Image 1: The screening of a Sino-Japanese War film in a village outside of Chengdu, Sichuan Province by a government projection team. During the past decade, the central government has initiated a new project that promises to deliver one film to each village in each month. © Tong Lam
Image 2: A commercial drive-in theater in Beijing showing Star Trek into Darkness (2013). This theater alone has four screens with showings every day until after midnight. © Tong Lam
Outdoor Film Screenings
by Tong Lam
In China, there is a long history of intellectuals and the government bringing literature and films to rural areas as part of nation-building projects. In the early 1950s, for example, right as the Communist government was consolidating its power, the party sent thousands of trained projectionists into the country to deliver entertainment as well as propaganda to China’s vast rural populace. In those days, villagers greeted projection teams with excitement, and outdoor screenings were among the most anticipated cultural events for them. In recent decades, rural film projections have dwindled drastically as a result of changing social and economic conditions, as well as the popularization of televisions, satellite discs, VCDs, DVDs, and the Internet. The government has begun, however, to reactivate the program of rural film projections in the past decade. It even guarantees now that there will be at least one screening in each village in each month.
Currently, there are more than 40,000 projection teams nationwide, delivering domestic films to almost all villages. This extensive use of films for cultural engineering is not something found at present in other places, but the contemporary rural screenings do not occupy the same prominent role in village life that their precursors did in the Mao era. Not only are audiences significantly smaller now, they also tend to be made up of old people and children, since so many young and middle-aged villagers are off in cities working on construction sites, in factories, or in service jobs.
Meanwhile, in addition to government-sponsored screenings, there are also outdoor film shows sponsored by corporations, construction companies, and NGOs for purposes of branding and marketing, increasing migrant workers’ morale, and community building. While films for migrant workers are generally similar to those screened in villages, corporations and NGOs are more willing to show movies that could appeal to the urban middle class.
The starkest contrast to government sanctioned outdoor screenings is provided by the new drive-in theaters that have sprung up in China. Catering to a niche market, there are now nearly a dozen of these commercial drive-ins. Here, the self-selected middle-class moviegoers can enjoy the latest domestic and international releases inside their private cars in suburban parking lots that look as though they could exist virtually anywhere in the world.