An Investigation Into The Livelihood of Chinese Scriptwriters

(Phoenix Weekly)  An Investigation into the Livelihood of Chinese scriptwriters.  By Ma Feima.  December 24, 2007.

[in translation]

<Striving> is a television drama series about mainland Chinese society after 1980 and it is presently the most popular television drama series in mainland China right now.  While the director and the various actors and actresses have achieved fame, Si Kong figured that he got no fame and he only earned a pitiful 800,000 yuan.

Shi Kong is the scriptwriter for <Striving>.  On his own blog, he wrote the following:

Based upon the television audience ratings data, the most conservative estimate is that over 30 million people watched <Striving>.  I earned 800,000 yuan from <Striving>, and I can do the arithmetic.  These 300 million people each paid me less than 3 cents.  So I am still gloomy: at 3 cents per person, I worry about how many people I need to reach in order to get a full meal.

In a Phoenix Weekly interview, Shi Kong said despondently: "I have given up any hope about this industry.  I am just going through the motions."

Shi Kong became famous with a series of popular novels in 1999, and he made a lot of money as a result.  Previous to this, he had been a scriptwriter.  He got into that field by accident.  In 1993, his friend Tang Danian became a director and he needed someone to write scripts for him.  He gave that "opportunity" to Shi Kong.

The first script that Shi Kong wrote was <The Heavens Gave Me The Talents> starring Xie Yuan.  He wrote more than a dozen episodes and earned between 30,000 and 40,000 yuan.  Given the consumer prices at the time, Shi Kong felt that he was a rich man.

In remembering that period, Shi Kong was nostalgic.  At the time, independent television drama production had just began on mainland China.  The drama <Yearning> was a landmark.  There were not many television drama scriptwriters around in mainland China; in fact, it can be said that there was a dearth of talents.  While this was inconvenient for mainland Chinese television drama production, it also elevated the status of scriptwriters.

During the six years before Shi Tong's novels became popular, he earned a living by writing scripts.  But if he had to do it over again now, Shi Kong said: "I would not even think about it."

After 2000, things went downhill quickly.

Following the development of the film/television industry in mainland China, more and more scriptwriters came along.  Scriptwriting became an extremely cheap form of labor.  Shi Kong also saw that no matter how well he wrote the script and how well the drama series was received, he never got anything more from it.  By this time, Shi Kong's fame came from his novels, and the book revenues became his principal source of income.

According to a mainland Chinese media study, the mainland Chinese scriptwriters earn about 5% to 10% of the total budget of a drama series.  In Beijing, which is the major center of television and film production in the country, the typical payment to a scriptwriter is around 240,000 yuan.  This figure includes certain big productions with tens of millions of yuan in investment.  Many scriptwriters are also in this for the fame and not the money.

But more often, the rights of the mainland Chinese scriptwriters are not protected.  Sometimes, they do not receive even their most basic payment.  For a "veteran scriptwriter" such as Shi Kong, "it was not bad to receive 800,000 yuan."  But for the lesser scriptwriters, their livelihoods are worse.

Wang Xiaojun entered this field almost ten years later than Shi Kong, and therefore she managed to run into the worst of times for mainland Chinese scriptwriters.  Over these past few years, she wrote several scripts.  Fortunately, her works were filmed.

"This is no way to make a living."  Wang Xiaojun was full of complaints when she spoke about her career as a scriptwriter.  "Everybody thinks that it is glorious to be in the film/television industry.  But the glory does not belong to the scriptwriter.  Within a drama series, the actors and actresses make the most amount of money, followed by the director.  As for the scriptwriter, nobody even know where their rank is.  This is a lot of work which gets no appreciation."

Wang Xiaojun is pensive about the "hard work which gets no appreciation."  She said, "It is pure hell to go from beginning the writing to the filming!"  In mainland China, it is tough to be a scriptwriter.  The boss is the person who puts up the capital, because he who puts up the money gets to decide.  There is no such thing as quality, because quality is defined by he who puts up the money.  Frankly speaking, the scriptwriter is just a hack writer unless he is a grandmaster-class scriptwriters  "Concretely speaking, you are not free to decide.  You may have had some good ideas at first and you write your script.  You show it to the investor.  He likes it and he buys it.  Then he wants you to make revisions.  This may be unrecognizable from what you first wrote.  After several revisions, he is satisfied.  The script reaches the director, who asks for several more revisions.  If they hire some big-shot actors, there is no doubt going to be more revisions.  In the end, you don't even remember what you wanted to write in the first place.  The process of revision is the most painful thing of all.  You longed for the day when filming starts and you can finally take a rest!  Movies are the director's art, but television drama series should be the scriptwriter's art.  But in mainland China, television drama is still the investor's art for now."

Shi Kong shares the same sentiments.  Apart from his own scripts being arbitrarily revised, mainland Chinese scriptwriters also may not get credited properly.  "Recently, I saw a video disk for <Striving> and I could not find the name of the scriptwriter.  In this way, when people mention the name Shi Kong in a few years' time, nobody will remember that he also wrote <Striving>."

"No matter what industry you enter, your point is to earn a living.  But there is so much peril in this industry that people should be careful about coming in.  If I could do anything else, I would not be doing this."  Shi Kong sounded the "warning."

Ordinarily, the mainland Chinese scriptwriter gets paid in three stages.  Before writing commences, the film company usually pays a fixed "advance" fee.  Different scriptwriters get different proportions of their total fee as "advance."  The top scriptwriters who have a good working relationship with the film/television company can receive as much as half of the total fee.  An ordinary scriptwriter will only be able to get 10% to 30%.  Under ordinary circumstances, a reputable production unit will pay the balance of the fee before filming begins.  But Shi Kong said, "Not all production units have good reputations."

