The time is right for the Creative Industry in China to enter the global stage

The financial markets are attempting to get to grips with the slowdown of China’s economy. Most commentators point to the halt in capex projects, infrastructure, housing development and so on. After 30 years of exponential growth, some correction is inevitable.

China has struggled to establish a leading creative industry. Perhaps now, with these economic changes, the industry will get a chance to develop further. The Arts Council in the UK did a great job of supporting the arts when the UK economy called for it. The UK had some very generous supporters of the arts, without whom many projects (construction and creative) would just not have moved forward.

The incredible wealth in China is already leading to some philanthropic gifts. As ‘new money’ learns to appreciate more than just labels, more investment will flow into the creative market.

Should Hollywood be afraid?

Creating a blockbuster movie with global appeal, written and produced in China, is one of the country’s biggest goals. The finance is there; the talent is there, but the story and creative licence has until now been suppressed. The character Anton Ego (Ratatouille,2007) said in his famous speech “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere”, and I firmly believe that to be the case in China. There is talent all over China, but it just needs a creative environment and support to help it flourish.Teamwork and creative thinking have not historically been strong parts of the educational curriculum. While mathematics is encouraged, art and creativity are not.

In 2008, I spent a period of time trying to cement a deal with a Chinese University, TV company and a UK university, to send UK graduates to China to help teach, with the long term goal of producing a movie. Whilst the talent and appetite were clear, the ability to develop original creative work was one of the hardest obstacles I had ever come across in China. It would be easy to assemble a team and produce a replica of Toy Story, but to deliver original ideas takes a lot more than technology and a room full of unfocused talent.

Which creative sectors will readily export from China?

Architecture

Where as a large building or infrastructure project that has a physical presence and gives face to those that helped deliver the scheme, creative work can carry a lot of ‘invisible’ value. Architecture is one area where, because creativity can be tangible, it may be encouraged.

When I first arrived in Nanjing in 2000, the buildings and streets capes were a mix of old and new. However some of the more interesting sites were lost to high rise structures.Inevitable, you might say, the same could happen in any city and it is a natural product of growth. However China turned to overseas architects to help in the master planning of vast cities, with ‘statement’ buildings popping up everywhere. The property development flow is now turning and companies like Vanke, Greenland, Wanda and many other Chinese developers are heading west. The knowledge base has grown and, while I would never suggest you can learn all there is to know about architecture in 30 years, there has been an impressive sponge like soaking up of design ideas and some bold developments that make a third runway at Heath row look like a pantomime.

Restoring or re purposing a building is still a struggle for Chinese creative architecture. I remember trying to rescue a historic cinema downtown in Nanjing. Rents had pushed every building around it sky high, leaving the cinema as the last 4 storey building in the street. The fear of getting it wrong (and losing face) overpowered the meetings and the suggestion that perhaps restoring the building was the right thing to do. The risk of doing something different and upsetting the current trends was just too strong to allow a proper feasibility study to restore the building. That was no surprise, but when fear exists, creativity is stifled.

Branding

China does not share the west’s obsession with Helvetica. It has been said that Steve Jobs once studied calligraphy, and when he later looked back on his life, he realised this had inspired his belief that font was an important part of how things look on the screen. Chinese corporations have spent little on corporate branding, but this sector will grow as China PLClooks outside the domestic market.

There are already some success stories. DJI, the famous manufacturer of drones (you can buy one in Maplin), is known locally as the Apple of China. The packaging, web site, and technology are on par, and the technology keeps advancing – perfect and all created in China.

Film

Wanda have developed a huge network of cinemas in China, the US, and the UK, and hopefully this will encourage home grown talent to develop stories and ideas for an international audience. Curzon Cinemas were founded on a diet of art house movies, mostly subtitled, so the appetite for authentic foreign cinema exists.

Others brands are on their way, so exciting times are ahead, with opportunities flowing both ways.

If you are fortunate enough to be invited to pitch for work in China or for Chinese companies and investors expanding into the UK, consider this:

  1. Reporting structures in China are very different. Understand the structure and sign off procedure to approve your brief, budgets and your final work
  2. Culture is firmly ingrained in China, both in business and at home. Fish with different hooks and different baits
  3. The fear of losing face can be overcome, but work hard to create the right environment and work harder to maintain that creative environment
  4. The creative market in China is still evolving. It is backed by centuries of fine art but very few ‘new movements’. While the financial markets sort themselves out, there is a chance the creative world will benefit from a creative flow to and from China.

Guy Middleton is the founder and CEO of H4 Group. He established a CGI studio in China in 2000, ‘transforming great designs into works of art.’ Guy retains daily involvement with his studio in China and continues to act as a consultant in the UK on property, particularly buildings that house parts of the creative world.

Clients include: Curzon Cinemas, Ambassador Theatre Group, The Soho Theatre, The Donmar Theatre, The Globe, The Bush, The Royal Festival Hall and The Royal Court Theatre.