The Silence of the Press

Once again, the press fell silent in China in its coverage of a new movie.  But this was not due to an edict from the Central Propaganda Department.  Instead, the press went into a spontaneously self-organized rebellion to protest against restrictions on their coverage.

The story was originally published in Jiangnan Times (via MediaInChina).  The movie is "The Promise" (无极) directed by veteran director Chen Kaige (陈凯歌).  On September 23, the reporters in the city of Chengdu found out from the routine press releases that this new movie will be screened there.  While the movie has not gone into general release, it was going to be screened before October 1 for seven days in Chengdu in order to qualify for nomination as Best Foreign Film at the Oscars Award.  There are many historical precedents, such as Zhang Yimo's "Hero" being screened in the city of Shenzhen for seven days in order to qualify for the Oscars too.

All the newspaper reporters were excited and shifted their focus from the Super Girls to this movie.  Yet, from September 30 onwards, there was no coverage about "The Promise" at all in the Chengdu media.  What happened?

On September 29, the press converged to the airport to meet Chen Kaige and the lead actress Chen Hong.  However, before the reporters set off, they had all received the same message: It was about the three NO's.

A veteran entertainment section editor said: "I have worked on entertainment news in Chengdu for five years.  This is first time that I am have been told that negative comments about a movie is forbidden."  The media may have encountered similar situations, but the movies were non-commercial films that served propagandistic purposes.

Why was this movie being screened in Chengdu of all places?  Prior to that decision, the movie company had tried to screen the movie in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Hangzhou and other cities, but the locals elsewhere refused to accede to the demand of no negative comments up front.

At 8pm on September 29, Chen Kaige and Chen Hong arrived with their son and the film copy.  Although the reporters still held onto a sliver of hope, it would turn out to be exactly as predicted: no movie to see, no interviews, no negative comments.

With just a few photographs from the airport, the various newspapers in Chengdu tried to come up with contents that meshed with "The Promise": "The media waited for two hours," "The Chen family of three on vacation" and "Five brief seconds of the film copy" filled out the headlines the next day.  Once again, the Chengdu media attempted to contact the movie house for the screening, but received the same answer: "No space for the media."

After receiving that answer, the entertainment editors of the Chengdu newspapers called for a meeting at a teahouse near one of the newspapers.  At the meeting, the media set a historical first by agreeing that they would kill all news about 'The Promise': "We can't see the movie, we can't interview the principals and we can't make negative comments.  Are we to make up false news?  Even 'Hero' and 'The House of Flying Daggers' did not ban reporters from seeing this movie."

Historically, the media industry in Chengdu has been highly competitive.  No matter whether it is about movies, television, concerts, theater, magic shows, or anything, there was one rule: all the Chengdu media will show up automatically without invitation.  If one newspaper does not report on an event, then another will definitely make a big deal about that event.  But this time when "The Promise" shut out the media, they became united for the first time.  Within five minutes of the teahouse meeting, people were only trying to decide the details such as between "No coverage whatsoever" versus "No coverage only on the first day."  Someone even joked about having to sign a contract "to not report" and that they would have to show each other their pages before the deadline to see if everyone kept their promises.  In the end, they decided that they would give zero coverage on the first day; afterwards, it will depend on the response from the movie company.

On the second day, they observed the following: certain Chengdu reporters had paid 120 RMB to purchase tickets for the premiere screening and they discovered that not all media were refused.  "They invited the media from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to see the movie.  So how come they won't let us see the movie and conduct interviews?" 

The promotional manager of "The Promise" told the reporters that the purpose of the Chengdu screening was solely to qualify the movie for the Oscars and their main concern was to prevent piracy: "We have not made contact with the media and we will not contact the media.  Our rule is not to contact the media."

In the days afterwards, the Chengdu media became extraordinarily quiet.  From reading the newspapers, one cannot tell that "The Promise" was being screened in Chengdu.  The movie house became concerned and met with the entertainment reporters, promising them free tickets as well as free snacks and drinks.  The movie house also promised that the principals will meet with the reporters the next day and they begged the reporters to resume their coverage of "The Promise".  But the alliance members got smart and when they saw that the principals of "The Promise" made no attempt to contact them the next day, they made up their minds that there will be no coverage whatsoever until a full accounting is made.

The alliance has been holding firm for almost a month now.  The newspaper managers in Chengdu are saying that unless they get a satisfactory response from the principals, the silence of the press will continue when "The Promise" goes into general release in December.