In Wang Xiaojun's recollection, the more frequently occurring situation is when the production company gets the scriptwriter to complete the script first and then they go around seeking investors.  If they failed to procure the capital, the scriptwriter will not be paid the balance of the sum.  "My friend turned in the script and then the investor disappeared.  He did not even know if the drama series was ever made."

In addition, the review system for drama series in mainland China is another important factor why the scriptwriters may not get paid.  When the scriptwriter finishes a script, the production company sends it to the State Administration for Radio, Film and Television for review.  If the script does not receive approval, the scriptwriter will not be paid the balance payment.

The perplexing thing is that if the scriptwriting is such a risky occupation, then why are so many people still rushing in?  "This caused the investors or directors to disrespect the scriptwriters even more.  If you won't do the job, somebody else will take it."  Wang Xiaojun said: "Everybody is willing to be taken advantage of because there is also the temptation of fame and fortune.  That includes me.  Although it is tough at first, you will do well once you become famous."

Within this temptation, there are the illustrative examples of Hai Yan and Wang Hai.

In Hai Yan's view: "Without even being compared to directors and actors, the scriptwriters are ranked lower than certain technicians."  But Hai Yan manages to hold a privileged position today.  "For example, when I sign a contract, I will specifically state that my dialogue and plot cannot be revised during pre- and post-production."  Wang Hai also gain huge fame through <The era of new marriage>, <The era of new divorce>, <Hand in hand> and so on.

Shi Kong disagrees somewhat.  He felt that the refusal by Hai Yan to compromise on his scripts is misguiding the scriptwriters.  Hai Yan's success is premised upon the fact that he is an influential writer and he is an investor.  Without these other identities, a mere scriptwriter "could at best hope to be where Shi Kong is."

As for Wang Hai, he has swallowed many bitter pills to reach his present stage.  In a mainland Chinese media interview, Wang Hai said that mainland Chinese television channels are monopolies.  The production side is not getting their fair share of advertising revenue, so it is extra hard for the scriptwriters to get more.  The actors and directors can star in advertisements, but the scriptwriters are backroom workers who have no fame to leverage.  Therefore, the scriptwriters not only receive less for their creative work, but their post-production income is even lower.

"Everybody wants to be like Hai Yan and Wang Hai.  But their successes are mostly exceptional and very difficult to replicate."  Wang Xiaojun observed.

Even as Shi Kong wrote the series of essays about Chinese scriptwriters for his blog, he noticed that there was a labor strike in the United States of America by the scriptwriters.

Shi Kong quickly found this report: On the night of November 5, many Americans went to watch their favorite  talk shows before they go to sleep, but they found that there were only re-runs of shows from several days ago.  All the talk shows on NBC, ABC have suddenly vanished.  When the viewers went to the news channels, they found out that as of 12:01pm that day, the American scriptwriters have gone out on strike.  They were striking because they want a share of the enormous profits being reaped by the entertainment industry.  The target of the scriptwriters was the top echelon of the industry -- the producers' association.

On the day when the strike began, economists have estimated that the daily economic loss would be USD 80 million and the total amount of economic loss would eventually mount up to USD 1 billion.

"Watching them going on strike is like watching the moon in the sky."  Wang Hai reflected wistfully: "Did you see what they are demanding?  A share of the profits from the DVD sales and Internet downloads.  These are things that Chinese scriptwriters dare not think about.  This is like saying the others are driving cars while we are thinking about whether to buy a bicycle or not."

Wang Xiaojun admires this type of "fight": "They are really awesome.  When can we be awesome just once?"  Shi Kong is dismissive of such yearnings: "In mainland China, it is impossible to expect the scriptwriters to do anything.  In America, a scriptwriter needs to find an agent first, just like an actor.  When they fight for their rights, their union will support them.  Meanwhile, we are just individuals with no collective power.  We can be taken down separately one at a time."

Although there is no chance of imitating the actions of the American scriptwriters, Wang Xiaojun is still hoping that the mainland Chinese scriptwriters will prevail someday: "I wait for that day when I can be a totally free scriptwriter.  Frankly speaking, apart from the fame and fortune, this is the reason why I persist in being a scriptwriter."

In order for that day to arrive, "the people in the film/television industry must revise their own attitudes."  Wang Xiaojun said that many people involved in television drama series, including investors and directors, speak about this business as art.  In fact, it is simply mass entertainment made with the minimal investment and the maximum ease of effort.  "I attend meetings with investors all day.  They keep talking about art and boasting that they can make an unsurpassed television drama series.  The worst thing is that they have little or no understanding of art but they pretend that they do.  But the mainland Chinese investors are beginning to realize that the script is the most important part of a televison drama series.  That is why I said that there is hope."

For Shi Kong, it is his hope to change the production system for mainland Chinese television drama.  Compared to American television drama, the mainland Chinese have no concept of "nurturing the market."  They only want to take a shot here and then move somewhere else.  There is no continuity.  If at some point there is a good television show somewhere, you can bet that there will be many imitators coming out together so as to ruin that market.  After a while, who wants to sit and watch television any more?

On Shi Kong's blog, he is asking for greater support and sympathy for the mainland Chinese scriptwriters with respect to profit-sharing.  Since the mainland Chinese scriptwriters are not making a lot, they don't want to collaborate with other scriptwriters; they have to write at least one drama series per year in order to get by, and they will not spend three or five years to work on a major groundbreaking script; their only goal is to muddle their way through; this is an occupation without dreams because there is little or no hope.

Within the publishing industry, Shi Kong is very grateful to Wang Shuo, because he was the first writer who fought to get his publishing royalties and opened the trail for others (including Shi Kong himself).  So when will the Chinese scriptwriters be able to enter the gate of profit-sharing?  Shi Kong said that he is waiting and he will try to do so himself.