Documentary is a discursive formation, presenting first-hand experience and creating a rhetoric of immediacy and truth. Around 1921, early films captured real people in everyday situations and pioneer filmmakers edited such footage to create a structure with either a story or an argument that became documentary (Chapman, 2009). Most people like documentary because it can bring us to the truth, which documentary’s features is absence of fictionalized elements and it not controlled by filmmakers. In recent years, the world of documentary filmmaking is much more diversity and popular. However, it is facing challenges from multiple ways.
This essay will talk about why people do not like documentaries in these days, and use Chinese documentaries as example to illustrate the argument. At present, Chinese documentary has made some profess in manufacturing perfecting industrial system, and international cooperation. It began to walk out of its own circle and moved towards a wider capital and media market. However, this is just a beginning for Chinese documentary. It still faces many problems, which lead people do not like documentaries and rarely watch them. There are several factors cause this situation, that are documentary quality, audience, market, policy and government.
1. Documentary and Audience
The type of documentary has been diversity since 2013 in China. The documentary of reality theme emerge in large numbers, which involve in social life each corner. Also, historical and cultural theme of documentary add reality vision, which connect history and contemporary to cultivate the national spirit. Although documentary become more diversity and broader, people still do not watch documentary frequently. So, why people do not like documentary? The significant reason is the poor quality of documentary. Most of Western documentary film tell about an unique story, which is very exciting. For example, the March of the Penguins was released in 2002 in China. This France documentary exceeded RMB 2million box office in Chinese theaters. This film with anthropomorphic way to introduce the migration process of penguins, which story is vivid and delicate and the music is very beautiful (Wang, 2010). Moreover, The Cover, which use state-of-the art equipment to record dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, infiltrate a cove near Taijii, Japan to expose both a shocking instance of animal abuse and a serious treat to human health. This truly and objective documentary won the 2010 Oscar best documentary awards. This documentary film was caused hot buzz in media and got a success box office in China. These documentary films prove that documentary has market in China, but due to the poor quality of our own documentaries, more and more people do not watch them. Currently, most of Chinese documentary filmmakers prefer to produce literature documentaries, which pay more attention on directors’ own experience and ignore audiences’ feeling. Also, a huge part of documentary films has propaganda intention. From research can be seen that there are 16 documentary films produced in 2013. Among 2/3 documentary films were government or local propaganda documentary film (Zhang and Liu, 2104). This is also a Chinese special characteristic in the world. In recent years, due to the development of digital technology, China has more independent documentary filmmakers. They more focus on edges and special groups in city and rural area. This kind of documentary films can won award overseers but hardly to release in Chinese cinema due to the market and policy factors.
A Bite of China is a TV series documentary, which got the most attention in the media since it released in CCTV. This documentary led audiences to wait it in front of TV everyday. Even though, it increased consumption of relative books, cooking tools and restaurants. In the market, it also has a great grade. Currently, there are around 10 countries bought the overseas copyright of A Bite of China. As a domestic documentary, it’s popular and famous was unexpected. But as a food documentary, it has had the popular background. Firstly, this documentary has its unique content and feelings. A Bite of China has a big investment, and produced very carefully from beginning to the end. Actually, China has many food documentaries, which cover huge scopes and types. A Bite of China spend lot of time on early market research and learn from many international documentaries. The style of A Bite of China used the experience of BBC’s Teach for China. This documentary combine food and history, through food to express Chinese’s culture and life. Secondly, this documentary was a sincerity production. A Bite of China was produced from March 2011, shooting lasted 13 months to complete. This is the first food documentary adopting high digital equipment to produce, which has high quality of screen. This crew walked around 70 cities in China, including 3 early market researchers, 8 directors, 15 photographers, and 3 editors. Thirdly, A Bite of China was success engage audience into film. There is no advanced ingredients in the documentary, while introduced normal food, which is easy for audience to get and cook. This resonated audiences with this documentary. Finally, this 7 series TV documentary successfully depended on new media to improve its brand and reputation. When this documentary released on CCTV, it caused buzz on Internet and became the hot topic on Weibo, which is the biggest and powerful social media in China. Rely on the powerful Internet, many audiences made similar documentaries by themselves, such as A Bite of America, A Bite of United Kingdom and A Bite of Korean. This activities make a positive cycle that promote brand and reputation of A Bite of China.
Based on the success of A Bite of China, we can see that people still want to watch documentaries, but the production must have high quality. Throughout international and domestic documentaries, good productions has several same factors. First is innovation, a good innovation can be seen as a soul of documentary. One of the biggest successful factor of A Bite of China was innovation. A good documentary should not only has a innovation idea, it also has a good structure and narrative form. A good documentary should bring deeply thought of history, culture and social issue to audience, instead of repeat description.
Actually, Chinese audiences are not subservient to foreigners, but has a tolerant mind to accept any form of art, even include documentaries. However, audience are not fool, they will not led by worst documentaries. The vicissitude of Chinese documentary let the audience once lost confidence. They want to watch documentaries, but there is no good film to watch. As time passes, audiences lose custom to watch documentaries. Under the blundering social mentality, Chinese are always very busy. They can not stop to enjoy, think, and tasty. Most of them are numbness to provocative and stimulate things, and almost lose recognition to taste of beauty. Therefore, audience are controlled by super star’s gossip and violence news. Public’s life are very superficial, and far away from documentary, which need taste and reflection. After research, the target audience of Chinese documentaries are mainly male, 30-45 years old, who has high degree, high position and high income (Zheng, 2011). With the China’s reform and opening up, there are more and more middle class, who has abundant material, stable life and purse spiritual life. They are the loyal audience of documentaries. Thus, many documentaries are produced to cater these audience, and ignore other people.
