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Chinese look to Australia for media-savvy

The Australian    1/6/2012
Beijing Film School
Beijing Film Academy Source: Supplied 

Chinese look to Australia for media-savvy by Ian Lang

Toby Miller is right on the money in his article that not every "film school graduate is a Scorsese" (HES, May 23).

Australia's own film schools have multiplied since the early 2000s from just three big guns - the Victorian College of the Arts, Griffith Film School, and Australian Film Television and Radio School - to over 19 media-producing schools with substantial enrollments.

Although direct film industry employment prospects are low, graduates' group problem-solving skills developed through intense production help them create new-economy jobs where media literacy is as natural as writing.

Like fine wine, traditional film schools often have a highly local, even nationalistic flavour, as the cultural Olympics of film at Cannes demonstrates where films list by country as much as director.

The new digital economy is less parochial and more promiscuous about its partners. China's embrace of new and traditional international media could dwarf even Facebook's capacity to satisfy viewer hunger for content, explaining News Ltd prophetic equity purchase last week of almost 20 per cent in China's largest film distributor, Bona Film Group. It's a sign of things to come for Australia's future online industries as we celebrate 40 years of diplomatic relations with China.

The announcement closely follows Wendy Deng and James Cameron's visit a month ago to launch Titanic 3D in Beijing. During their visit, both Deng and Cameron made a point of visiting and lecturing at China's largest film school, the Beijing Film Academy, where I guest lecture.

My research students are savvy consumers of western media. They describe plot weaknesses in the third season of Desperate Housewives versus seasons one and two. They are eloquent on Billy Wilder, and see parallels between John Ford's landmark westerns and China's rise in the world. They come up with apps to treat depression following up my references to Jeff Kennett's beyond blue initiative.

My field research into digital media education here has taken me to many tier-one and fast-rising tier-two cities putting in massive infrastructure to create knowledge-makers, and spiking demand for e-literate teachers with skill-development often sourced from abroad.

After inspecting yet another brand-new university town in Yunnan or Chongqing with dorms capable of accommodating over 100,000 students, I can understand why western academics may feel overwhelmed by China's telephone-number sized growth statistics.

And maybe even a little envious. Not one of the 20 or so media-school deans I talk with in China mentions funding as an issue. But each dean is keen to ask about internationalising their schools in line with China's current Five Year Plan.

The answers may have more to do with Australian education than cinema. They want to know how China's films can be exported to the world without losing authenticity, how do you make a Chinese Avatar or Titanic or, tongue in cheek, who let Hollywood make Kung Fu Panda first?

Hollywood has of course been a hit in China for years, and even before the global financial crisis, international studio heavyweights have been regular visitors to China and the Beijing Film Academy. China's shift from state to private media production has intensified in the last 10 years, irresistibly for western capital.

Until February this year, China's powerful State Administration of Radio Film and Television allowed just 20 foreign films a year onto the country's cinema screens. Blockbusters like Avatar make small fortunes for both foreign distributors and their officially-required Chinese joint venture partners.

That number has now increased to 34, although the increase has been mainly in more specialised IMAX and 3D product. Australia has a strong record in IMAX production, with works like the still remarkable documentary Antarctica tending to have longer runs in their specialist cinemas than regular 35 mm feature productions.

Big-budget, big natural-history IMAX co-productions with China offer potentially durable earnings and kudos. As a bonus, their super-wide format lowers copyright risk. Paying audiences still want the huge screen experience.

In high-end 3D too, our post production studios have led the world. with cutting edge visual effects work for blockbusters like Happy Feet and key scenes for international franchises such as Harry Potter.

But it may be in China's emerging, digitally-enabled education markets that Australian media-makers and educators find greatest opportunity.

For their day to day work, China's scientists, doctors, government-workers and school teachers increasingly need to use media-creation skills that were once the province of professional filmmakers. Their students already do.

Australia's trusted role in the region makes it a natural partner for developing quality factual programming and digitally-literate educators in all disciplines - especially the sciences where embedded on-line research reporting can accelerate responses to big world problems in new medicine, renewable energy, and cleaner water.

For academics, the escalating Harvard-led embargo on traditional and expensive journal publishers such as the Elsevier group will only compound an international shift for knowledge-makers to communicate readily online, and for universities to adapt employment publication requirements accordingly.

In a hyper-competitive education market, the quality and accessibility of our online knowledge is becoming short-hand for global prestige.

Ian Lang is honorary professor of international digital media at the University of Melbourne and visiting professor at Beijing Film Academy.