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City hopes for entertainment wave to take hold
2015-06-23
By Doug Young

Flooded streets filled the Shanghai headlines for much of this week, but local officials were also working hard to make sure another more upbeat story also shared the spotlight with early plum rains that caused massive headaches for commuters. Film buffs will know I’m talking about the annual Shanghai International Film Festival, which tries to showcase the city’s rising position in China’s rapidly evolving entertainment industry.

I’ve previously written about Shanghai’s entertainment sector, which was a trend-setter during its heyday in the early 20th century but later became neglected as local focus shifted to the financial industry.

But two events at the latest film festival caught my attention and seemed to show our city is finally taking more serious steps to try and develop a creative entertainment culture that can be a true leader rather than just a follower.

The first event made me feel like I was back in Los Angeles, which was my home for 10 years in the 1990s and where the entertainment industry is part of the city’s DNA.

That development saw the University of Southern California, one of LA’s top universities, announce a partnership with one of our local universities to launch a special course for training the screenwriters who are a key cog in the movie-making process.

The second development saw world-renowned performance company Cirque du Soleil announce it was setting up its China headquarters in Shanghai, as it prepares to develop new shows specifically for the market. Cirque’s choice follows in the steps of US entertainment giants Disney and DreamWorks, which have also chosen Shanghai as the main base of their China operations.

I’ve lived in Shanghai on and off for the last decade now, including continuously for the last four years, and do really sense that perhaps the city is finally starting to take the entertainment industry more seriously after years of neglect. In the past, it seemed, too much effort was focused on superficial efforts such as bringing big foreign productions like “The Lion King” and “Cats” to Shanghai, which pleased audiences but did little to develop the city’s own creative industry.

That began to change with DreamWorks’ formation of a major animation joint venture in Shanghai three years ago, aimed at making world-class movies in China. That import of a big-name foreign company was different from previous efforts, as it looked like a real attempt to develop local talent and start to build the supporting culture to sustain a top-notch entertainment industry.

Against that backdrop, the latest tie-up between USC and ShanghaiTech University looks relatively small in scale, but still significant for its mission to develop local entertainment talent. The initial course is relatively modest, and will see several American screenwriting veterans teach local students about their craft over three months between June and September.

Anyone who has lived in LA knows that this kind of course is a standard feature of the local culture scene, along with other courses in acting, film editing and other related skills.

In that kind of environment it’s hard to go more than a day or two without meeting someone who wants you to read his latest screenplay, or tell you about the big hopes she has for an upcoming movie audition. Of course many of these people will probably never make true careers from those skills, but their presence is nonetheless a strong contributor to the city’s overall creative culture.

The Cirque du Soleil news is significant though a little less exciting, at least for me, since I personally am not a huge fan of the company’s overhyped and equally overpriced shows filled with elaborate costumes and acrobatics. That deal will see Cirque set up its China base here in Shanghai, as it prepares to roll out its first made-for-China production in nearby Hangzhou in 2018.

This particular story actually draws on the city’s financial roots, since Cirque’s choice of Shanghai was almost certainly driven in part by an investment in the company earlier this year by Fosun, a locally based company that has become one of China’s leading private equity giants. Like the DreamWorks project, having a world-class outfit like Cirque based here in Shanghai should help boost the local talent pool.

At the end of the day, Shanghai seems to be waking up to the reality that building any industry is a long-term process, not something you can do by importing a few big-name shows for quick performances. Of course no one knows if all this effort will bear fruit, since Shanghai still feels like a distant second to Beijing in terms of film and TV production. But these efforts look like steps in the right direction, and could help create the kind of local DNA the city needs to try and build a vibrant culture like the one in Los Angeles.

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