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Educational Exchanges at Leading Film Schools Close Cultural Gaps

Variety logo Variety 4/26/2017 Paul Gaita
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While U.S. 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 long-term goal of such programs is to not only foster what Robert Bassett, dean of 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 totaled nearly $6.6 billion, placing it second only to the United States in terms of ticket sales and number of theaters (an estimated 39,000). Should China continue these modest gains, says Michael Ellis, Motion Picture Assn. 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 U.S. 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 same, but also create a product that translates [to international audiences]. Both are sort of lost in translation.”

Film schools including at Loyola Marymount University 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 fall 2018 in the hopes of developing a program where 15 to 20 Film Academy students would study at LMU during the summer. Chapman also hosts grad students from the Beijing Academy, and launched a program in Shenzhen, China, with 15 students from across the country.

Both USC and Pepperdine University also host Chinese students in their student bodies. They have found ways to immerse both “domestic” and international students alike in programs and workshops that help to forge greater collaboration and understanding between 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 University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

In the case of Pepperdine’s Institute for Entertainment, Media and Culture, students are given what executive director John Mooney calls “a rich, multi-disciplinary review of entertainment and media across the domains of the creative side, the law side and the business side” by allowing them to have access to the university’s Graziadio School of Business and Seaver College’s liberal arts program.

“The reality today for students in entertainment and media is that the products and creative elements have to be developed for a global market,” Mooney says. “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 programs 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 U.S. 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 realize how much amazing work is happening there, despite those obstacles. There’s a sense that there’s a film quota and you’re not allowed to criticize 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 of China’s Global Vision lecture series, says “There is a concern on the part of the Chinese government, or the people in charge of the schools there, that they perceive there is a secret sauce that they don’t have, and 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. Stick to your roots and it’ll eventually work out for you.”

The students loved hearing that, he says, because the Chinese government wants them to make multimillion-dollar blockbusters, and they are interested in developing a creative vision.

“We’re not interested in imposing our culture perspective on them, but we are happy to share our tools,” Daley says.

“There has to be an openness to engagement, it can’t be a one-way street,” adds Dohrn. “Hollywood has an impulse to say it’s an open market, and how can they exploit that market, instead of realizing that within the next five years, we’ll be consuming Chinese films in increasingly large quantities. It’s going to be a rival to the American film industry that we have to take seriously”

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