China’s soap bubble bursts

Global economy to blame for recent cuts

BEIJING — China’s ancient chopsocky sudsers seemed to lead a charmed life — every channel carries hours and hours of romantic intrigue in imperial garb from the Warring States period, or acts of heroism from the Ming dynasty. Auds and advertisers love them.

Now even this favored genre is feeling the effects of the global economic crisis, which is broadly expected to have less of an impact on China, but will still play havoc with TV commissioning in the next few seasons.

The casualties are starting to mount. The Sichuan investors backing planned TV series “The Mysterious Buddha” have withdrawn the $3 million earmarked for the project, which means China Film & Television Production will not be able to start shooting.

Liu Xiaofeng, a producer with Beijing Lian Meng Film Investment Co., which produced the popular TV series “My Own Swordsman,” says: “Our company has already reduced the scale of investment for this second half year. And we basically are not shooting right now. After Spring Festival next year, if the economy has improved and we get a good script, we’ll keep investing because audiences like a good movie or TV show.”

Zhang Jizhong’s “Journey to the West” has been on the boards for over two years, but has yet to start, because the widely flagged project is short of cash, local media reports.

Zhao Baogang, a popular TV series helmer, says everyone is watching to see what happens to the advertising market, and many producers are reeling in their expectations already.

“At the end of this year, when the ads plan for next year comes up, then we’ll know the impact on TV series,” he says.

With a lot of cash to back up his confidence, Zhao is sure his shows will not be overly affected.

“Next year we will not reduce our production. We will continue to invest 40 million yuan-50 million yuan ($6 million-$7 million) in dramas,” Zhao says.

The outlook for the ad industry is hardly encouraging. Shares of Focus Media Holding lost more than half their value in one day this month as analysts downgraded China’s largest outdoor advertising company, following a profit warning, and analysts were less than upbeat on the outlook for the sector.

The message from TV biz honchos is that the bigger you are, the less likely you are to feel the pain.

A classic example of this is Huayi Bros., one of China’s fastest growing private film companies. It recently unveiled four big-budget TV dramas including “My Chief and My Regiment,” a follow-up to the hugely popular 2007 skein “Soldiers Sortie.”

It also announced 19 other TV productions, including “Mei Lanfang,” a TV show that will tie in with the forthcoming movie by Chen Kaige about the Peking Opera master of the same name.

And they have announced a slate of four films from top helmers Tsui Hark, Feng Xiaogang, Chen Kuo-fu from Taiwan and Singapore’s Jack Neo.

Wang Zhongjun, Huayi chairman, told local media he is confident the financial crisis will not upset the Chinese market unduly.

“We are still shooting films and TV shows as we should. Our budget will not change. This financial crisis began from the financial industry. I think it will be a long process for it to spread to the entertainment industry here in China,” Wang says.

Zhang Hua, general manager of China Film and Television Production, says the slowdown in the real estate market was going to see a lot of capital sucked out of the business.

“People have always thought that making a TV series is an easy way to make money. So many companies were willing to join in the funding chain. However, there are two sides to every coin,” Zhang says.

Song Zude, prexy of Guangdong Song Zude Film & TV says the market has been slow for a couple of years already and it’s been difficult to sell TV shows for the last two years.

“Many provincial TV stations have a three-year backlog of TV series to be broadcast. The financial crisis makes China TV market even worse. In Guangzhou, 60% of film companies do not dare to invest in TV dramas. And some of the Beijing film companies are also facing a loss,” says Zong on the China Film website.

Zhao Jun, general manager of Xi’an MV-cn channel, believes the impact will really kick in next year because of the slowdown in ad revenues.

“We shoot a TV drama, then sell it to the TV stations, which need ad revenues. If this financial crisis makes advertisers invest less money on advertisement, then this will hit the sale of TV shows,” Zhao says.

“People are more cautious. Not too long ago, people would shoot thousands of episodes. Now it’s just hundreds,” says one industry insider.

However, not every web is feeling the pinch.

State broadcaster CCTV’s annual auction of primetime advertising slots raked in $1.36 billion last week, up 15.3% on last year, bucking fears of a slowdown due to the global economic crisis.

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