Professor Richard Peña: Chinese Film Market is the Biggest Film Market in the World

Author:Huang Danying, He Chenzhe     January 10,2018

 (An exclusive interview with Richard Peña

Richard Peña, a professor of Professional Practice at the School of the Arts at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema and founded the Columbia University MA program in Film Studies: History, Theory and Criticism (HTC). He is also a Former Program Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is the organizer of the New York Film Festival and the New Directors/New Films Festival and the head of the Selection Committee for the New York Film Festival from 1988 to 2012. At the Film Society, he has organized major film series devoted to African, Chinese, Cuban, Polish, Hungarian, Arab, Korean, Japanese Soviet and Argentine cinema.

Professor Richard Peña was invited by the committee of WA Forum to lecture and share his ideas of films in CUC from last December 18th to 22th. Before his last lecture, journalist of CUC English Press Corps sat down with him to discuss the Chinese Films, America Films and International Film Festival .


Chinese Films in America.

Q: What do you think of Chinese film market?

Peña: Well obviously it's the biggest film market in the world or soon will be. My hope is the Chinese film market will open up to many different cinemas from all over the world. I think it's still very limited. You don't see that many films from other countries besides from the US so hopefully that will open up.

Q: How do you find Chinese film in International Film Festival ?
Peña: When I worked at for Lincoln center, I don't work for them anymore there, were two ways that we used to show Chinese film. One is we have festivals such as the New York film festival and another festival called New Directors New Films which shows very contemporary works, works made that year just before, and there was a good presence of Chinese films in those festivals since about the mid-1980s onward just about every year we had. There was one year I remember, 1994, we had five Chinese films, 2 from People’s Republic, 2 from Taiwan and 1 from Hong Kong. So Chinese cinema is a big part of what we showed in those festivals
In addition, we had a year round film program, but we showed very often retrospective and series of films and we did a number of series about Chinese cinema during my time there. So we did series on older films, we did a big series on the 17 years, we did have several series on Hong Kong, we did retrospective of Xie Jin, Hou Xiaoxian, Fei Mu, a number of directors. So Chinese cinema, I think, found a very welcome place at Lincoln center during my time there.

Q: If there any change now?                      
Peña: Well, when I left in 2012, there's a new director and new people. They're very good but their tastes are a little bit different from mine. So because of that, I think that the presence of Chinese and other international cinemas, to my mind, has been a little bit less. But you know, that's your choice. You know I had my right to show what I wanted to show and they have their right to show what they want to show.

Q: If there any Chinese director is popular in western?
Peña: Well, popular, it's a matter of how you define that, if you're talking about known to the great American audience, no one I think is known to the wide public. But among what you might call cinephile people who really loves cinema and go to film festivals and go to specialize movies, their directors such as Jia Zhangke or Wang Jiawei and a number of other directors, who I think have a good relationship with the audience. The audience knows their names and like their work.

Q: So most of the Chinese film didn't introduced into the US?
Peña: You know, I would say that the vast majority of Chinese films that have been introduced to the US probably since the mid-1980s and were introduced through the Film Society of Lincoln Center in one of its programs. So I think we had a very strong relation.
What happens after when there were certain directors we began showing and then in a certain way we stop showing, because for whatever reason in certain ways they didn't need the festival. Someone like Zhang Yimou, we were among the first people to show Zhang Yimou’s films and then a while, his work changed, we changed and he didn't really need us so much and he was already better known. So for a while his films were just released without any festival support.


Evaluation on Film Festivals
Q: What are the criteria for awarded films?
Peña: The criteria is that we like it. That's really the basic criteria. When I worked on the New York Film Festival, I worked with 4 other people on the committee and we saw hundreds of films and then we decided on the twenty five that we wanted to show. So in the end, the first thing is you say I like it, then you trying to figure out why you like it, and then you try to figure out how you can explain how you like it to your colleagues, to the other people, and then you have to think about how you can explain how you like it to the public. There is no specific criteria. For a normal citizen, they don't have to explain but when you're a film professional, like a festival director, you have to explain why you like it, why you think this is a good film, why it is worth showing it. But you start with liking it and then you go from there.

Q: How to define good and bad acting?
Peña: There's no set rule. I mean this is not like chemistry where you put this together with this, then you have that reaction. Acting is something that in the end you have to be kind of personal. But I think rather than just saying I like it and you say I don't like it, you have to explain why you like it. to me, good acting is acting that works within a context. For example, Zhao Dan, a great Chinese actor, I don't know if he could play Shakespeare, if he could do hamlet or king Lear but in the Chinese films, he's fantastic, he's absolutely perfect. So for me his style of acting is perfect for those films. Now put him in another context and say now you're going to be hamlet or now you're going to be king Lear, maybe he wouldn't be very good but that doesn't mean he's not a good actor; it just means in that context he's not a good actor.

Q: Can you describe the relation between movie and culture?
Peña: As I explained in one of the talks that I gave here, I’m very suspicious of the notion of culture, when people think of culture as something very static, something very stable that everybody knows. For me, culture is very dynamic, it's always changing. There's old fashioned culture, there's modern and then there's new culture. They're all fighting with each other at the same time. So when you talk about culture I never really know what you mean.
Usually when you say culture you might say, well, China, what's Chinese culture? I don't know, I mean there are many kinds of Chinese culture and Chinese culture has always changing just like every culture is always changing. The only cultures that do not change is dead cultures so when a culture is dead it stops changing but Chinese culture is very much alive so it keeps changing. American culture is very much alive so it keeps changing. So when you talk about culture you have to think of something very dynamic.

