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It's really all in the wording
By Xu wei

THE 18th Shanghai International Film Festival has cast a new spotlight on a previously quiescent sector of the industry — scriptwriting.

People who write the words that actors mouth and create the scenes that propel a plot have never enjoyed top billing in China, but that is changing.

With support from the government and financing from big Internet companies, Chinese screenwriters are beginning to take their place in a film industry striving to catch up with the polished and popular fare from the US and South Korea.

“Each phase of film production is now starting to gain recognition, and that starts with the writers who come up with good scripts,” said Hu Jinjun, director of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV, and organizer of the Shanghai film festival.


About 30 original new Chinese film scripts attracted financing from venture capital funds during the festival, he said. Those projects alone involve investment of 500 million yuan (US$80.55 million).

Scriptwriters in China are increasingly appearing at negotiations between producers and investors. Those putting up money for films want to be reassured that they are paying for something that will have box office appeal.

“Now is the best of times for film scripts to gain attention from investors,” said Yu Dong, president of Bona Film Group Ltd. “Investors are interested because making films in China isn’t horribly expensive yet and promises high returns.”

Last year, China’s box office surged 36 percent to US$4.82 billion, second only to the US.

This year, film receipts are forecast to top 40 billion yuan. It won’t be long, industry analysts predict, before China surpasses the US and becomes the world's largest market for films.

Until now, that prospect has been clouded by what were often poor storylines in Chinese movies.

Yin Jie, vice president of ShanghaiTech University, said screenwriting has been the weak link in domestic film production. Chinese moviegoers still prefer the drama, action, imagination and glitz of Hollywood blockbusters.

ShanghaiTech University recently teamed up with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts to offer a 15-week screenwriting course. Veteran scriptwriters from the US will share with Chinese students their expertise in crafting movies that people want to see.

The local university is hoping some of the more talented students in the course may produce scripts that are turned into movies.

“All successful films have one thing in common — they tell a great story that people want to hear and can relate to,” said Elizabeth Daley, dean of the School of Cinematic Arts.

She said China’s colorful and ancient culture must have an abundance of material that could be tapped for movie script ideas.

One hindrance in developing homegrown scriptwriters may be an education system that doesn’t place a premium on encouraging imagination in students.

“It is important to develop the freedom for writers to imagine stories and tell them,” Daley said.

At a forum held by Shanghai Media Group Pictures and the Walt Disney Studios earlier this week, celebrated Hollywood scriptwriters shared their thoughts about how to create stories with universal appeal.

Nicole Perlman, co-writer of the Hollywood blockbuster “Guardians of the Galaxy,” was among the forum participants. She is now working on an adaptation of the bestselling novel “Wool” and co-writing “Captain Marvel” for 2018 release.

She said scriptwriting requires specific skills in organization, research, character creation and the ability to sell an idea.

Michael Arndt, known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for “Little Miss Sunshine,” told the forum that a Chinese scriptwriter should choose a story he really loves and get feedback on it from other people.

Domestic writers were also encouraged to recognize the opportunities of the Internet, which is now emerging as a major player in China's movie industry and also influences public viewing preferences.

An increasing number of films have been adapted from popular online novels that cater to the post-90s generation, which is now the major film audience in China.

More online video-sharing websites are considering a move into production of movies tailor-made for specific groups of netizens. The day may come when one movie may have several different endings, depending on the target audiences.

Renowned mainland filmmaker Li Shaohong said Internet novels have added new genres to Chinese cinema, like fantasy stories.

“Compared with traditional film scriptwriting, online novels are usually more illusionary and imaginative,” said Li. “But there will also be new challenges for cinematographers to present really compelling, in-depth works.”

In addition to fantasy stories, urban love stories are also popular with young audiences. Box office hits like “So Young” and “The Left Ear” were both based on online romance novels.

Zhang Ting, an award-winning scriptwriter, said there is still a crying need for original, thought-provoking stories. Not all popular online stories are suitable for movie adaptations, he said.

Zhang said he worries that the influx of “hot money” into film production will corrupt the artistry, independence and personal expression of movie makers.

“Many producers and investors care only about the size of a story’s fan base,” Zhang explained. “A film should be a creative vision. Filmmaking should not be driven solely by profit.”

Many online story writers are making the transition to film and TV scripts.

Cheng Wu, vice president of entertainment and Internet giant Tencent, said the new trend is blurring traditional boundaries and filmmaking in the future will interact with many different forms of entertainment.

“We will invest only in scripts with original content and universal emotions that will resonate with a large number of people,” he said. “The flourishing film industry in China has a burning need for talented scriptwriters.”

For the first time, Tencent has included film scriptwriting in its annual Next Idea competition to try to discover new writing talent in China.

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