The China International Documentaries Conference was held in
Guangzhou from December 3-9. A great many people appeared surprised
to discover that Chinese documentaries have significant market
potential with foreign buyers while they couldn't find their way
onto the country's own television screens.
The conference could well be one of the greatest self-proclaimed
"international" media Expos. With 500 representatives from 59
nations taking part, the event boasted 420 documentaries. As the
only platform on the Chinese mainland for the country's filmmakers
to trade with foreigners, 17 broadcasting companies and buying
groups from nine countries were invited including the world-known
National Geography, Discovery, NHK, BBC, ABC, and PBS.
Channel Zero Media (CZM) is China's leading media production
company and specializes in the making and distribution of
documentary programs worldwide. Company general manager, Zheng
Qiong, explained to Beijing Youth Daily that her company
was the only professional documentary agency in China.
When her last venture was going bankrupt in 2003, a Taiwan
director saved the day by asking her to sell a documentary to him.
But just how hard is it to sell a documentary to a mainland TV
station? Zheng said, "Only some provincial TV stations have
documentary programs and their common practice is to broadcast the
films produced by their very own staff. They're not willing to buy
any from outside."
Shooting documentaries is widely recognized as "non-profit" in
Chinese film circles. A director revealed that every Chinese
documentary would cost on average at least 50,000-60,000 yuan, but
when they're sold to TV stations the price might only be
2,000-3,000 yuan per episode.
However, international buyers can offer much better deals.
Discovery's "First-time Filmmakers" project has been held for four
years in China. They invest 150,000 yuan annually in the project
and documentaries by six selected directors are partly funded by
Discovery. The company in turn owns final cutting rights and the
copyright. When a documentary is released, Discovery can broadcast
it throughout all Asia. That's to say, the company uses
approximately 150,000 yuan to fund six filmmakers to make their own
films at the lowest possible costs.
The results are considered to be a win-win for all concerned.
When Discovery's First-time Filmmaker stars of 2006 were just born,
Zhu Chunguang, one of the previous First-time Filmmakers, was
selling his work and discussing with Canadian TV to shoot
documentaries about the Yangtze River. Some of his works have been
nominated for foreign awards. He considers Discovery as a good
springboard for his career.
Various Chinese subjects will be filmed by either Chinese or
foreigners. Discovery Asia Channel has said that during the past
three years, 25 percent of their documentaries were related to
China. If the 25 percent were all done by Chinese directors, they
will survive by dong this. At the same time, the world can see the
most truthful China.
Zhao Liang, a 2004 First-time Filmmaker, suggested that the
documentaries shot by Chinese but following foreign standards were
nothing to do with thoughts and ideology. It was just a matter of
technique and style.
Only if you record a true story will a documentary be great. But
as the domestic market is so small and lacks life, the Chinese
filmmakers have to go out to pursue careers. But will Chinese
people like the standards of National Geography or Discovery? Will
there be more documentaries which perfectly match the standards of
The country's filmmakers, who perhaps can't imagine a domestic
revival at the moment, may consider those issues after they
honorably return from abroad.
(China.org.cn by Zhang Rui, December 12, 2006)