Q: What do you think of propaganda films ?

Peña: You know propaganda is also one of those things that exists in the eye of who's looking at it. For example, many American films could be thought of as propaganda even though the government is not telling them what to make. They offer a certain vision or whatever. So I mean I never really know what that word is supposed to mean. In the 1950s there were a lot of Chinese films that really were made with kind of the understanding that they were presenting the government's point of view on many different things, but many I think very good films. So propaganda just seems to me a way of saying that film has a point of view. You know the great Soviet director Eisenstein, he made Battleship Potemkin, that's pure propaganda. The film is completely inaccurate. It doesn't tell you anything that really happened. But it's a masterpiece. It's a great film but it is propaganda. So why are we so nervous about propaganda?

Q: Have you ever involved in any film producing?
Peña: No, I've never really been involved in film producing. I'm not a filmmaker and don't have any real desire to be. What you could say I do is because I teach at a filmmaking program, many students will show me their films and I'll comment on them and sometimes give them not so much advice but my opinion, and they might change things or whatever according to that. So I'm involved with students on that level but you know I'm not a filmmaker, I'm not a film producer, so I've never had that experience. I'm a historian. I think of myself as a film historian. I know and can also teach film theory but I think between those two disciplines, and much more of a historian and I like to think that when I talk about film history, my film history is informed by my knowledge of film theory. But basically, I think of myself as a historian.


Films in America
Q: What kind of movies the American people would like ?
Peña: If I asked you what kind of movies Chinese people like, you know you have 1.3 billion people, it's very hard to talk about one kind of film that everybody likes. Americans like many different kinds of films. You have audiences that like art films, you have audiences that only like foam food, and you have audiences that only like other kinds of films. So I mean it's a very varied audience.
What I will say is Americans do not have a great habit or familiarity of seeing films with subtitles. I think for many Americans to see a film that is not in English, they consider it a work. They have to read. That's a shame I think. It's very silly but I often hear that from people: “oh I wanted to see it but I don't like subtitle films, I hate having to read while I'm watching the film!” So because of that foreign language films in the US are a very small part of our market. About one percent of all movie tickets sold in the US every year are foreign language subtitles films. So that's very very small.

Q: How do you like American film and film market ?
Peña: The American film industry it's clearly the dominant film industry in the world. It probably about, I think, it's like sixty five or seventy percent of all movie tickets sold in the world are sold for American films. Now again as I tried to talk in my lectures, the concept of American cinema is a kind of complicated one, because first of all, Hollywood has always been filled with foreigners. There are many non-Americans who make films, and nowadays even the movie companies are either owned by foreigners or partially owned by foreigners, and there's a lot of foreign money in Hollywood. So what really makes an American film if it's made by foreigners, if it's financed by foreigners? It might be made in Hollywood but does that make it American? So I think the concept of American cinema is a very fluid one

Q: How about the censorship in America film market?
Peña: There's none. I mean we actually have no censorship whatsoever of films. So because of that, you can make what you want. And you know, these companies going to make something that's going to be very controversial that people might not like. But probably not too much because they don't want to lose money. But the government says nothing. The government has no say in what goes on. So you can make any film you want about any subject and nothing can happen to you. The only thing that can happen to you is you can lose money; because people won't like it.


Lecturing at CUC
Q: Since you have stayed in CUC for five days, what is your impression on CUC students?
Peña: I've been Beijing many times and I always enjoy coming to the city as the city I have grown to like very much. For me the best part of this trip were getting to know students here at CUC. I was really impressed by the students, their questions, and their attention. It was really a pleasure. It's really, when you teach, it's really a pleasure when you feel that even I speak English not Chinese there's establishing a contact with students. I think that was really wonderful and had a great time teaching. Teaching was really a lot of fun.

Q: What are the differences between those countries and students you have visited?

Peña: Generally as I've traveled over the world, I think American students and some of it just might because of English, American students are often more defiant of their professors. They will raise their hand and say:" I don't agree with that." Or they'll tell you:" I think that's wrong." I mentioned this to colleagues when I was in France and they said:" a French student would never say that to a professor. That would be considered really rude to say that." My Columbia students tell me that all the time. But I don't think that's right. I think that's wonderful that they challenged because then I become a better teacher. Because if my idea is right then I have to explain it better to convince them and if it's wrong that I can change. So generally speaking, there's more of a tradition at American universities for students to challenge their professors, to have a dialogue with professors. I've never seen that anywhere as much maybe a little in south America, but in Europe when I taught in France, when I taught in Spain, students are rather quiet they don't really, they have never had a student told me I don't agree with that. But in New York or in Colombia, they say it all the time. And I think it's a very good thing.

Q: Do you have any further plan for cooperation with CUC?
Peña: I had an absolutely wonderful time. I would love to come back. I'm sure. There are many other people that CUC would like to invite so hopefully I'll get on the line and maybe my turn will come up again. So I would love to come back and certainly hope I'll be coming back to china very soon because I always have a wonderful time when I'm here. But no specific plans just yet but hopefully in the future I will be back.

Q: Can you give some suggestions for CUC students in film studying or other aspects?
Peña: Well, I guess perhaps between my backgrounds as a historian and also as a film exhibitor when I was working in festivals and also doing repertory programming, I still think students should try and see as much as you can. I think it's really important to see many many films and I think that then a lot of ideas about film history, theory become open to you. So I hope that students will as much as they can try and really see a very broad selection of films from all over the world because it will really help their studies.