet happen), but that a domestic writerly sensibility is not the only game in town. Apparently, Sony seeks to authentically “Sinicize” parts of its US-based dream factory for the production of stand-alone Hollywood films. While Hollywood has for years churned out transnational productions, by bringing in Chinese writers experienced in working with their state administration at the pre-production stage, this initiative —sanctioned by Hollywood’s trade organization—represents a new departure. However, it is too soon to know how such initiatives will fare given the Trump administration’s hostility toward trade relations with China and Hollywood’s own conflicted practices of racial inclusion.

Hollywood of the East heads north

Writers, producers, directors, and cinematographers in Hong Kong voiced similar fears to their Hollywood peers about China, to which Hong Kong was returned as a Special Administrative Region in 1997. A few claimed that the Hong Kong style of writing and filming, so revered in the newly opened China, could not be replicated there. However, with the implementation of the 2003 CEPA free-trade agreement (Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement) between China and Hong Kong to facilitate film co-productions and help liberalize China’s economy, redundancy was becoming an issue for some informants.

“Please. CEPA will cut off both my arms: ghosts and gangsters!”
CEPA was intended to revitalize Hong Kong’s film industry, whose output started to significantly drop in the 1990s. CEPA co-productions with China allow Hong Kong filmmakers to access the enormous China market and bypass the quota system for foreign films; some Hong Kong filmmakers have been very successful in the mainland market. However, below-the-line film workers in Hong Kong are not always hired to work across the border (where labor is cheaper), and sometimes quit the industry. Several above-the-line informants feared that even as key creative personnel whose knowledge is highly valued, they are essentially training their own Chinese replacements, and predicted that in a few decades their services will no longer be needed.

One of their biggest challenges is to produce films that are tailored for the Chinese market (rather than local Hong Kong tastes), and meet with the approval of Chinese censors. This is what Mirana M. Szeto and Yun-chung Chen (2013) refer to as “mainlandization—the emerging Hong Kong-Mainland China co-production regime targeting the Chinese market.” Ghost films and gangster films—two popular genres in Hong Kong cinema—are forbidden for their superstitious subject matter and reworked for their violence and morality, respectively. As one Hong Kong writer and director exclaimed to me, “Please. CEPA will cut off both my arms: ghosts and gangsters!”

Hong Kong film personnel also dealt with the frustrations of commuting or relocating to China, learning Mandarin, and navigating different political and economic practices. Meanwhile, many lamented that their local film industry is a vanishing entity. “We are nothing anymore,” a film star pronounced. “We are dying, and you are here to record it,” an actress in the Hong Kong film industry repeatedly told me. “Let’s toast the last of the Hong Kong film industry,” a producer-director suggested over tea. Perhaps it is unsurprising that people in the business of telling stories are so attuned to endings; their livelihood and lives are directly affected by these industry developments.

Localism rising

Fears about maintaining the “one country, two systems” form of governance between Hong Kong and China escalated. The 2014 student-led Umbrella Movement extended some of the concerns I’d heard years earlier from media workers. These pro-democracy protests were prompted in part by Beijing’s refusal to grant full universal suffrage promised to Hong Kong. Rising inequality, exorbitant property prices, and a sense of mainland encroachment on local life have been suggested as additional issues that fueled the protests, in which thousands of people occupied parts of Hong Kong. Following the protests, localism and even calls for separatism are on the rise. Recently, residents have experienced what some consider a growing mainland intervention in the city’s legislature and in book publishing, heightening concerns about free speech and freedom of the press.

A picket line during the 2007–8 Writers Guild of America strikes. Sylvia J. Martin

With enormous profits to be made from co-productions with China, there is minimal financial incentive for Hong Kong filmmakers to deviate from the mainlandization that Szeto and Chen describe, and make films solely for the Hong Kong market. Yet given the public protests and worries about diminishing free speech, there is an increasing socio-political incentive to do so.

One example is the five Hong Kong directors who created the controversial omnibus Ten Years, which unexpectedly won the 2015 Best Film Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Made on a shoestring budget, Ten Years is a dystopic vision of Hong Kong under Chinese rule in 2025, depicting activists dying for their causes, loss of free speech and local language, and politically contrived assassinations. Although the film was popular with some viewers and more than recouped its tiny budget, it was pulled from Hong Kong theaters after heavy criticism from Chinese state media. Community groups quickly organized screenings around the city to satisfy growing local interest. Some of the filmmakers’ anxieties I had encountered years earlier about mainland censorship were now being magnified on-screen for a growing Hong Kong public.

Hong Kong of the West?

Job instability persists for production workers in the two dream factories. In Hong Kong, local films continue to be made without mainland involvement and a growth in localism may create more demand, yet their number is small and they lack strong foreign markets. Working in China, Hollywood, or elsewhere is now the key to individual survival, although cross-border work is challenging for below-the-line workers. In Hollywood, while labor organizations have reported increased employment over the past year, the California Film Commission cautions that as of October 2016, big-budget feature movie production has not returned to film in Los Angeles, despite the state’s new Tax Credit Program . Yet Hollywood films continue to dominate foreign markets, including Latin America and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). While some suggest that Hollywood obliges Chinese censors and tries to avoid giving offense (think the Doctor Strange whitewashing controversy), Hollywood is not forced into the mainlandization that characterizes much of Hong Kong’s film industry. Hollywood is located within a sovereign nation, not a semi-autonomous region that belongs to China and which partners in its liberalization measures. Nevertheless, we shall see just how the storyline of these two historic industries will continue to unfold and intersect.

Sylvia J. Martin is an anthropologist and assistant professor in sociology at the University of Hong Kong. Her book, Haunted: An Ethnography of the Hollywood and Hong Kong Media Industries (OUP, 2016), and selected publications look at risk and enchantment in media industries. New projects include examining American soft power through Hollywood/China technology collaborations.

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