The 'Yin-Yang' And Bad Economics Of China's Movie Industry

Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing at the 71st Cannes Film Festival
Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing at the 71st Cannes Film Festival
Feng Qingyan and Yang Xuemei

BEIJING — Fan Bingbing, China"s highest-paid actress and star of the 2014 blockbuster X-Men, recently received some unwanted public attention—an accusation of tax evasion. The Chinese actress was accused by Cui Yongyuan, a TV presenter and producer, of signing "Yin-Yang contracts' for the films she stars in. This allows her to pay lower tax via the public part of the contract, the "yang," while being paid several times more in the untaxed private "yin" contract. As later exposed by the Chinese press, this is a common practice in the film and TV industry, and it has prompted a probe by state tax authorities into the sector's fiscal affairs.

In mid-August, in a joint declaration, China's three major online video sites — iQiyi, Youku, and Tencent — and six major film and TV production companies declared that they will, in the future, "cooperate to block actors' unreasonable rewards and resist unhealthy trends of the industry."

A dozen associations from China's audiovisual sector followed suit to make it known that they also support the position taken by the leading film and TV platforms.

It's not news that the total remuneration of the so-called "traffic stars," China's show business idols, has been soaring, thanks to their ability to attract a mass of fans online and thus create huge commercial value. To limit the trend, the government officially issued notifications last year ordering online video platforms not to take stars' wishes as the only bargaining standard and to set a proportional ceiling of actors' pay in a film production.

China's entertainment sector has long since developed an industrial norm following its own particular laws. While in Japan, South Korea and Hollywood, actors' salaries usually account for 10-30% of the production cost of a film, it often exceeds 50%, or even over 75%, in China.

Still in search of "fresh little meat"

Yet the high rewards of these stars don't result in any corresponding quality of work. Investment in other parts of the production and post-production process, such as the sets, costumes, and editing, is sacrificed, while pay for smaller acting parts is also quite low. Chinese audiences use such expressions as "five-cent special effects' and "junk scripts' to note the low production value.

Meanwhile, a large influx of capital into the industry has led to overcapacity, so that every year half of the films made can hardly find an outlet. This oversupply, plus the rarity of good work, has led to the situation that only when a film involves big stars and a big production can they guarantee to attract at the box office. The fact that "fresh little meat," Chinese slang referring to handsome young male idols, are so sought after, also makes it difficult for them to dedicate themselves to their craft and improve their acting.

But the ills in China's film industry go far beyond this. Plagiarism rages out of control, while rampant use is made of faking of audience ratings through internet ghost writers, who are paid to post online comments. The artists, in turn, use these illusory data to raise their pay. The vicious circle is hence created.

A new market trend is, however, taking shape. Recently, more and more low-budget TV dramas and online productions have found favor in the market. Some of these high-quality films use good, if less famous, actors and have received a successful response both by word-of-mouth and at the box office. The trend where films count on traffic for popularity is moving toward a model that relies on an authentic grapevine.

Online video platforms used to be frequented only by film buyers and didn't participate in production. Traffic and ratings were determined by the market. Now, more and more video platforms are engaged in co-production with production companies. In addition, video platforms are increasingly inclined to produce series or entertainment programs themselves. The cost of actors' astronomical rewards has thus passed onto video platforms. This change explains why those major online video platforms declared their determination to unite to resist stars' unreasonable pay.

It is yet to be seen how effective the declarations of media service providers and governmental guidance will be. As one report by CCTV, the state TV broadcaster, explained, many stars now own their own production companies and studios. Their compensation can be attributed to various names and go via their studios' accounts without falling directly into their pockets. The stars can also use titles such as producer and adviser to fill in the gap of their original salaries.

It takes more than a day to freeze three feet of ice.

As one industry insider pointed out, if the authorities adopt administrative means to restrict stars' pay, production firms may compensate them with shares or property of equivalent value to get around the regulations.

In effect, the large media companies that issued these statements contributed to the chaos in China's film industry. Their advocacy is not a move by the whole industry, but a self-interested move by a few powerful companies that has no legal binding. It takes more than a day to freeze three feet of ice, as the Chinese saying goes, and the troubled state of China's entertainment industry will not melt away anytime soon.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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