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A reel learning connection

The educational exchange at film schools help forge better ties and cultural understanding.

WHILE the United States (US) and Chinese studios attempt to uncover the formula for cracking each other's markets, a number of colleges and universities have begun an educational exchange, in which American and Chinese film students become immersed in an array of disciplines from each other's film industries, from technology and storytelling to law, ethics and communication.

The goal of such programmes is to not only foster what Robert Bassett, dean of California’s Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, describes as “an amalgam of Chinese and Western storytelling that's satisfying to both cultures,” but also a stronger connection between both countries and cultures.

According to Forbes.com, China's box office revenues in 2016 totalled nearly US$6.6bil (RM28.5bil) placing it second only to the US in terms of ticket sales and the number of theatres, estimated at about 39,000.

Should China continue these modest gains, says Michael Ellis, the Motion Picture Association of America's Asia-Pacific president, it will overtake the United States as the world's largest film market by 2019.

Such figures have naturally spawned a mutual interest between the US and China in exploring and in some cases, profiting from each other's markets.

Anthropologist, filmmaker and recent Guggenheim Fellow J.P. Sniadecki, who has worked extensively in Chinese indepedent film, says: “Hollywood wants to tap into the Chinese market, and China wants to do the samefor an international audience.”

Film schools at both Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in California and Chapman have established formal partnerships with educational academies in China.

LMU hosts two undergraduates with the Beijing Film Academy, and will host two of its graduate film students in 2018 as it keen on developing a programme where Film Academy students would study at LMU during the summer.

Chapman also hosts graduate students from the Beijing Academy and launched a programme in Shenzhen, China, with students from across the country.

Both University of Southern California (USC) and Pepperdine University in Californina, have found ways to immerse both “domestic” and international students in programmes and workshops that help to forge greater collaboration and cultures in the context of film.

“If we are going to have a diverse industry and work in markets like China, we need to understand them and they need to understand us," says Elizabeth M. Daley, dean of the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

“The reality today for students in entertainment and media is that the products and creative elements have to be developed for a global market,” says Pepperdine’s Institute for Entertainment, Media and Culture executive director John Mooney.

“They have to have a global mindset, and an understanding of global culture and global markets, if they're going to be truly successful in this industry.”

Northwestern University in Illinois is also exploring formal media arts exchange programmes between Chinese and American students through faculty members Sniadecki and the Horton Foote Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Zayd Dohrn, both of whom have extensive experience with the Chinese film industry. Both are keenly aware of the importance of forging relationships between the US and Chinese film markets, but also understand that a number of obstacles stand in the way of such collaborative efforts.

“That includes language and culture and geographic distance, and then politically, there's the obstacle of the limitation of the market there, and the limitation of speech,” says Dohrn.

“But I think that people here don't realise how much amazing work is happening there, despite those obstacles.

There's a sense that there's a film quota and you're not allow-ed to criticise the government, and therefore, nothing interesting could happen. But on the contrary, young filmmakers can do amazing things, even within those restrictions.” Chinese students coming to study in America face their own specific hurdles.

LMU dean Stephen Ujlaki, who served as the inaugural speaker at the Communication University (CUC) of China's Global Vision lecture series, says: “There is a concern on the part of the Chinese government and some people in schools, who perceive that there is a secret source, which they refer to as Western storytelling. They think that the more the students learn this, the better off they will be.” When speaking at the CUC, Ujlaki noted that the Hollywood model “has been in decline creatively for years”.

“There has to be an openness as it can't be a one-way street,” says Dohrn, adding that in the next five years, Americans will be consuming Chinese films in large quantities. It's going to be a rival to the American film industry.” — Reuters