Scott Ross in Beijing: “China is Making Big Mistakes”
Last time I interviewed Digital Domain co-founder and visual effects pioneer Scott Ross in 2014, he was ebullient about the potential for China’s burgeoning movie industry, but spoke in no uncertain terms about the pitfalls of investing in Hollywood studios. His warnings went unheeded. Two years on, China is careering headlong down that perilous road.
CC: When we spoke in 2014, you were enthusiastic about the potential for China’s film industry, and had ideas about making a film here. In your SIGGRAPH Asia (Shenzhen) keynote you warned that China should not do as other countries have done and invest in the big Hollywood studios. As it happens, that is what China has been doing very –
Chris: Aggressively. Has that put you off China as an environment in which to pursue projects? Do you despair about how things have happened so far?
SR: I think they’re making big mistakes. I’m shocked that the powers that be within China have the cash that they have, and are spending it the same way as I’ve seen the Germans, the Saudis, the Japanese and the Koreans do – in all the wrong ways. Personally, I don’t understand why one would pay a billion dollars to buy Dick Clark Productions. I don’t understand what their business strategy is. For the life of me, I cannot figure it out. Maybe just because I don’t have the insight, I don’t get to sit in the Wanda boardrooms. There’s the old adage of “you don’t know what you don’t know”. So I don’t know. But from the outside looking in, I think they’re going about it in totally the wrong way. I hope I’m wrong.
CC: The official line is that the purchases are all about collaboration, working together with Hollywood to develop China’s ability to tell stories with global appeal. So far we’ve not seen that happening at all. Even “The Great Wall”, a US-China co-production set in China, largely in Mandarin, directed by Zhang Yimou, still feels like a US-driven project.
SR: The first question that the Chinese filmmaking community has to get their heads around is, what is it that they want? Do they want to be a global media player, or do they not? If they don’t want to be a global media player, and their goal is filmmaking for a Chinese audience – because Lord knows there are enough people in China to build a giant business – then that is one direction. If the goal is to be a global media player, that’s another direction. Then the question is, “Well, why do you want to be a global media player?”
My experiences have been that, oftentimes, the powers that be don’t necessarily look at film in the same way that the west looks at it. Do they want to propagandize the Chinese way of life? In conversations that I’ve had it always gets down to, “The reason America has had a pervasive culture around the world is because of Hollywood. We want to build something to make Chinese culture pervasive around the world.” I think that’s a very long road to go down and the question is, are western audiences going to be accepting of the Chinese storytelling sensibility? If I were a betting man, I’d say “no”. Take “Lost in Thailand.” I’ve tried to watch that five times. I can’t get through it, it makes absolutely no sense to me. But to the Chinese audiences, it’s stupendous, right? Similarly, we look at the great Japanese animator Miyazaki. He makes, “Howl’s Moving Castle” and it does, I don’t know, $250 million in Japan and Asia. Meanwhile it opens in the United States, it’s promoted by the Walt Disney Company, and it does no business. Are there cultural walls that just can’t be addressed? If the Chinese filmmaking community wants to make films that elevate the Chinese lifestyle around the world, will the rest of the world be open to or accepting of those kinds of stories, or do you have to invigorate or dilute it with a western sensibility? Name a Chinese film that’s done really, really well in a global marketplace. “Kung Fu Panda”? It’s Kung Fu, the names are Chinese, but it’s a DreamWorks movie. There’s nothing Chinese about it. How about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? It’s sort of a Chinese film but it’s really developed in a way that is more of a Hong Kong film, and a Hong Kong film is not necessarily a Chinese film.
CC: Why is there so much focus on technology vs. story in China’s film industry?
SR: Oftentimes people that are uncomfortable with creativity or intellectual property glom onto technique and technology. It’s much easier to talk about technology than it is to talk about creativity. Creativity is so ephemeral. What is a good movie? What is a good actor? What is a good script? That’s a very difficult conversation to have, whereas talking about process, technique or software applications, the time taken to be able to do things, it’s a lot easier. My concern is that – and it’s happened over and over and over again in the industry – if we continue to just look at technology as leading the effort, we’re missing the point. What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Really, creativity is what charges technology. There have been times in the last 35 or 40 years where a new technology ushers in a whole new way of filmmaking – let’s say analog to digital – but most of the time it’s the creative people that drive the need for technology, not the technology people driving the need for creative.
Lots more at the link (including plenty on VR).