In terms of market, there are many factory influence the development of documentary. That are competition with blockbusters, struggling with fundraising, and limited distribution channels. Firstly of all, documentary need compete with fiction film, especially the import of Hollywood movies. Since China entered WTO, they signed an agreement about import movies. Every year, China need to import 34 movies from overseas, and most of these movies are Hollywood blockbusters. Therefore, Chinese audience has shifted to enjoy Hollywood film and slightly abandon the habit to watch documentaries. Currently, domestic documentary has similar situation with literary film, maybe has lower statues compare with literary film. These import film not only change audience’s viewing habits, but also seize most of market share. For example, Chinese box office grew by 27% in U.S. dollars to $3.6 billion, becoming the first international market to exceed $3 billion in box office revenue (MPAA, 2014). Titanic, which is a 1997’s old movie was transfer into 3D format and released in China. This film got nearly RMB 10 billion’s box office. Chinese film market has become a heaven for whole world. No matter America, UK or Korean’s film production studio, they are seek opportunities to earn profit from this market. Compared with this hot market, Chinese documentary still in a very miserable situation.
In 2010, there are 16 Chinese documentary films were produced, but only 4 of them were released in cinema. In 2013, there are 19 documentary film were produced, and 16 films were released in cinema. Although, more and more documentary films are release in cinema，almost none of them would earn profit. For example, I wish I knew was produced by Jiazhang-ke, who is leading the Sixth Generation movement of Chinese cinema. This documentary focus on the people, their stories and architecture spanning from the mid-1800s, when Shanghai was opened as a trading port, to the present day. This documentary was shown in Cannes Film Festival and won many International Award. However, when this documentary film released in Chinese cinema, it just got around RMB 300 thousand dollars in total. The failure reason is the limited distribution channels. In fact, China has more and more good quality documentaries, and many of them were won award overseas, but few of them has opportunities to show on screen. Even the documentary film can release in cinema, but it only has 1-2 showtimes per day. The purpose of these commercial cinemas are profits. So the documentary films hardly to entry cinema decide by the market. Times have changed, with people’s lifestyles. It is unrealistic to expect lot of audience to watch documentaries in cinema. The distribution channels and contact of Documentary films are facing major revolution, under the impact of television and other new media platforms.
Thirdly, struggling with fundraising is another factor which impact on documentary’s development. In fact, due to the little profit of documentary, few people willing to invest on documentary. Also, due to the low purchase price of documentary, the enthusiasm of market is lower than other fiction films. At present, most of Chinese documentaries are invested by government, there are few private capital inflows. According to Zhang and Hu (2013), the best Chinese documentary could sell for RMB 100-150 per minutes, which few of 5 TV channels would buy it. But a good documentary’ production cost is RMB 5000-8000. In 2009, the amount of Chinese documentary play above 5000 hours, and the budget was around RMB 4 billions. However, France produced 2000 hours documentary cost $6 billions (Dong, 2010). Discovery Channel would make a specific market research before they produce a documentary. They would chose the best producer, director, host and translation into production. These requirement cost from $80,000 to $ 4 millions per hour. And the average cost of each documentary would above $1 million. However, a Chinese documentary, which is 50 minutes would just cost around ten of sounds. In American, there were 15 documentary released in cinema from 1996-2002, and it increased to 50 documentaries in 2003, which account 10% of total showing. The documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was invested by $ 6 millions, which earn $ 2.3 billions box office. The “high investment” and “ high return” is a distant dream for Chinese documentary filmmakers.
3. Policy and Government
In most of audience opinion, documentary are propaganda film to spread government and praise to the party in two decades. At present, a number of documentaries are still produced for this purpose. I think this is the main reason why people do not like documentary. The biggest advantage of documentary is that can record truth and realistic life. Audience want to watch something new and realistic, rather than those to celebrate party and government again and again. It is not deny those documentaries are bad, but just boring to watch the pretty and repeat things. Additional, the policy also restrict the development of TV and film, not only documentaries. In fact, this is a very serious issue in current film industry. Many talent director or filmmaker are limited by this policy. Mean while, some specific policy is really ridiculous. For example, Xiaoshui Wang’s most famous film Beijing Bicycle, was restrict to release in Chinese cinema. The reason is one shot among the movie, which a boy ride a bicycle not hold the handlebar, violated the traffic rules. This issue not only limit to documentaries development, but also confine whole film industry in China. Especially, more and more documentaries focus on social issues, which probably involve some restrictions content or topic within film. This is also a big reason why most of Chinese documentary can won awards overseas, but can not release in Chinese cinema.
Currently, Chinese documentary industry has entered a better production environment and market. Documentary filmmaker should seize the opportunity to produce more high quality films, which focus on innovation and unique story. On the other side, government should extend the restriction policy for film industry, and give them more freedom and authority to produce better films. And the most important thing is to train audience viewing habit, and expand target audience. At present, the target market is small and narrow. Documentaries should more diversity to attract different age and gender’s populations.
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