As Chinese publishers gear up for their biggest ever year at the London Book Fair, Jo Lusby looks at the market for content in China, and a box office race that tells a bigger story about book, film and TV businesses in the world’s largest IP market.
The race was on: Who would grab the lion’s share of the RMB 5.83 billion (£665.9 million) 2019 Spring Festival box office? Would it be Chinese space crews battling to save Planet Earth from a direct collision with Jupiter? Or the first full-length feature film from that plucky porcine British export, Peppa Celebrates Chinese New Year?
At first, it seemed that the Year of the Pig was already in the bag for Peppa in January, when the utterly charming What is Peppa? the promotional trailer went viral, scoring more than a billion hits on social media. In a ground-breaking move, the short film targeted mobile video sharing adults rather than the core pre-school audience and employed production values usually saved for art house films. The film shows a baffled grandfather in a remote village on a mission to secure “a Peppa” for his urban grandson. Heart-warming and affectionate, it looked like UK franchise owners eOne had a guaranteed hit on their hands.
Meanwhile, the promotional machine for a very different box office rival was gearing up. The Wandering Earth has been billed as China’s first entirely home-grown sci-fi feature. Directed by Frant Gwo and based on a novella by Hugo Award-winning sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, the production was praised for its special effects, garnering reviews that compared it favourably with major US vehicles like The Martian. This was sufficient for it to rocket to the top spot, taking almost 50 percent of the holiday audience share. Peppa Pig, meanwhile, had to settle for 12th place, reportedly grossing RMB 111 million, just under 2 percent of the holiday audience. Critics and parents online complained that the Alibaba Pictures-backed ‘feature film’ was little more than a selection of episodes cobbled together with live-action sequences.
This story is about more than two duelling blockbusters though. Creativity in China today is big business, with books, films, and television shows gathering big audiences and even bigger paydays for the platforms and companies that distribute them. And yet, as studios, producers, and publishers continue to attest, the control over what content reaches the eyes and ears of Chinese people is as tight as at any other time during the 40-year reform and opening period.
British children’s brand owners – a key strength of the UK creative economy – have come to depend on earnings from the Chinese market, hiring in specialist expertise to help manage complex and lucrative commercial relationships. Meanwhile, parental enthusiasm for wholesome creativity from abroad among Chinese parents is metered by government anxiety over foreign influences in children’s lives.
Ongoing government clampdowns has left businesses in the creative sector struggling to find stories that will simultaneously appeal to the masses and government censors
Ongoing government clampdowns on adult and children’s content perceived too edgy, too commercial, too foreign, or too opulent has left businesses in the creative sector on the back foot, struggling to find stories that will simultaneously appeal to the masses and government censors. There are formal and informal restrictions on TV streaming slots and print approvals related to foreign children’s properties, and Chinese publishers are thinking carefully before investing in new foreign book brands.
Undeniably, the commercial market is still healthy for Chinese and foreign authors alike. In 2018, children’s books continued to be the largest single category in the RMB 89 billion (£10 billion) book market, accounting for 25 percent of the total. Foreign authors lay significant claim to that bounty, with half of the top ten children’s bestsellers from overseas. Yet it is evergreen classics that benefit most, with Charlotte’s Web at number 1, and The Little Prince and Fantastic Mister Fox at numbers 7 and 10 respectively.
In adult fiction, it’s a similar story of long-tail classics, with eight of the top ten titles published at least ten years ago. Three were first published more than 30 years ago. Authors and publishers in China blame a combination of censorship and conservatism among publishers for the absence of new voices. There are rumours that the number of new ISBNs issued in 2018 fell by 25 percent, encouraging publishers to stick with what they know and look for a sure-fire hit.
Into that environment steps the once marginal subculture of sci-fi. The Wandering Earth was given an official endorsement of sorts when Chinese space crews were shown enjoying a private screening ahead of its official release. With Chinese sci-fi comedy Crazy Alien in second place, the genre jointly accounted for almost 70 percent of the total holiday box office.
The 55-year old science fiction writer Liu Cixin may be an unlikely beneficiary of the state-sponsored space programme. In print, his 2008 trilogy The Three Body Problem broke the dominance of contemporary classic novels in the 2018 top ten, taking third, fourth, and fifth places. Sci-fi has become a new safe haven for creatives, although as yet, Liu seems to be the only author who has benefited.
Lacking the wherewithal to go out on a limb for a new risky proposition, Chinese publishers are increasingly looking to hitch themselves to small and large screen success, whether it be a futuristic juggernaut or a mainstream TV animation series. As the largest ever cohort of Chinese publishers head to Olympia for the annual London Book Fair, the interplay between books, animations, and live features in China’s complex IP market has never been more relevant.
Jo Lusby is the co-founder of creative industries consultancy and agency, Pixie B Ltd. Until 2017, she was the head of Penguin Random House North Asia. She can be contacted at email@example.com.